As the University of Hartford gets set to start another school year, it marks the next step on its transition from Division I to Division III sports.
The administration said the move, announced in May of 2021, better aligns with the school’s mission. But some in athletics say the move has unaligned their career.
University of Hartford Men’s Basketball Head Coach John Gallagher is suing a member of the university’s Board of Regents, alleging that Gallagher declined an offer to join the University of Oklahoma coaching staff because of reassurances that Hartford would not move to Division III. But just a month after that alleged conversation, the university voted to finalize the move.
According to Gallagher’s lawsuit against Board of Regents member David Thompson, while the program celebrated its first trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2021, Gallagher was also fielding job offers from other schools. In the complaint, Gallagher said he chose to stay with the Hartford program at the reassurance of Thompson, who told him “he should not be concerned at all about these rumors.”
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In a statement exclusively to NBC Connecticut, Gallagher’s attorney, William Madsen said:
“Coach Gallagher brought this action against David Thompson, Vice Chair of the University’s Board of Regents, after Mr. Thompson fraudulently assured him that the University would remain in Division I. The University’s regrettable actions in moving to Division III, notwithstanding those assurances, has not only caused irreparable damage to Coach Gallagher’s career, it has also hurt the scholar-athletes who joined the program with the promise that they would be afforded all the opportunities and experience that go along with a Division I program. While Coach Gallagher sought to resolve these issues on an informal basis, those efforts were met with scorn and retaliatory actions by the University administration, who continue to dismantle the program he spent years building. Ultimately, Coach Gallagher felt that he had no other option but to file this action.”
The University of Hartford is not named in the complaint. Thompson’s attorney did not respond to our request for comment.
In the meantime, the student-athletes and coaches are adjusting to the transition. Per the NCAA’s reclassifying regulations, the university is required to abide by DIII rules starting on Sept. 1, even though the school’s transition timeline says the school is DI through the end of the 2022-23 season.
A university spokesperson explained this in a statement to NBC Connecticut:
“In March, the University received formal NCAA approval to move forward with our transition to Division III. This is a multi-year process that has already begun and we are excited to welcome 116 new student-athletes for fall 2022 under our new model, more than any other year in recent history. This year we are a Division I Independent institution. However, as a reclassifying member, we are required to follow all NCAA Division III legislation for practice and competition beginning with the 2022-23 academic year. Consistent with the requirements, our teams did not hold early summer trainings. We will continue to comply with the appropriate bylaws for practice and competition, which are continuously evaluated for compliance internally and by the NCAA.”
Summer trainings would take place before Sept. 1.
“From what I see, it looks like we're one of the only Division I school to not have a summer session,” said Michael Dunne, a graduate student with the men’s basketball program.
Four former Hartford student-athletes are filing a lawsuit against the university, alleging negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract and promissory estoppel, which means promises must be enforced, even if a legal contract doesn't exist. The university’s lawyers filed a response denying those allegations.
The complaint sheds light on a 2017 exchange between Gallagher and incoming president Gregory Woodward.
In it, Woodward allegedly calls athletics “not a pretty picture” and says teams are “not just bad but horrible.” According to the complaint, he also tells Gallagher that “either we make it better, and fast, or we make another plan.”
In the five years since that email, not only did the Hawks win the America East men’s basketball tournament and a $25,000 bonus payment, but the baseball team had nine players drafted, two soccer players joined pro teams and a golfer won on the PGA Champions Tour.
“Everyone is going to google me and think I played DIII sports,” said Davic MacKinnon, who made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Angels this year. “A lot of the guys are like, ‘I’m not going back to visit now once all our guys are gone.’”
“It was becoming a destination,” said Erik Ostberg, who is in the Tampa Bay Rays system. “It was a goal for a lot of northeast kids to play at Hartford... It’s sad... Hartford was going in a really special direction. It’s kind of sad to see where it’s at now.”