Michael Avaltroni, interim president of Fairleigh Dickinson University, was driving shortly after his men’s basketball team stunned Purdue (and the world) in the NCAA Tournament when a big fan called on his phone.
That was New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in the background with his wife Tammy.
“They talked about how we captured the enthusiasm of a lot of people and how it was a true David vs. Goliath story,” Avaltroni said.
Avaltroni’s phone has been ringing off the hook in the past 48 hours as his university, which has 11,000 students on two campuses in three cities, has earned a place in the national consciousness. The second No. 16 seed in history to beat a No. 1 seed, the Knights will return to the national spotlight tonight when they face ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic for a spot in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden next weekend.
“It was a great opportunity to tell our story, which is a lot like what happens on the court — a bunch of players who were passed up elsewhere but got a chance at FDU, and when given the chance, made the most of it and shocked the world.” – said Avaltroni. “This is very much the story of many of our students, students who often don’t know if college is for them, or come in with challenges or burdens, and after four years they find their lives have changed.”
An unexpected platform
March Madness provided an unexpected platform for Avaltroni, a Marlboro resident who graduated from FDU in 1999, returned to his alma mater as a chemistry professor and worked his way through administrative positions before becoming interim president on Jan. 1.
“Honestly, it’s so hard to put into words — it’s so valuable,” he said of the advertising windfall. “We’ve often talked about ourselves as a very well-kept secret, and that’s not a virtue. This is an opportunity to break free from it.”
Avaltroni attended Purdue’s game in Columbus, Ohio, then returned to Monmouth County to watch his daughter’s dance recital and is now back in Ohio. He said FDU had 8 million social media impressions in the 24 hours following the win over Purdue. It might be a normal day at the office for Duke or Kentucky, but it’s uncharted waters for FDU.
“It’s beyond anything we could have imagined,” he said.
Avaltroni knows well what the spotlight has done for St. Peter’s since the neighboring college launched a Cinderella run through the Big Dance last March: a surge in applications, an influx of alumni donations, a tidal wave of branding that cleared the bookstore’s clothing inventory campus.
It’s a great reminder of how sports can be a front porch for a university – and fulfill that mission in proportion. FDU players are involved in the campus community more or less like regular students.
“We’re not in the business of preparing for the next round of the NBA draft,” Avaltroni said. “This is what athletics is for us … This is what athletics is meant to do.”
However, questions have been raised in recent years about FDU’s financial commitment to compete at the Division 1 level, especially after its men’s and women’s basketball coaching staffs were reduced from three assistant coaches to two (the experiment was discontinued).
When asked about that commitment, Avaltroni said, “There’s no question that part of the campus community revolves around being athletically bright, and something like that, it’s a complete game changer for us. Moving forward, we must build strategically to ensure that athletics is part of our future.”
“A story for the ages”
Avaltroni has been beating that drum ever since he got the job. He hosted pregame luncheons for alumni before the Northeast Conference men’s and women’s tournament began on campus, and several hundred people attended. During the men’s NEC semifinals, as FDU neared the NCAA tournament, he was happy to see the Rotman Center crowd double as the game unfolded – students and area residents alike wanted to be part of it.
“Most people walk past our sports facilities on their way to their car without exercising,” he said. “We want to make it an amazing part of being on campus.”
About that campus, the location of which caused confusion in the public and the media. FDU’s “metropolitan” campus is located between Teaneck and Hackensack in Bergen County, separated by the Hackensack River. The Rothman Center is located in Hackensack, while the main campus is located in Teaneck. And then there’s the Florham Campus in Madison, Morris County, which has its own 3-sport division.
If the Knights win one more game, they can also temporarily claim Madison Square Garden.
“We’d make sure it’s an FDU home game,” Avaltroni said, trying not to get ahead of himself. “It’s almost incomprehensible to even have this conversation. It would be a story for the ages.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and college basketball since 2003. He is a top 25 pick by the Associated Press. Contact him at email@example.com.