It was maybe an hour after his team lost in the 2021 NCAA Tournament when Hartford coach John Gallagher received the call that would send his program's future into chaos. A school administrator delivered the news as Gallagher was packing his suitcase in his hotel room: Hartford's president and the university's Board of Regents were mulling a move to Division III.
The school had discreetly been exploring such a move for a year, if not longer. Nobody informed the head basketball coach.
"It shocked me," Gallagher told CBS Sports.
Gallagher sat on the bed and failed to understand. His Hawks -- fresh off qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament, a team that two hours earlier held a first-half lead against top-seeded Baylor -- were now on borrowed time.
Rare is the case when a school seeks to leave Division I for Division III, and my research uncovered not one instance of it happening immediately after a team competed in the NCAA Tournament.
Gallagher spent the ensuing six weeks pushing against the current as best he could, but it was fait accompli.
On May 6, Hartford's Board of Regents voted in favor of dropping down to Division III.
Hartford is a tiny America East school tucked away in Connecticut, one without a lot of success in its 37-year Division I history. Yet its vote has prompted criticism and curiosity across college sports. It has also sparked campus protests.
In April, Scott Van Pelt's "SportsCenter" show dedicated a segment to critiquing the then-impending move, bringing notoriety to university president Gregory Woodward who, through dogged local reporting, was revealed to be working this situation with underhanded duplicity.
Woodward could not be reached for comment by CBS Sports.
Gallagher said Woodward hasn't been in touch with him, either. It's been 55 days since Gallagher got that call after losing to Baylor, and he's yet to hear from the university's president.
"This place means so much to me because it allowed me to grow into the coach I am today," Gallagher said. "I'm really grateful. We're coming off the four best years in the history of the school. Back-to-back conference title games. Next year will be the best team I ever put out there, the best in school history.
"That being said, there are so many mixed emotions because the longterm view -- and coaches love living three, four years down the road -- obviously you can't do that. You're really living in the present. You're living for this moment. The focus is just to make the best out of it. I don't do well with negative emotion, so I stay away from it, but to say we were 'punched in the gut' would be an understatement."
The Hawks will be a full-fledged Division III institution by 2025 if this transition goes as planned.
But will it? The story now is whether the "Neighborhood" (Gallagher's catchphrase for the school's local, intimate, passionate fanbase) can rally and reverse course. At the moment, that appears to be more difficult than beating Baylor.
"The board is 100% committed to the decision that it made last week and to moving forward with the transition," Kathy Behrens, the vice chair of Hartford's Board of Regents, told CBS Sports.
The timing is terrible for Woodward and the regents, though. The Hawks are in the midst of easily the best four-year run in program history. Gallagher has a 70-53 overall record with a 46-26 mark against America East opponents in that span. The program is cresting toward being one of the best mid-major teams in the sport next season.
"It's the lack of respect for the area that bothers me," Gallagher said. "It's the '(Hartford) Whalers Syndrome.' This area is better than people give it credit for. It's a phenomenal place to live, a phenomenal place to go to school, and the view of the place is not what it should be, and that's the angst I have."
Next season should be the high point for Hartford's men's basketball program, which means it should be the high point for its athletic department and the school. The Hawks might not lose a conference game. For most schools, this would incite applications and enrollment. But UHart has struggled with that; it's only gotten worse since Woodward took over.
Hartford's backers have recent precedents that can provide some hope. The University of New Orleans decided to go Division III in 2010 only to double back two years later and rejoin Division I. Across the country, there have been myriad examples in recent years where programs (Towson and Bowling Green baseball, UAB football, multiple William & Mary sports, among dozens of others) were voted by their universities' powers-that-be to shut down or leave Division I ... only to see that decision ultimately reversed.
This might not be a done deal. One of the many questions posted on Hartford's site: Is it certain that UHart will be come a DIII school? The university admits, "The transition to DIII is a complex, multi-year administrative process that includes approvals from the NCAA and will involve our current and future conferences." That's not an outright "yes." The school still has to formally apply for the move with the NCAA next January.
For Gallagher, for the Neighborhood, the time is now to stem this tide.
"I'm here to win the fight, I'm not here to leave the fight," Gallagher said.
If Hartford wins the America East again in 2021, it will be one of the loudest stories in college basketball next March. If the school is still tracking to Division III, it would also face a bigger public relations nightmare then than it is now for the school's Board of Regents. While the regents do have some local backing, they don't have the majority of it.
Bill Hardy is the 23-year owner of a major commercial construction company in Connecticut. He's one of more than 50 successful and influential businesspeople -- "Friends of the Neighborhood" is what they're calling themselves -- who are spearheading an earnest-but-forceful grassroots effort to get the Board of Regents to reconsider its vote. The group includes approximately a dozen nearby representatives from Fortune 1000 companies, including a couple of people with significant financial leverage around the city of Hartford.
