Merrimack’s Joe Gallo rooting for FDU despite fact his team was NEC champs
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There are many elements to the magical March Madness run that Fairleigh Dickinson is on after the Knights stunned No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday night.
Many of them have been well-documented, beginning with the Knights’ coach, Tobin Anderson, who only 10 months ago was hired from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas in Rockland County to take over FDU, and who brought three of his players with him.
One of those players — Columbus, Ohio, native Sean Moore — was the hero on Friday night.
One under-the-radar element to the FDU story is the fact the school got into the NCAA Tournament on a technicality.
Merrimack, from Andover, Mass., won the Northeast Conference Tournament and, under normal circumstances, would have been awarded the automatic NCAA bid. But these aren’t normal circumstances.
After moving from Division II to Division I, Merrimack is in the final year of what the NCAA calls a four-year “transition’’ period, during which a school moving up a division isn’t eligible for NCAA Tournament play.
So, instead of experiencing the magic FDU has enjoyed this week, Merrimack coach Joe Gallo and his players are home watching on TV.
“I think people probably are picturing me sitting in front of the TV angry and screaming, ‘This could be us,’ but that’s not my thinking at all,’’ Gallo told The Post on Saturday when reached at his home in New Hampshire. “We did everything we could do. We finished the season on an 11-game winning streak. We won the last game that we were allowed to play.
“I think what FDU is doing is just great for the NEC, because people have been a little down on the NEC all year. Not only what they did [Friday] was incredible, but they absolutely ran away with the thing in their first game [against Texas Southern in the First Four]. It’s great for the league and I hope they continue to win.’’
Gallo said he and FDU coach Tobin Anderson have been friends for a long time.
“We played against each other my first year at Merrimack and his [St. Thomas Aquinas] team knocked us out of NCAA Division II Tournament,’’ he said. “We have a ton of mutual respect for each other.’’
Gallo, in fact, was one of the first to text Anderson congratulations after the win over Purdue.
“I’m happy for him and I’m happy for the league,’’ Gallo said. “A lot of people are finding out about this [NCAA] rule for the first time and they can’t believe it. We’ve known about this rule for four years. We won our regular season our first year of Division I and were unable to go to the NIT because the NCAA owns the NIT.
“It’s old news for us, but we do appreciate that it’s brought light to the rule and people are talking about Merrimack. It’s great publicity for our program and our school.’’
The FDU run is giving players from Merrimack, which went 15-4 against NEC opponents this year, belief they can do this next year, after their quirky “transition’’ period has ended.
“It does give them a sense of belief that it can be done,’’ Gallo said. “I do feel for our players a bit now, though. We won the championship, we celebrated and no one ever thought, ‘Poor us, we can’t play in the NCAA Tournament.’ But now that it’s real and it is on TV, I do feel for our guys that they don’t get to experience March Madness.”
Gallo said he has sensed a “mixed bag of emotions’’ among his players about watching this NCAA Tournament.
“Some of them say, ‘I can’t watch,’ ’’ he said. “We have some guys that watch and wish they were there and other guys that say, ‘I don’t even want to watch.’
“But this is great for the little guy. It makes everyone believe that you can put a team of tough kids together that believe in your system, which those guys truly believe in what Tobin does. It’s a good model for success that a lot of people can follow suit from.’’
Gallo, who will have a number of his top players returning, believes his team can follow the FDU example.
“We’ll start a new journey now that our ‘transition’ is finally over and hopefully we can be in a [NCAA] bracket next year,’’ he said. “We have a good number of guys back and they’re already talking about trying to redo what we just did and have an extra prize at the end of the rainbow next year.’’