‘A seminal moment in our history’: Saint Peter’s president talks March Madness impact

Mar 22, 2022

Eugene Cornacchia on applications increasing, the university’s website crashing and college sports’ most famous mustache.

Jerry Carino NorthJersey.com

Eugene Cornacchia has been around Saint Peter’s University for four decades. Prior to being named president in 2007, he rose through the school’s ranks as a political science professor, dean and provost.

So he was able to fully appreciate the magnitude of what the Peacocks’ men’s basketball team accomplished this past weekend, winning two NCAA Tournament games and becoming the Cinderella darling of the sports world.

After returning from Indianapolis, where Saint Peter’s stunned nationally-ranked Kentucky and Murray State to advance to this weekend’s “Sweet 16” round in Philadelphia, Cornacchia spoke with USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey about the experience and its impact on the small Catholic university, whose enrollment is 2,200 undergraduates and 3,100 all told.

Here is the interview in Q&A format, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What was the experience like in Indianapolis?

A. “Watching the game against Kentucky I was on pins and needles. I thought, ‘This is where being part of a Jesuit school is really helpful because all of the Jesuits were praying for us.’”

“I don’t want to say I was in disbelief, but there was just an overwhelming feeling of pride for our players, for our coach and for the sportsmanship and grit and determination they exhibited. They were fearless.”

Q. You mentioned sportsmanship. Did you notice how (head coach) Shaheen Holloway made sure his players, instead of celebrating, got into the handshake line with Kentucky immediately after the final buzzer?

A. “It’s very characteristic of Shaheen and how he’s brought the team along. They know they represent the university and so they’re careful about how they present themselves. I think that’s just who they are.”

“When I went into the locker room after the Kentucky game, I was looking at Shaheen and the players and it was so interesting to me. There was excitement but his comment to them was, ‘OK, go back to your room, enjoy this moment, but tomorrow we’ve got work to do.’”

Q. Any particular image that’s stayed with you?

A. “The hoopla over (junior guard) Doug Edert’s mustache. Everywhere we went people were commenting on it. It was a good-luck charm I think. Some people were like, ‘Get rid of that funky-looking throwback to the ’60s.’ Everybody else was like, ‘Don’t you dare touch it.’”

Q. In the big picture, what does this mean for Saint Peter’s?

A. “For our whole community, this is a seminal moment in our history. Our main focus is academics, but athletics enhances our community. We can’t put $8-10 million into the (basketball) program, but nonetheless you see what we can do if you have a great coach and players who are hard-working and committed. This is truly a miracle story.”

Q. What tangible impacts have you seen right away?

A. “We’ve already seen increased applications from students. There’s just been an outpouring of media attention across the country that has been unbelievable. Now I know why they call it March Madness… We’ve been hearing from people around the country about our T-shirts. We ran out real fast.”

“The hardest part for Saint Peter’s (in the past) has been breaking through in the media on a bigger scale. We experience a dense media market here. What this does now is project us across the country. Now everyone knows what Saint Peter’s is and everyone knows where Saint Peter’s is. So that really is priceless.”

Q. You’ve already seen an application bump?

A. “It is a very good sign, of course. Every institution is looking to grow enrollment, particularly in the right ways. This will certainly strengthen the university going forward. That will help us accomplish our longer-term goals. Growing our enrollment will allow us to strengthen our academic programs.”

Q. Is there a message here about what athletics can bring to a university at large?

A. “Saint Peter’s historically has been very prudent in its focus on the balance between athletics and academics. During my time here we’ve tried to increase our investment in athletics and we’ve done that modestly (a renovated Run Baby Run Arena opened this past fall). We’ll be doing more going forward.

“But it’s really important to not let this get out of control, to where it’s possible that you lose your focus. We’re never going to be there. But we do know we need to make additional investments as our resources allow.”

Q. What has the outpouring from alumni and others been like over the last few days?

A. “One comment I received was from an alum who said, ‘I’ve never been much into basketball but this is, in big letters, EPIC.’ That stayed with me.”

“It’s been crazy, crazy, crazy. Our website at one point crashed because of all the traffic. I’ve had non-stop texts, phone calls, emails. My (staff) is still trying to catch up with them all. Literally we’re probably in the thousands.”

Q. Who’s going to Philadelphia for Friday’s Sweet 16 game against Purdue?

A. “We’re going to have busloads of people. We’ve been hearing from every corner from people who want to be there to support Saint Peter’s, so yes, this is going to be awesome.”

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.