To say that the Hofstra University athletics program has had a rough time in recent months is like saying Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has received only a little bit of negative publicity lately.
Yes, there have been quite an amazing series of twists and turns and a lot of difficult moments for the Hofstra sports community to endure over just the past five months.
The myriad of problems began on December 3rd, when Hofstra dropped its 72-year-old football program, an institution that produced Marques Colston (the leading receiver of the Super Bowl XLIV winning New Orleans Saints); offensive tackle Willie Colon (who can’t shield Roethlisberger from further personal scrutiny, but who protected him from opposing pass rushers enough to win a Super Bowl ring the year before Colston won his); the terrific 11-year career of former New York Jets’ wide receiver Wayne Chrebet; and many others who have made their mark in the National Football League.
An expensive annual cost of $4.5 million and the ability to recoup far less in return due to a lack of fan support, were the basis of Hofstra’s controversial reasoning for cutting football, a decision for which the university still receives a fair amount of negative backlash.
As its second-most visible athletics program became extinct, Hofstra’s most recognizable program was on the verge of being entrenched in turmoil and some challenging times ahead.
The Hofstra men’s basketball team stumbled to a poor start to the 2009-10 season, but caught fire late, under former head coach Tom Pecora, who was in what turned out to be the final year of a 16-year run (seven as an assistant and nine as a head coach) at the school which gave the Queens, New York native his first Division I head coaching opportunity. Though it only managed a seventh-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Pride became the CAA’s hottest team, winning 10 of 11 games, nearly reaching the CAA tournament semifinals, barely losing to second-seeded Northeastern in overtime, in the quarterfinals.
What followed, was a whirlwind of events for Hofstra basketball.
After shunning the low-level, consolation College Basketball Insider postseason tournament the year before, Hofstra, widely accused of not fully supporting athletics after dropping football, tried to somewhat quell those doubts by spending reportedly about $60,000 to host a first-round CBI game against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
That turned out to be a miscalculation as only 952 fans attended Hofstra’s season-ending, 74-60 loss to IUPUI in Pecora’s final game at Hofstra on March 17th, as Pecora uncharacteristically looked on as a disinterested, emotionless coach headed for a new gig from the moment his old team started the game as flat as can be, with a 21-2 deficit.
A week later, Pecora, the second winningest coach all-time at Hofstra (155-126), left his former school scrambling for a new head coach when he joined laughing stock Fordham, which was 2-26 without an Atlantic-10 conference win last season.
Speculation quickly mounted that Hofstra, after citing costs to dispense with its football program, would hire an inexperienced coach on the cheap. But, the administration surprised most on March 31st, spending $3 million on a five-year contract to bring in Tim Welsh, a Massena, N.Y. native who took Iona College to a pair of NIT’s and one NCAA tournament in three years before reaching two NCAA tournaments and three NIT’s during a ten-year run at Providence College.
Hofstra even said it would increase its basketball budget under Welsh in order to expand the Pride’s recruiting footprint, including potentially stealing recruits of some of the CAA’s better teams, from their own backyards in the Virginia area. Welsh also planned to use his contacts from his last job as an ESPNU analyst to help Hofstra gain more of a national spotlight. Optimism was reigning and Pecora’s relative success at Hofstra (despite failing to reach the NCAA tournament as a head coach) was long forgotten.
However, that too, soon unraveled for Hofstra when Welsh, just one month on the job, was arrested for drunk driving after being found 3.5 miles east of the Hofstra campus (where he and his family were staying temporarily), at 1am on April 30th, asleep at a green light, with his 2006 Lexus still in drive, and his foot on the brake. Two hours later, Welsh was found to have a blood alcohol content of .18, barely the threshold for an Aggravated Driving While Intoxicated charge, and more than twice the New York State legal limit of .08.
Just when Hofstra thought it was back on track, Welsh’s arrest continued a further downward spiral for the Hofstra basketball program.
On April 16th, highly touted recruit Branden Frazier, a 6-foot-3 combo guard who was initially recruited by Pecora to play at Hofstra after starring at Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin high school, followed Pecora to Fordham after Van Macon, Pecora’s top assistant at Hofstra, did the same.
