For college basketball fans, 2021 has been the year of the Cinderella story. Underdogs Oral Roberts, Oregon State, Loyola-Chicago and even Binghamton’s neighbor to the north, Syracuse, have caused chaos in the most tumultuous March Madness in recent history.
But for fans of the Binghamton men’s basketball program, March basketball has long been a thing of the past. It hasn’t always been this way.
On June 7, 2000, then-Binghamton University President Lois B. DeFleur, flanked by a phalanx of New York state dignitaries, broke ground on the Events Center — a ceremonial move that kickstarted the University’s era of Division I athletics.
Four years later, the Events Center opened its doors to much fanfare in the spring semester of my freshman year: Jan. 31, 2004. It pains me to realize that while I was among the Pantone-342 pandemonium in the BU Zoo, many of this column’s readers were still in diapers.
Those days, I was a pimply-faced Pipe Dream copy editor, but watching the Bearcats beat Hartford sparked a sense of pride — not the hashtag #BingPride, mind you, as this was before Twitter and Facebook even existed — that pushed me to become Pipe Dream’s Sports editor.
That spring semester, under the tutelage of the graduating Arthur Sherman, ‘04, I learned quickly that men’s basketball was, more or less, the be-all, end-all when it came to the paper’s sports coverage. Arthur had developed a great relationship with head coach Al Walker, who had led the Bearcats through a transition year in 2000-01 and into the Division I era.
Without a football team — that’s a completely different column idea, and no, it’s not happening — Binghamton was, in fact, a basketball school. The investment in the shiny new arena paid off quickly, as the America East (AE) rewarded the school with the men’s conference tournament in 2005, 2006 and 2008. Those looking for a Cinderella story had all eyes on the freshly rebranded Binghamton University and Coach Walker’s Bearcats.
Under the guidance of then-Athletics Director Joel Thirer, there was a genuine emphasis on winning. In the 2005 conference tournament, there was no stopping Vermont’s Taylor Coppenrath, but expectations were at an all-time high when host Binghamton rolled into the 2006 tournament as the No. 2 seed.
Coach Will Brown’s Albany Great Danes were the top seed that year, finishing at 13-3 in conference play, just one game ahead of the Bearcats. March 5, 2006, was at the time the most anticipated set of games in the Events Center’s history — No. 1 Albany dispatched No. 5 New Hampshire, 67-54, and awaited the winner of No. 2 Binghamton vs. No. 6 Vermont.
That afternoon, Binghamton raced out to a 20-5 lead, to the joy of the raucous BU Zoo. The elusive glass slipper was still a win away up in Albany the following weekend — but Bearcat fans knew this was the team that could finally get them past the three-time defending conference champions — now without Coppenrath — and into the dance.
Then, the wheels fell off. Binghamton went without a field goal for more than 11 minutes, stretching past the first media timeout of the second half. Star guard and leading scorer Andre Heard fouled out with 1:48 to play and Binghamton down six — a moment that, in retrospect, completely deflated the program’s years-long effort to win a title.
The second-place regular season record in 2005-06 earned coach Walker one more opportunity to lead Binghamton to a championship — but with no conference tournament to host that spring, the Bearcats sputtered to a disappointing sixth-place finish.
Current students and younger alumni are surely more familiar with Binghamton’s two-season Kevin Broadus era, from 2007-2009.
The widely accepted sentiment in Vestal back then was that DeFleur and Thirer were jealous of the on-court success taking place year after year in Albany — and the Great Danes knew it. Following a childish shoving incident after a game in Vestal, Brown famously said that he was an “Al Walker guy” — a feeling that seemed to transcend the rest of the conference, even as Broadus was voted AE’s Coach of the Year.
Yet the on-court results panned out: under the leadership of Broadus, Binghamton brought in a controversial recruiting class of transfers who, after a mediocre first year in 2007-08, led the Bearcats to their first and only AE championship in March 2009 — with the team dancing, on national television, on the logo at center court of the Events Center.
However, the hard-nosed, grind-it-out reputation that Binghamton had earned under Walker — even sans title — was quickly supplanted by one ugly controversy after another, and the University was flooded with awful headlines on a national scale.
The dark days of Binghamton basketball really started with a holdover Walker recruit: in May 2008, Miladin Kovacevic, one of the least productive players in Binghamton basketball history, viciously attacked fellow BU student Bryan Steinhauer on the dance floor of The Rathskeller Pub.
There’s an entire E:60 special on the incident, which, after Kovacevic fled the country, got so bad that it threatened the entire United States-Serbia relationship.
