Two and a half years ago John Gallagher stood on a beach in Miami, feeling as if his job was slipping out to sea. He had been building towards this 2017-18 season for quite some time. It was on this beach that he sat his team down and told them he was going to get fired at the end of the season. He let them know they were his most talented team to date at Hartford and that if he couldn’t win with them, it would be the end of the line. Making sure there was a bigger message here and no hard feelings, Gallagher reminded them of one thing on that beach: that they were a family.
“I told them I was going to be at their weddings,” Gallagher said. “I was going to know their kids’ names. We’d talk for life.”
After this oceanside chat, Gallagher said it felt as if 17 tons had been lifted off of every player’s back. What happened next showed what a family does to help when a member is in need.
Growing up, Gallagher’s father gave him a piece of advice:
“When you need something, you don’t look in the Yellow Pages, you call someone in the family or in the neighborhood.”
While he might have had to update the Yellow Pages reference to be understood by his players, it is this mentality that Gallagher has tried to implement at Hartford. It’s what he calls “the neighborhood.” The neighborhood isn’t something that was developed that morning on a beach in Florida, but something that Gallagher has been working on for the past 10 years.
It was this neighborhood mentality that came out when that 2017-18 team went on to win its next three games and finish the rest of the regular season 13-5. While the Hawks may have lost in the semifinals of the America East tournament, the foundation for the future of the Hartford program was laid and set the tone for the next couple seasons.
Flash forward to this season and look at the Hartford Hawks. Like any neighborhood, people come and go, and gone are the starters from that 2017-18 team. Now, it’s a new starting five, including three new players and two who played sparingly during their freshman seasons. Two of those new players are grad transfers in Malik Ellison (St. John’s and Pittsburgh) and Traci Carter (Marquette and La Salle).
“It was the addition of those two that gave me a good feeling about this year,” Gallagher said. “Their experience, their talent, and most importantly their ability to be good teammates.”
Ellison recently started playing for Hartford as he missed the first half of the season due to injury. While Gallagher would have loved to have had Ellison available for most of the non-conference slate, his absence did give his team a chance to develop some younger players that might not have gotten as much playing time. Without Ellison it was next man up — a turn to someone else in the neighborhood that is the Hartford basketball team.
Everything about this team highlights the neighborhood mentality. Even the 1-3-1 defense Gallagher has implemented. With the 1-3-1, everyone is equal and has to do their part in order to make the zone work. With different variations of the zone depending on the opponent and their style of play, communication is key for the Hawks — just as it is for a family and neighborhood. It is with this buy-in to the mentality that the Hawks won their first three conference games.
Hartford is one of the teams to have never made it to an NCAA Tournament and it would be a dream for Galalgher to take the Hawks there, but he knows it won’t be easy. The team continues to battle each day to get better, the players are buying into coaching, and all of those things will go a long way towards creating a championship culture that can lead to an NCAA bid.
Cut to Evanston, Illinois on Dec. 29, 2019. Gallagher’s Hawks had just pulled off a road upset over Northwestern — the program’s fourth consecutive season with a win over a Power 5 team (something no other America East team has done). As Gallagher waited to join his team in an upbeat locker room, former Hawk Jamie Schneck waited for his old coach. Together the two rushed into the locker room. As they entered the locker room the team jumped up and down, hugging each other, the coaching staff, and even Jamie. The catch: no one on the current team knew Jamie. Yet somehow they knew he was someone to celebrate with. That’s the neighborhood. To Gallagher, that locker room encapsulated the last 10 years and what he’s been trying to build. It’s been a long 10 years filled with ups and downs, including that moment on the beach back in 2017.
Gallagher has been rewarded with what he’s built. He recently signed a contract extension that will keep him in Hartford through the 2022-23 season. The next task: to turn his neighborhood into a block party when he finally leads his Hawks to its first NCAA Tournament.