On Monday, Welsh was forced to resign from Hofstra. On Tuesday, disappointed mostly by Pecora’s departure, Hofstra’s leading rebounder and last season’s All-CAA rookie team selection, 6-foot-8 Staten Island forward Halil Kanacevic verbally committed to join Pecora’s new A-10 rival, St. Joseph’s.
And, although he’s still very much a member of the Pride, reports surfaced on the same day that another former Brooklyn star, point guard Chaz Williams, who played at Bishop Ford high school and who joined Kanacevic on the All-CAA rookie team last year, might follow Kanacevic in asking for his own release from Hofstra.
Circumstances looked very bleak amid great uncertainty and little hope for the immediate future and perhaps a few years down the road for Hofstra basketball.
However, then came Wednesday, when Hofstra finally put the brakes on an athletics program –- or at least, on a men’s basketball program –- that like Welsh’s dangerous and irresponsible, drunken jaunt, was seemingly traveling down a dark road to nowhere.
With a surprising and fairly bold move, Hofstra decided not to conduct a lengthy search, and instead, give it one more shot — or, one Mo shot — as in Mo Cassara, who was promoted to a multi-year head coaching deal (terms undisclosed, though it’s believed that Cassara will receive about half of what Welsh would have earned annually at Hofstra).
Cassara, whom Welsh tabbed to be his assistant at Hofstra, is widely considered to be one of college basketball’s rising young stars.
Still, the opportunity which Cassara has been thrust into must be a shock even to him, relative to a mere five weeks ago, since the 37-year-old Canton, N.Y. native wasn’t even considered as a head coaching candidate by Hofstra when the university lost Pecora.
However, there were two things key things that worked in Cassara’s favor this time around. One, is that he very quickly ingratiated himself to Hofstra President Stu Rabinowitz, Hofstra athletic director Jack Hayes, and many of the Pride players, with whom he’s already begun to develop solid relationships both on and off the court since his arrival at Hofstra. Additionally, Hayes didn’t want to continue the recent program upheaval and put an entire third new staff in place since the end of March. Thus, Cassara became the choice to head a staff including two other Welsh selections, Allen Griffin, and Hofstra’s newly named associate head coach Steve DeMeo, who worked with Welsh at Providence, and who seemed to be the favorite to get the head coaching job when Hofstra decided to look in-house for Welsh’s replacement.
Cassara though, brings a strong pedigree in his own right. He comes to Hofstra after tutoring for four years under well-respected, long-time head coach Al Skinner, at Boston College, where Cassara was responsible for recruiting, scouting, on-floor coaching, off-season workouts, and game scheduling while helping Skinner guide the Eagles to two NCAA tournament appearances and one NCAA tournament win before the two were dismissed from Boston College after Skinner interviewed for the St. John’s head coaching job on March 27th.
Prior to his work at Boston College, Cassara gained two years of head coaching experience at Division III Clark University in Massachusetts after spending one year as an assistant coach at Dayton University, where he helped the Flyers go 24-9, win an A-10 regular season title, and earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Earlier, Cassara guided prep school Worcester Academy (Massachusetts) to a 90-21 record from 1999-2003 after beginning his coaching career as an assistant, spending a year each at The Citadel and Washington & Lee University.
As with Welsh, Cassara’s hiring is as much about the future of Hofstra basketball as next year, but that doesn’t mean that Cassara doesn’t have some Pecora holdovers which he’ll try to make some noise with in the CAA next season. The loss of Kanacevic hurts up front, but as of now, Hofstra’s all-time leading shot blocker and last year’s All-CAA Defensive selection, Centereach, Long Island’s 6-foot-10 forward Greg Washington, is expected to return as a senior. And, if Williams stays, he’ll return in the backcourt alongside fifth-year senior and reigning CAA Player of the Year, powerful 6-foot-3, 220-pound shooting guard Charles Jenkins, a former Springfield Gardens (Queens) high school star who’s been impressed with Cassara since the two met.
In the recent volatile world of Hofstra athletics, it appears that the Pride once again has reason to be proud. Or, as Jenkins told Newsday, “I think things are going to calm down now. I don’t think anything else is going to happen. I’m glad they hired [Cassara].”
Indeed, a coaching hire which already appears to be worth one “Mo” shot.