The First House on the Block: How Hartford's 1984-85 Team Set History in Motion

The University of Hartford Men’s Basketball Team will make school history when they play in the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament game on Friday. It’s a milestone that took more than three decades to reach. It’s a milestone that started with one person who built a neighborhood to make it happen.

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In that final buzzer moment during the America East Men’s Basketball Championship game last Saturday, all eyes were on the Hartford Hawks but some minds wandered back in time.

“I just thought about the 37 years it took to get to the NCAA,” said Eric Crawford, a captain on the Hawks first division I team. “Its just that you don’t capture these things until you’re like 60 years old like I am now, back then it was just basketball.

It was just basketball for Crawford in back in 1984, back at the Hartford Civic Center, back when the Hawks played as the opening act to Smokey Robinson and Dion Warwick.

“At halftime you come out it was packed,” said Crawford. “I mean you look at our record we were probably 0-12 and you got half the Civic Center filled up at halftime waiting on the entertainment after the game.”

The crowd didn't know it, Smokey Robinson didn't know it, but Hartford knew: they were watching history. 1984: the first year the Hawks played in Division I.

“The thing that they knew is that they had Jack Phelan,” said Bob Baroni, a former assistant coach.

Hartford calls themselves "the neighborhood." The first house on the block was Jack Phelan's. Baroni and Phelan carried this team into its DI era

“We knew it was going to be a long process from the standpoint of getting it to a point where we were truly a competitive Division I team,” said Baroni.

But Phelan wasn't there to watch his Hawks finally reach the first NCAA Tournament in program history. He passed away unexpectedly last summer.

“It brought tears to my eyes because I know if he was here today he would have been in Indiana before the game was over with,” said Crawford.

But just as 1984 had Phelan, 2021 has John Gallagher.

“When I look at Gallagher,” said Crawford, “I see a lot of Phelan.”

“If you know me you know I talk a lot about Jack Phelan,” said current Hartford head coach, John Gallagher. “Jack is Hartford's neighborhood.”

It started with the house that Phelan built but the neighborhood just keeps on growing.

“All those guys are our brothers and that's the way Jack made sure we understood each other, we were brothers before we were basketball players,” said Crawford.

“This is about their championship,” said Gallagher from the NCAA site in Indiana. “Some of us might not have been there together but we did this together.”

Hartford, a 16-seed, takes on their regions top seed, Baylor, Friday at 3:30.

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