Photo by Vincent Barone

By Vincent Barone

Across Steve Pikiell’s desk hang two pictures that serve as a paradigm of Stony Brook athletics.

One is a photo of Pikiell’s first home game as head coach of the men’s basketball team against Navy in the 2005-2006 season. Visible in the frame are perhaps three or four fans scattered in the largely empty bleachers of Pritchard Gymnasium. The Seawolves finished 4-24 overall that year, dead last in the America East Conference.

“That picture right there, that was my first game. It’s kind of, eh. I think 95 people were there,” said Pikiell.

“And then that’s when we played Illinois,” Pikiell admired, pointing to the picture that hangs directly above, a shot taken from Stony Brook’s first round game of the 2010 National Invitation Tournament against Illinois on March 17, 2010. This time the focus was on a thronging student section, just a fraction of the 4,423 fans that sold out Stony Brook Arena for the game, which was televised on ESPNU. With a final record of 22-10, it was Stony Brook’s first ever postseason bid as a Division I school.

Men’s basketball is coming off another historic season. For the first time in the program’s history, 11 games were televised, four of which were aired nationally by ESPN. It was also the first time that the team competed in the America East Conference Championship, where the Seawolves fell to Boston University, 56-54. Stony Brook came up just two points away from their first ever NCAA tournament bid.

“When I first took over the program we never had a sell out. Now we sell out the arena; we sell out Pritchard,” said Pikiell. “There’s a little buzz here. People are excited about what’s going on.”

Along with men’s basketball, attendance for men’s soccer, men’s lacrosse, baseball and football have all risen over the past four years. This growth and exposure is far cry from the athletic department of eight years ago, when an exuberant 34-year-old Jim Fiore took the role as Athletic Director of the university.

The position opened up in the spring of 2003, while Fiore worked as the Senior Associate Athletic Director of Princeton University. When a search firm hired by Stony Brook contacted Fiore, a Long Island native, about the job, he thought “Stony Brook? I can’t go to Stony Brook, dude. Seawolf? What’s a seawolf?” He grew up on Long Island, and Stony Brook, athletically, would never have been an option, he said.

After some cajoling by the firm, he agreed to meet a university committee at LaGuardia Airport. With a youthful blithe, Fiore presented the committee with bold demands and lofty standards for university athletics. He came out of the meeting thinking that there was no chance of getting the job.

Instead his cavalier attitude worked to his advantage. Stony Brook expressed interest. Fiore decided to come to campus to meet with erstwhile President Shirley Strum Kenny.

“I met with the president alone, and I loved her. I’ll never forget it. I called my wife on my cell phone on the way home and said, ‘Hey, uh, we got a problem.’ She said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘This president is great.’” Fiore, who believes that one’s job is only as good as one’s boss, was on board.

Fiore took the helm of athletics just four years after the Seawolves moved to Division I in 1999—and he was well aware of the work needed to make the fledgling program shine.

“We didn’t have a school color eight years ago. Wolfie was half dead. Now, Wolfie is an icon for this place,” said Fiore. “We won one conference championship when I got here–in our history. One. We had six last year alone.

Still, Wolfie has a long way to go.

Fiore’s grand mission is to one day have Stony Brook sit not only as a top research school, but a leader in athletics in the northeastern region—competing right there with the likes of athletic powerhouses Penn State and Rugters University, both fellow state schools. It’s a tall order that even Fiore admits probably will not happen while he’s at the university. But the potential, he says, is undeniable.

With a premiere men’s lacrosse team that ranks as one of the nation’s best, a budding men’s basketball team that is competing on a national level, Stony Brook has garnered an impressive amount of attention for such a comparatively young university.

“There’s a little mystery here to Stony Brook because these other schools have been around longer,” said Pikiell. “We played [Boston University] in the final. That was their 15th final. They have 107 years of basketball, while we’re in year 46th of basketball. So there’s a little newness to us, which I think excites TV.

Yet, the New York State budget crisis is challenging the recent growth of the athletic department. The question of where athletics fit in a traditionally academic-minded university is becoming more and more relevant.

Does Stony Brook University have the financial and cultural means to rival the athletics department of a Rutgers, a Penn State or even a University of Florida.

The department is suffering cutbacks in state funding just like every other at Stony Brook. And compared to the $65,297,785 athletic budget at Penn State, Stony Brook’s 2009-2010 athletic budget of $18,097,141 is pocket change.

Thirty percent of that athletic budget came from New York State. That number, which is mostly appropriated to coaches’ salaries, has dropped from 34 percent in 2009, and Fiore expects that number to fall again in 2011.

Despite the drop in state funding from 2009 to 2010, the overall athletic budget has managed to rise to $2,982,640. This growth is possible through a plethora of revenue sources, from self-generating streams (ticket sales, facility rentals, concessions, sponsorships and sports camps), to donations, institutional support, and student fees. All together, these streams account for the large majority of the yearly athletic funds.

But while state funding wanes during the most salient point of Stony Brook’s athletic program, its self-sufficiency is anchoring it through these trying financial times.

“We rent everything; we’ll rent this piece of carpet if you’re going to give us money,” said Fiore, who leases out sports facilities to high school championships, commencements, I-CON, the annual science fiction convention which brings thousands of people to the Arena, and the Undergraduate Student Government’s end-of-the-year concerts. “We rent the hell out of this place.”

