Around this time of year, we see a lot of coaching changes in college athletics. Whether it's coaches being fired or taking other jobs, the coaching “carousel” as we know it begins to spin out of control. However, seeing head coaching changes in college basketball in the first few weeks of November is extremely rare. But last week, Hartford men’s coach John Gallagher resigned from his position the day before the 2022-2023 college hoops season tipped off. What led to this decision? Could there be a legal dispute? Let’s dive into this peculiar situation.
To understand Gallagher’s resignation, it’s key to trace the confluence of events that led to the thirteenth-year head coach stepping down. Since 1984, The University of Hartford’s men’s basketball program had been competing in Division I in various low to mid-major conferences. Throughout its history, the Hawks have struggled to find consistent success on the hardwood, regularly finishing toward the bottom of the America East Conference standings.
However, the program has experienced unprecedented highs since Gallagher took over in 2010, including the school’s first and only trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2021. Because of that success, you would think that the positive momentum would’ve spurred no shortage of fan excitement and additional investment, right? Wrong.
Immediately following their NCAA Tournament berth, the University of Hartford's Board of Regents voted to transition all of their athletic programs from the Division I to Division III level beginning in the 2023-2024 academic year. In the last few years, we’ve seen numerous schools move up a level, but very rarely do you see a school move down, especially all the way from Division I to Division III.
Obviously, any player or coach that signed up to be a Division I player or Division I coach would probably be upset if their school announced a move to Division III, and Gallagher fell into that camp. While he stayed on the job last season, many in the industry believed his time in Hartford would come to an end at the conclusion of this upcoming season. But why did he step down now?
Gallagher’s frustrations with the Hartford administration for taking his program down to the Division III level were already high coming into the season. However, in one of his team's exhibition games, it appears like those frustrations finally reached a boiling point.
According to his resignation letter, Gallagher alleged the school failed to protect the safety and well-being of their student-athletes by neglecting to provide an athletic trainer for the Hawks’ preseason battle with Dartmouth College. He claimed the lack of medical support not only potentially caused a knee injury to one of his players but also resulted in a longer and more painful recovery process. “At least one parent has reached out to express outrage at this situation,” Gallagher said in his statement. “This is something that I, as a Coach, cannot tolerate.”
While it appears the lack of a trainer at one of his team’s games was the breaking point, it’s only a piece of this situation that needs to be monitored. In his resignation letter, he cites a breach of contract by the University on several occasions. Gallagher reportedly remains in an active lawsuit with a member of the University’s Board of Regents dating back to 2021 after being assured that Hartford would remain at the Division I level. Allegedly, those reassurances led Gallagher to decline an offer to join Porter Moser’s staff at the University of Oklahoma.
In all the fallout, Hartford released a statement to ESPN that refuted Gallager’s claims.
“Mr. Gallagher’s resignation letter is full of inaccuracies,” the school said. “We are confident that these baseless claims and attacks will be disproved through the legal process. We wish Mr. Gallagher well and look forward to announcing interim leadership for our men’s basketball program.”
The “he said, she said” in this situation is definitely worth monitoring, especially with the precedent it might set in college athletics moving forward. I mentioned earlier that it has been rare to see schools move down from Division I. However, with the NCAA Transformation Committee actively in work to determine what constitutes Division I, we could see more schools make the institutional decision to transition downwards. There might be certain investment thresholds that the “new D1” schools need to meet, and some schools might decide the juice is not worth the squeeze.
For coaches of those programs that decide to move down to Division II or Division III, how will their contracts be handled? Will they be free to find other jobs? Will they be confined to the same language as the original deal? Will they follow Gallagher’s steps and pursue legal action? Obviously, the difference between Division I and the lower levels is vast and the nature of the original contract agreement would definitely be different. However, Gallagher’s dispute with Hartford might be the test case that lays the groundwork for future cases with similar contexts.
Hopefully, the Hawks can have a somewhat “normal” season this year despite the chaotic start. You have to feel for the players who put in the work all summer and fall anticipating playing under Gallagher, only to see their coach walk out the door the day before the first game. It’s an unfortunate situation that you have to hope works out for all parties involved.
Brendan Bell can be found on Twitter @_bbell5