Thirer resigned in the fall of 2009, three days before SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced a full independent audit of the school’s athletic department. That 99-page report, released in February 2010, was compiled by Judith Kaye, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, and led to the suspension and eventual departure of Broadus — and even the resignation of DeFleur herself in July 2010.
Honestly, the Kovacevic scandal alone would have been enough to permanently stain the Binghamton basketball program on its own — but an ensuing tsunami of player arrests, alleged academic fraud and sexual misconduct allegations within the athletic department not only erased any last bit of respectability the program had earned — it, in many ways, ruined the Binghamton brand beyond repair.
That brings us to the third ‘era’ of Binghamton’s Division I journey — the post-apocalyptic cleanup. Broadus assistant Mark Macon, who spent 10 years in the NBA, inherited the head coaching mantle for the next three seasons.
The Bearcats finished a respectable .500 in conference play in Macon’s first go-round, but had “voluntarily” withdrawn from postseason play. The next two seasons were spent skidding to T-8 and 9th place finishes; the 2011-12 Bearcats opened their season on a 26-game losing streak — the laughingstock of Tony Kornheiser’s “Pardon The Interruption.”
It was around the time that Tommy Dempsey was hired to replace Macon that I thought it might take the Binghamton basketball program five years to recover. As a BU student, of course, five years is an eternity — but as an alumnus, you start to think of years a bit more broadly.
Five years — more than one full recruiting cycle — would give Dempsey plenty of time to build the program back to at least respectable levels. As we see every March, one-bid league teams get hot and make a run in their conference tournaments all the time.
The major draw of hosting the entire conference tournament is an opportunity of the past, as the America East shifted in 2015 to an “our house rules” model, where the top four seeds would get to host opening-round games at their home sites. But under this model, even a return to mediocrity — .500 basketball, maybe a game or two above — would allow Binghamton to host a postseason game at the Events Center, an opportunity that could electrify both the student body and the local community that historically has been very supportive of the program.
Once you get to March, with a little bit of luck, stealing the conference’s automatic bid isn’t out of the question — just ask 2021 champion Hartford, the America East’s No. 4 seed who ended up hosting the conference championship game against No. 6 UMass-Lowell who weren’t even DI until 2012-13.
In a bit of funky seeding math more befitting a safety school like Albany, No. 4 Hartford trounced No. 9 Binghamton in the opening round of this year’s conference tournament. The loss was the last of Tommy Dempsey’s nine-year run in Vestal, ceased by a press release from the BU athletic department that didn’t even mention his 71-194 record.
Dempsey assistant Levell Sanders has taken over in an interim role and already has enormous shoes to fill, with leading scorer and sophomore guard Brenton Mills entering the transfer portal less than two weeks after Sanders’ introduction. Much like in the NFL, any DI head coaching opportunity can be seen as worthwhile, but with a national search planned, for some reason, for next spring, Sanders may need a miracle to keep the position beyond just one season.
Since the dawn of the Division I era, from my generation’s perspective, the Binghamton basketball fan base has watched the program grow, succeed and immediately disintegrate, and for the last decade, stumble repeatedly as it tries to regain its footing.
Constricted by extraordinary financial uncertainty due to the pandemic, BU President Harvey Stenger, current Athletics Director Patrick Elliott and the Binghamton basketball program may in fact find themselves having to ask difficult questions not asked since before this generational cycle even began: do we still belong as a Division I program at all?
There’s no doubt, despite the lack of fans in the stands, that many of the other sports in the program have yielded success. Since we shifted as a sports department in 2004-05 to focus our coverage on all BU sports — and not just men’s basketball, men’s soccer and baseball — it’s been terrific to see and read about the many team and individual successes that programs like tennis, volleyball, track and field and the famously revived wrestling program have had.
There’s also no doubt in my mind that, pandemic notwithstanding, there is an enthusiastic, influential and supportive base of fans both living in the Southern Tier and around the world. Many younger alumni relished the “glory days” of the 2009 championship — trust me, I was on State Street afterward with you guys — while older alumni still patiently await a fairly earned title that eluded them in the Walker era.
While some older alumni, and surely many of the faculty and staff on campus, might still question the decision to go to Division I in the first place, the onus is now on Stenger and Elliott to paint their own legacies in Vestal: can they find the right coach who can bring the on-court results the fan base desperately craves without making the misguided academic and behavioral sacrifices of their predecessors? Or will we spend another 10 years watching programs like Hartford, UMass Lowell and Albany earn their glass slippers while we turn the Events Center into a $33 million perennial pumpkin farm?
Chris Strub, ‘07, is a BU alumnus and was Pipe Dream’s Sports Editor from 2004 to 2005.