Now students will have to wait and see where President Samuel Stanley draws the line for future institutional support. His predecessor, President Kenny was a staunch supporter of the athletic program who helped lift the program to Division I. Last month, administration at Stony Brook announced, much to the ire of students, that there would be an increase in broad-based fees, which includes athletic services, among others.

After the fee increase announcement, the Undergraduate Student Government surveyed 800 students to prioritize what students are willing to pay more to prevent. The results show athletics falling low on students’ concerns.  Just more than 20 percent of the participants said that they were willing to pay more to prevent the elimination of their favorite sports team.

According to the USG survey, which was published on its website, only “campus events” fell lower on students’ priorities, with just less than 20 percent saying that they are willing to pay more to prevent their elimination.

The questions, though, failed to include the cost of preventing these cuts in services,  which, in actuality, is as small as $5 per student. For example, the sports-related question reads: “How do you feel about the following fee-based services? [Eliminating your favorite athletic team on campus.]” And many answers read something like, “As long as fees don’t go up, I can deal with it.”

It is also worth mentioning that USG surveyed just 4.8 percent of undergraduates. Taking the survey with a grain of salt, the top priorities of participants prioritized academics. Preventing the discontinuing of their major, delaying their graduation, and discontinuing other majors in general were recorded as the chief issues.

The survey relates to the long-posed question of t he role of athletics at Stony Brook University and why the department is getting the funding and attention that it is.

“I think people that [ask] that are uninformed. They don’t know the facts,” said Fiore, who noted that SAT scores and out-of-state enrollment have both gone up in the past eight years, coinciding with the athletic department’s growth. “They can’t argue with the school spirit and the fact that the academic profile of the campus has risen since we’ve gone Division I. It hasn’t had any ill effect on [the university.]”

To put state funding of university athletics into perspective, over the past three years $15,924,123 has been pumped into athletics, while $31,272,035 of state funding has been allocated to university research, one of the primary focuses of Stony Brook.

Like the invaluable exposure garnered through the research, the national coverage of Stony Brook athletics is equally beneficial to non-athletic services. During nationally televised games on the ESPN network, the athletics department partners with the medical center to air commercials for Stony Brook Hospital.

Despite the national coverage, Fiore is still challenged to cultivate a sports culture here at Stony Brook’s more isolated campus.

“The college town thing is a big piece. Stony brook is fragmented. You kind of need a downtown,” said Fiore. “It’s a big challenge for us in recruiting, because there is a perception issue that you have to overcome.”

The University of Connecticut, an athletic force, has the same problem, but they are in a sense building an artificial “college town” with restaurants and retail outlets right on campus. For that, Stony Brook simply does not have the capital.

Infrastructure, including Stony Brook’s athletic facilities, is also proving to be an impediment to the program’s growth.

“Academically, we cast shadows on those guys (Rutgers, Connecticut, Penn State), said Fiore. “If we had Big Ten facilities, we would be in the Big Ten, because academically, we’re there.”

Fiore admitted that the 1,700-capacity Pritchard Gymnasium, where the men’s basketball team played the majority of their games this past season, is too small. “I’m concerned that students are going to get shut out. We can get 400 students in there, and then I have a problem.”

Stony Brook Arena has a capacity of 4,000 plus, but it is in dire need of renovations. Structural liabilities have rendered the arena largely unusable.  The men’s basketball team played once in the arena, against Maine, which was aired on ESPNU. More than half of the sell-out crowd would have been turned away had that game been played in Prichard Gym.

Even worse for Fiore, the $20,000,000 arena facelift allocated by the state has been frozen as part of former New York State Governor Paterson’s order to shut down all state funding. The money is still allocated, however, and Fiore is working with President Stanley and local politicians to help free the money.

“We need an arena. We have the least aesthetically pleasing gym in the league,” said Fiore, referring to Pritchard. “The worst one in the league. And look at what Steve Pikiell has done with that program. If we ever get a facility, we can reach that higher level.”

Pikiell’s biggest plight, he says, is not Pritchard Gymnasium, but rather trying to overcome the long winter breaks at Stony Brook, which fall right in the middle of his basketball season. “You have students starting to come to games early and then they go away for break…by the time they come back there’s a month left of the season.”

The silver lining, though, is that attendance of men’s basketball games is not dipping when students go away for break. When the Seawolves faced Albany on Jan. 17, 1,630 fans came to watch the televised game on MSG Plus.

“We have more families coming to games, more of the community here,” said Pikiell. “You just have to reach your net out a little wider and find people who are involved in basketball.”

Fiore has seen much of the same and believes that the community at Stony Brook is the most untapped resource. “Fifteen thousand employees come to work here everyday,” said Fiore. “Twenty-five thousand students. Forty thousand people converged on this place today. Look at that community, the branches. So that’s why I think we can be special.”

With limited resources, Fiore will have to scrap his way to Division I acclaim—something he’s accustomed to.

“I’m a blue-collar guy. I’m Stony Brook,” said Fiore. “I was a tough blue-collar kid. Like you guys, I grinded it out, whatever you get you earn—that’s my background.”

And while a cut to state funding looms, Fiore keeps looking forward. “We’re growing—and I refuse to stop.”