This past year, the Stony Brook football program endured perhaps its worst season ever. Based on what the public knew coming into the 2022 season, those failures could not have come at a worse time for head coach Chuck Priore.
Priore entered the season in a contract year. The team had finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs each of the previous three seasons. At the age of 62, Stony Brook football’s winningest coach was going to have to earn an extension with a big bounceback year.
Obviously, that rebound did not happen. The team started 0-6 and finished 2-9 overall. They placed dead last in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) standings. Despite being an offensive-minded head coach, Priore had the worst offense in the conference.
However, none of that mattered, because Priore’s contract had already been extended before the season started.
On Nov. 17, Stony Brook University Athletic Director Shawn Heilbron publicly announced that Priore would be returning to coach the Stony Brook football team next year. However, the announcement came significantly late, as a copy of the contract obtained this week by The Statesman through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request reveals that Priore’s extension was finalized on Aug. 5, 2022.
Heilbron confirmed in an interview with The Statesman on Nov. 21 that the decision to extend Priore had already been made before the season started. Priore was never actually coaching for his job.
“We agreed to it before the year,” Heilbron said. “It wasn’t signed until right before the season started … It was agreed to earlier in the summer and didn’t get finalized until right before the season.”
Priore’s new deal is for three years, keeping him under contract through the 2025 season. The contract will pay him $433,720 per year, not including incentives. He will be able to negotiate an extension after the first year.
The contract also reveals how long Priore’s job has been secure for. Priore signed the extension on June 23, 2022, while Heilbron signed on July 1. The contract became official after President Maurie McInnis signed off on Aug. 5.
This contradicts what Priore said in an interview with The Statesman on Aug. 17, when he said that negotiations were still ongoing.
“Shawn [Heilbron] and I have a plan,” Priore said in August. “We’ve had several conversations. It’s in the process. I’m very confident that in a very short period of time it will be handled.”
Heilbron attributes Priore’s mistake to a miscommunication between Heilbron and Vice President of Human Resources Lynn Johnson. Johnson, who signed off on the extension on July 27, 2022, did not send Heilbron an executed copy of the contract until Sept. 12.
“I didn’t find out the contract was signed until September 12,” Heilbron said in an interview with The Statesman on Jan. 10. “I didn’t follow up on it. I knew at some point, it would come back. I never saw a fully executed document. That’s when I reached out to Lynn Johnson and she said ‘Oh shoot, sorry.’ Until then, I didn’t have it in hand. That’s why nothing was said or mentioned about it.”
Stony Brook Athletics has a history of keeping Priore’s contract situation under wraps. In 2016, Priore signed a two-year extension that kept him under contract through 2020. However, the department did not announce that until 2018 after he received his next extension.
Heilbron said that they are not willfully hiding Priore’s extensions from the public. He attributes the lack of transparency to the ways that the department has always functioned.
“It’s not something we’ve done typically,” Heilbron said. “We don’t have large media asking us about it. It’s not deliberate, we just go about our business, and every coach has a different deal. We’re not trying to hide anything, it’s just not something that we’ve been focused on … It just hasn’t been our standard practice.”
Despite the disastrous outcome of the 2022 season, Heilbron expressed support and confidence in Priore’s ability to turn the program around. However, he did stress urgency in Priore doing so.
“As the Athletic Director, I’m not just going to sit here and point fingers and put it all on him,” Heilbron said. “As we move forward, this can’t happen again and won’t happen again. But I feel extremely confident in our ability to turn this around now.”
Heilbron cited the team’s strong finish to the 2021 season as the main reason for extending Priore. The 2021 team finished the season on a 4-1 stretch after starting 1-5.
“The way that we competed, the way that we finished winning four out of five after a very frustrating start to the year … is really what made me feel confident as we move forward,” Heilbron said.
That 4-1 finish came at the exact right time for Priore, as the legal side of things essentially forced Heilbron’s hand.
Stony Brook University is a union school, and its employees are union employees. In order for an administrator to terminate an employee under the union guidelines, they must issue a notice of non-renewal at least one year before the current contract expires. Given Priore’s contract, if Heilbron wanted to move on from Priore, he would have needed to issue a non-renewal after the 2021 season ended.
“Coaches are union employees,” Heilbron said. “You would have to hand someone a non-renewal and give them a year’s notice, and that’s the case with our coaches.”
There were other aspects that Heilbron took into consideration. Priore has a winning record with Stony Brook and has led the team to four FCS playoff berths. During Priore and Heilbron’s time together, the team has earned two postseason berths. Before the 2022 season, the football program had a winning record (43-42) since Heilbron’s first year with Stony Brook.
“I’ve seen us build a program in 2017 that was the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Heilbron said. “In ‘18, we went back to the playoffs. We’ve never won fewer than five games. I felt really good about the direction of the program … I felt good about continuing the partnership.”
The business aspect also played a role in renewing Priore’s contract. Heilbron appreciates the way that Priore manages the business aspect of the football program, which is one of the most funded teams in the department.
“He also knows how to manage the business of Stony Brook football,” Heilbron said. “There’s a lot of money that’s invested in it. From a department-budget standpoint, he has done a lot of things that we have asked him to do to manage that … He is a strong manager of Stony Brook football and a good partner to me in that.”
Now with three years to rebuild the program, Priore’s job remains secure according to Heilbron. However, he remains adamant that the team must get back to its winning ways immediately.
“I wouldn’t say the seat is hot, but it is really important that we win now,” Heilbron said. “I think we have to signal to our supporters, to campus, and to recruits that [winning] is important … We’re going into next season with a different set of expectations.”
Being in a rebuild is familiar territory to Priore, who has successfully pulled one off with Stony Brook before. After back-to-back playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012, the program suffered four straight losing seasons from 2013 to 2016. However, he turned things around and got the team back to the playoffs in 2017.
In an interview with The Statesman on Dec. 1, Priore said that his experience rebuilding the program makes him apt for the task.
“I think I’m built for the fix, because I’ve been through it,” Priore said. “I understand the pressure of winning in college athletics, so I get it. I refuse to be defined, or allow this program be defined by the scoreboard. I think we represent and play hard. As a result, I think we’ll come together and win football games.”
The losing-season streak and playoff drought are both at four years long once again. Luckily for Priore, he has a new three-year deal to right the ship.