Michael Avaltroni, the 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 his phone.
It was New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, with his wife Tammy in the background.
“They were talking about the way we’ve captured so many people’s enthusiasm, and how this is a true David vs. Goliath story,” Avaltroni said.
Avaltroni’s phone has been blowing up over the past 48 hours as his university, with an enrollment of 11,000 spread across two campuses in three towns, earned a place in the national consciousness. Just the second No. 16 seed ever to defeat a No. 1, the Knights will have the eyes of the nation on them again tonight as they take on ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic for a spot in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden next weekend.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity to tell our story, which resembles a lot of what is going on on the court – a bunch of players who were passed over elsewhere, but were given a chance at FDU, and when given a chance made the most of it and shocked the world.” Avaltroni said. “That is very much the story of many of our students, students who often times don’t know if college is for them, or come in with challenges or carrying burdens, and four years later they find their life is transformed.”
The madness of March has 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 the administrative ranks before becoming interim president Jan. 1.
“It’s honestly so hard to put into words – it is so valuable,” he said of the publicity windfall. “We’ve often talked about ourselves as a very well-kept secret, and that’s not an asset. This is an opportunity to break free from that.”
Avaltroni attended the Purdue game in Columbus, Ohio, then hustled back to Monmouth County to watch his daughter’s dance recital, and is back in Ohio now. He said FDU received 8 million social media impressions in the 24 hours after beating Purdue. That might be a standard day at the office for Duke or Kentucky, but this is uncharted waters for FDU.
“It’s beyond anything we could have fathomed,” he said.
Avaltroni is well aware of what the spotlight did for Saint Peter’s after the neighboring college embarked on the all-time Cinderella run through the Big Dance last March – a spike in applications, a flood of alumni donations, a branding-opportunity tidal wave that cleaned out the campus bookstore’s apparel inventory.
It’s a great reminder of how sports can be a front porch for a university – and fulfill that mission in proportion. FDU’s players are weaved into the campus community more or less as regular students.
“We’re not in the business of preparing the next round of NBA Draft choices,” Avaltroni said. “This is what athletics is for us…This is the very thing athletics is intended to do.”
That said, there have been questions raised in recent years about FDU’s financial commitment to competing at the Division 1 level, particularly after its men’s and women’s basketball coaching staffs were reduced from three assistant coaches to two (an experiment since abandoned).
Asked about that commitment, Avaltroni replied, “There is no question that part of a college campus community revolves around being vibrant in athletics, and something like this it’s an absolute game-changer for us. As we go forward, we have to be building strategically to make sure athletics is part of our future.”
‘A story for the ages’
Avaltroni has been beating that drum since he got job. He hosted pregame dinners for alumni before both the men’s and women’s Northeast Conference Tournament games on campus, and a couple hundred people turned out. During the men’s NEC semifinal, as FDU closed in on clinching an NCAA Tournament bid, he was encouraged to see the crowd at the Rothman Center double in size as the game unfolded – students and area residents wanted to be part of it.
“Most people walk by our athletic facilities on the way to their car without engaging,” he said. “We want to make it an amazing part of being on campus.”
About that campus, the location of which has caused confusion among the public and media. FDU’s “metropolitan” campus is spread between both Teaneck and Hackensack in Bergen County, separated by the Hackensack River. The Rothman Center is in Hackensack, while the bulk of the campus sits in Teaneck. And then there is the “Florham Campus” in Madison, Morris County, which has its own Division 3 athletic department.
If the Knights win one more game, they can stake temporary claim to Madison Square Garden as well.
“We would make sure it’s an FDU home game,” Avaltroni said, trying not get ahead of himself. “It’s almost unfathomable to even be having this conversation. It would be a story for the ages.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at [email protected].