Thursday, March 31, 2011

Contract extension makes Mo the man for Hofstra

Charles Jenkins is gone, but Mo Cassara will remain a Lions' Den favorite for years to come after signing a contract extension today.

Three of the season’s lowest points convinced Jack Hayes that Mo Cassara was the school’s long-term answer at head coach. Two of the season’s most exciting moments convinced Cassara that Hofstra was the home an itinerant basketball coach had been seeking.

The two men who reached the same conclusion via different methods needed little time to cement Cassara’s future at Hofstra. The school announced Thursday that it had signed Cassara to a five-year extension taking him through the 2015-16 season. The extension comes with a raise that will put Cassara into the top half of CAA coaches in annual compensation (that sound you just heard was George Mason drafting another press release announcing another extension and raise for Jim Larranaga).

Cassara, whose original deal at Hofstra was for four years, signed his new contract a day before the anniversary of Tim Welsh’s hiring, a coincidental capper to a year that turned out nothing like expected and much better than expected, all at the same time.

“I did not think of that,” Hayes said with a chuckle Thursday afternoon. “You try to handle these situations as best as you can, and in looking back now, I feel that the university made a good decision and I think everybody is happy with the decision to hire Mo as the head coach. As you look back now, over a 12-month period it’s been an excellent situation and one that we wanted to make sure lasts for a long time.”

A year ago, Cassara headed to the Final Four in Indianapolis hopeful he’d join Welsh on Long Island but still nursing the wounds from the surprising dismissal of Al Skinner’s staff at Boston College and uncertain what he would do next.

“I remember flying out here to the Final Four last year essentially thinking or hoping that I was going to go with Tim but really, essentially, without a job and not really knowing that much about Hofstra and not knowing about the opportunity and not knowing what I really wanted to do and, ultimately, still trying to figure out what happened at Boston College,” Cassara said tonight as he drove back from a dinner in Houston. “It’s amazing what happens in a year. You try to do the right thing and you work hard and you surround yourself with good people and I think a lot can be accomplished.

Cassara, thrust from the third assistant’s role into the head coaching position when Welsh resigned following a DUI arrest last Apr. 30, finished second in the CAA Coach of the Year balloting (urge to curse rising) after leading the Flying Dutchmen to a 14-4 conference mark and a share of second place, the program’s best finish since moving to the CAA in 2001-02 and two games ahead of Final Four participant VCU.

The Dutchmen finished 21-12 after falling to Old Dominion in the tournament semifinals and losing to Evansville in the first round of the CBI, but a season that ended shy of the ultimate goal left everyone associated with the program excited about what Cassara and his staff had begun to build.

In addition to piecing together a 20-win season out of a thin and injury-depleted roster that featured just two players—Charles Jenkins and Greg Washington—who had started a game for Hofstra prior to this year, Cassara’s tireless efforts to reach out to fans via social media and other more traditional means helped the Dutchmen draw almost 700 more fans per game this year (3,073) than last year (2,410). The Dutchmen also played to their first two sellout crowds since the 2006-07 season.

“Mo did a great job and showed that he can coach and that he can recruit and that he can certainly energize a college campus,” Hayes said. “At the end of the regular season, as we sat there tied at second at 14-4 in the conference, we knew we wanted to do something.”

Hayes said he was particularly impressed by how Cassara got the Dutchmen to respond to and bounce back from disastrous trips to Puerto Rico, Iona and Wright State. The Dutchmen went 0-3 in the Puerto Rico Classic, where they opened and closed the trip by getting blown out by North Carolina and Nebraska and blew a 13-point lead against Western Kentucky in the final four minutes of the middle game, but won their next four games upon returning home.

A 25-point loss to Iona in the final game of the calendar year led to a weekend’s worth of boot camp practices and resulted in the Dutchmen winning their first four games in January and seven of their first eight overall as they put themselves in position to earn a CAA Tournament bye. The Dutchmen lost by 26 in the BracketBuster at Wright State but mounted another four-game winning streak that ended with the loss to Old Dominion.

“I think Mo did a great job of going through situations like that and getting everybody refocused and re-energized and working on the task at hand to put those things behind us, learn from them and move on,” Hayes said. “We came back from those stretches and we were very successful.”

Cassara, who coached at six different colleges or high schools in the 13 years before he arrived at Hofstra, said he knew Long Island was the place for him after seeing the reaction to the Dutchmen’s home win over George Mason Jan. 5—a victory highlighted by Cassara racing over to Brad Kelleher and high-fiving him after Kelleher’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first half—and the anticipation prior to the sold-out season finale against Delaware Feb. 26.

“There was a period of time early in the year I was like ‘Oh my God, are we going to win a game? How are we going to do this?’” Cassara said. “And I knew how good George Mason was, they really had been the class of the league and when we beat them at our place and really played well that second half, I could see the momentum start to turn and the fans start to get excited.

“And then I think that kind of just steamrolled into more and more positive things. Walking out on that court that last day down to the student section and being so excited—not about just playing the game, but more excited about the turnout and the fan support in the community—I walked out that day and I said to myself ‘This is not just a job.’

“Those are the two times that I can think of that I said ‘Wow, this isn’t just a job. This is home to me.’”

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