By Peter Schwartz
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The Nets left Long Island for New Jersey in 1977. Other sports franchises like the Arrows, Saints and Dragons have come and gone. Hofstra pulled the plug on its football program after the likes of Wayne Chrebet and Marques Colston put them on the map.
And now the Islanders, who captured the hearts of the community with four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83 are leaving for Brooklyn after next season.
Long Island still has minor league baseball with the Ducks, pro lacrosse with the Lizards and soccer with the Cosmos and Rough Riders, but perhaps there’s another program that can compete for the local fan’s entertainment dollar.
New Stony Brook University athletic director Shawn Heilbron believes that Long Island can become “Seawolves Country.”
“I really do,” said Heilbron, who was introduced at a news conference back on May 9. “We will certainly work hard to be identified as Long Island’s team and we believe in the power of college athletics. We certainly see the opportunity exists now with the Islanders moving off the island.”
Heilbron takes over an athletic department that has enjoyed plenty of recent success. The football team stepped up to the Colonial Athletic Association this past season after winning back-to-back Big South titles and reaching the second round of the FCS playoffs twice.
While all of the teams are important to the university in their own way, football is the crown jewel in the eyes of the new boss.
“I think football success is paramount to any athletic department but certainly to Stony Brook,” said Heilbron, who comes to Long Island after serving as the senior athletic director for development at Oregon State.
Before joining Oregon State, Heilbron worked for UCLA from 2006 to 2011 and was responsible for more than $35 million in gifts to the school’s athletic department.
“Outside of the financial implication, it brings a school pride, it brings people together in a way that no other event can,” he said. “At UCLA and Oregon State, we really worked hard to position football because it can really impact all of the other sports.”
The men’s basketball team made it to the America East title game this past season while the women’s team earned a berth in the NIT. Many times, a new athletic director is faced with a rebuilding project, but Heilbron comes on board looking to build upon established success.
“That was definitely one of the selling points for me,” Heilbron said. “I’ve certainly have had opportunities to look at other positions, but the fact that there is a foundation in place and that there are great coaches, great staff, the teams are winning and having success and our student athletes are doing well academically, it was an ideal fit for me.”
Stony Brook athletics have certainly come a long way over the years. They have outstanding facilities including LaValle Stadium, the university’s 8,300 seat football venue, and Joe Nathan Field, home of the Seawolves baseball team that went to the 2012 College World Series and named after the long time major league closer and Stony Brook alum.
And this year, the basketball teams will move into the renovated Stony Brook Arena. At a cost of $21.1 million, the arena has been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility that will seat more than 4,000 fans.
It’s one thing to have top-notch teams, but it’s another thing to have attractive venues.
“The facilities are significant in terms of today’s recruiting efforts,” Heilbron said. “They play a key role. Really for me it’s about do we have what it takes to win conference championships? That’s going to be a goal for every single team and you have to have quality facilities.”
Heilbron’s introductory new conference was the first event at Stony Brook Arena. The modernized facility features video technology to enhance the fan experience, a new basketball court and upgraded practice courts, enhanced fan amenities, luxury suites and a VIP lounge with loge seating.
“I got goose bumps,” Heilbron said of walking into the arena for the first time. “That is the same reaction that recruits will have when they come. It should be the same reaction that fans have when they come into that beautiful arena. It’s one of the nicest facilities that I’ve been in.”
One of Heilbron’s responsibilities will be to grow the Stony Brook Seawolves brand — and that means making sure that everyone knows the meaning behind “Seawolf.”
According to the university website: “A Seawolf is a mythical sea creature and according to the legend of the Seawolf, anyone fortunate enough to view it was subject to good luck.”
When he was going through the interview process, Heilbron made sure that he knew the lay of the land. He had the answer ready just in case it came up in the process. But now that he’s been hired, he’s come up with a new definition.
“To me it stands for success, it stands for pride, it stands for integrity and it stands for winners,” said Heilbron. “That’s what we’re going to build that brand around and make sure when coaches recruit and when we’re trying to connect with fans on Long Island and in New York State.”
Heilbron is finishing up his responsibilities at Oregon State but is traveling to Long Island this week to interview candidates for Stony Brook’s women’s basketball head coaching vacancy. He will also attend Colonial Athletic Association and America East meetings before heading back to Oregon to tie up loose ends.
He hopes to move to Long Island full-time with his wife Bevin, sons Asher and Ramsey, and daughter Quinlan by the end of June. Coming to the metropolitan area was a big selling point in taking the job.
“My wife has always talked about wanting to live in New York,” said Heilbron. “We’ve been to the city many, many times and we’ve absolutely loved our experiences there. I do have cousins on Long Island. We’ve been there and been to a wedding and really have enjoyed it. It’s a place we see ourselves being for a long time.”
Heilbron is stepping into a pretty good, but challenging situation at Stony Brook. He’ll oversee an athletic department with good teams and fantastic facilities, but will have to roll up his sleeves and hit the ground running in taking the Seawolves to new heights.
That includes getting as many people as possible to learn what a Seawolf is and making exit 62 on the Long Island Expressway a popular destination for area sports fans.
Now is as good a time as any to “Get Your Red On!”
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