"The whole idea is raising the bar, not lowering the bar, and accepting challenges," Hardy said. "That's what Coach Gal has done. We don't want to see it leave. We go into restaurants, and now that they made the tournament, they're a household name here. How can we not give them a chance?"
The men's program normally brings in approximately $125,000 annually from donors, Gallagher said. If Hartford was stable and assured to remain in Division I, it's easy to see how that number could double, if not potentially triple.
Ironically, because of the board's decision, Hartford will head into next season with more attention than ever before. An opportunity exists, but it could be lost. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations hang in the balance.
"I understand that passion. I feel it," Behrens said. "That the timing comes on the heels of a fantastic run from the men's basketball team makes it that much more emotional. ... Believe me, I mean, I went to school there. I've been on the board for more than 10 years. I'm a proud alum; I'm a proud former student-athlete. I understand fully and completely how emotional it is and how difficult it is. And I'll just say the decision that the board made was not made lightly. And so, I absolutely was expecting the emotions that we've seen."
When asked whether the vote was unanimous, Behrens said, "I think I'd only say that the board was strongly, strongly in favor of the decision to move to Division III." As for the scenario in which Hartford could keep its basketball teams at the Division I level with every other NCAA-sanctioned sport dropping down, Behrens said that was briefly explored but deemed not viable.
Behrens maintained moving to Division III is not purely a financially motivated decision. But the primary analysis that informed this vote is also an inflammatory issue.
Jeff Hathaway, a former athletic director whose most prominent post was at UConn from 2003-11, now runs the firm Carr Sports. It was Carr Sports' report that guided UHart's decision. One problem: An independent counter-report by college sports economist Andy Schwartz lays out how the Carr report was off by millions in its projections.
"I'm not sure how Jeff Hathaway's company got this to begin with," Hardy said. "The guy was let go from UConn and didn't really run a tight ship himself, and it's really weird when you look at the background. I'm not really sure how he got selected."
Schwarz's report asserts Hartford choosing to be a "D1 or a D3 program are affordable depending on what Hartford wants from its Athletics. In my view, the D1 scenario is the superior financial choice, at least over the next five years, and is likely the better overall choice in the long-run as well."
Schwarz adds that the actual difference in cost for Division I vs. Division III is $3.6 million vs. $2.6 million in the first five years of transition -- and that doesn't take into account possible gains in revenue at Division I level from donors or potential new monies found if Hartford succeeds in future postseason play.
"At some point, there will have to be an agree-to-disagree on the [idea that the] Schwarz report was so much better than the Carr report," Behrens said. "That just wasn't our view. They both had interesting information. We looked through both and read both, but ultimately, the decision was not based on either report. It was based on our audited financial statements and the review and and facts that were shared from our CFO and chief operating officer."
"This never had a fair chance," one source told CBS Sports.
If Hartford had not gotten so good, this wouldn't be a big story. There is speculation around college athletics that at least a dozen other universities are at least exploring a similar move, especially given how the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the American collegiate ecosystem. We could look up in a decade and see 20 schools follow Hartford's lead, or perhaps Hartford will be the only one. Maybe it will be spared in the end.
There's also the matter of formally applying for Division III, which will happen in January 2022 unless the Friends of the Neighborhood can flip it. By the end of May, the group hopes to have representatives meet with some members of the Board of Regents. They believe the university did this in cloak-and-dagger fashion by intentionally not formally forming a subcommittee of athletics from the get-go. Behrens said there were select people in the athletic department who were made aware of what was going on.
Hardy said he's "very confident" the fate of Hartford can be altered.
"I think this is a case where the president and many of the board members were jaded in the information they got and made a really rash decision on behalf of the school, and it goes beyond basketball," he said. "Some of these board members, whether they sided with the president if they were handpicked, or others who didn't read everything, it's unfortunate. It's duty and obligation. You need to be aware of what you're voting on.
"I'm in complete shock, having followed this really closely since March Madness, that they decided so quickly off of one report. It seems totally an unprofessional review that you've taken as gospel."
Last week, immediately after the vote was revealed and Hartford had a tidy landing page explaining the move, Gallagher brought his players together. He told them that, even though any kind of transition wouldn't affect the team next season in any way, he would understand if anyone wanted out.
"I said, 'Listen, I'm staying here. Even if it's a bloodbath and you all leave, I'm not leaving,'" Gallagher said.
With the exception of one player -- who made his decision to transfer weeks prior -- the entire team remained committed. That includes everyone on Gallagher's staff. A decision has been made, but for Gallagher, his team and most in that athletic department, the fight is only beginning.
There goes the Neighborhood? Just the opposite: Here it comes.