Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I found something sacred, something sacred I’d lost

The first sign this Hofstra basketball thing might be more than an activity to merely pass time on campus between baseball seasons appeared on Dec. 18, 1993.

It was the first Saturday following my first semester and I was back home in Connecticut. I should have been doing what any 20-year-old was doing upon returning home from college—it’s been a long time since I was 20 years old, but I assumed it involved nursing a hangover suffered the night before, when I partook in copious amounts of underage drinking while yelling “THIS IS HOW WE DO IT IN THE 11550!”—but instead I was perched in the living room watching MSG, which was broadcasting the Hofstra-Manhattan game from Nassau Coliseum.

The game, which was part of the ECAC Challenge, unfolded like most Hofstra games that year—the Flying Dutchmen lost 75-59 in front of a crowd that could generously be called sparse—but my Dad called from the gym during a second half rally by Hofstra, the details of which I breathlessly recited to him.

It was the first time I realized that my default setting for Hofstra basketball was unbridled optimism. It didn’t matter that the Dutchmen were on the fringes of Division I and in a five-way tie with the remainder of the East Coast Conference—a league that I may or may not have concocted entirely inside my head—as the least likely team in the country to reach the NCAA Tournament, never mind win it. When the Dutchmen went on a run, I believed anything was possible.

“You sound excited,” Dad said, and I was. I mean, here I was in Connecticut, two hours from Hofstra, watching the Flying Dutchmen play IN an actual tournament, AT Nassau Coliseum, ON the Madison Square Garden network!

I was 20 years old, I was new to Long Island and I was absolutely sure nothing got bigger than playing in an arena that houses a professional sports team and on a network that airs games played by professional sports teams.

Two decades later, that wonder and innocence has been replaced by realistic cynicism.

Nassau Coliseum is a dump that cannot be torn down and replaced soon enough. Its professional sports tenant, the Islanders, were seven months removed from a trip to the conference finals in December 1993. They are now 20 years removed from their last postseason series win.

Hofstra no longer needs the ECAC’s assistance to fill out its non-conference schedule, which usually includes neutral site games that involve traveling out of state instead of across the street. And nobody gets excited about being on TV anymore, not with an alphabet soup of regional sports networks all searching for inventory and every non-televised game available for viewing online.

In 1993, I was in the midst of that wonderfully youthful, naïve and impossible-to-replicate part of life in which you root for student-athletes who are also your peers. We laughed upon seeing them at the bar or hearing about their foibles that wormed their way through the pre-social media grapevine, which is what happens when we are all of the age in which we are not fully appreciative of the opportunities we have been afforded and proud of getting away with stuff we probably shouldn’t be doing.

You start pushing 40 and you start wishing everyone was like Charles Jenkins, who became the best player in school history and still appreciated the privileges of college in a way you wish you could have emulated.

And when you realize that the guys wearing the Hofstra uniforms are half your age and doing stuff that’s 100,000 times as dumb as the stuff you and your peers did as collegians, well, you start to think about what Long Islander Jerry Seinfeld—a best-selling author 20 years ago this fall—said about rooting for laundry and wondering if there’s a better outlet for your passion.

That’s where I was last March, when the depleted Dutchmen concluded one of the worst seasons any Hofstra program has ever endured. When Mo Cassara was fired 13 days after the CAA Tournament loss to Delaware and replaced 19 days later by Joe Mihalich, I didn’t join the chorus of those looking to a brighter future, even though Mihalich immediately struck me as a good choice who, much like his predecessors, would “get” Hofstra.

Initially, my silence—or, as a good friend whose passion for Hofstra sports extends even further back than 1993 put it, my “disengagement”—was out of respect for Cassara. I know what it feels like to be fired after imperfectly trying to make the best out of an imperfect dream job, as well as the loneliness of being on the outside looking in at former co-workers and friends in the industry all moving on without me. It stung, and I wasn’t going to contribute to those feelings for Cassara, even in an unintentional manner.

Days turned into weeks turned into months and took with it the proper period of radio silence. Yet I remained disengaged. Mihalich brought aboard Speedy Claxton as an assistant coach and signed a bunch of promising recruits, including five transfers. And my response – offered not entirely in jest – was that at least Hofstra didn’t screw it up with Speedy and I didn’t want anything to do ever again with transfers.

Even as the season approached and I began to feel a bit of the familiar itch in embarking upon annual customs—renewing season tickets, immediately memorizing all the dates of the home games, planning road trips that’ll probably never come off even though George Mason alums are presumably no longer actively trying to kill me and daydreaming about the Dutchmen following in the footsteps of an unexpected championship contender (this year it’s the Red Sox) in pro sports—I wondered how much of it was just muscle memory. Would the passion still be there?

It began flickering Nov. 7, when I mentioned to my Dad that Hofstra’s season would tip off the next evening.

Dad has never been to a Hofstra basketball game, but he took an interest in the Flying Dutchmen along with his son in the winter of 1993-94. He’s not a gambler, but as an old-school guy, he’d scan the America’s Line (GOOGLE IT CRAIN) in the newspaper (GOOGLE IT CRAIN) the morning of a Hofstra game to gauge how they were expected to fare.

And the next morning, the first thing he’d do is look in the newspaper to see how Hofstra did. When I was home for Intersession or the random winter weekend, he’d wake me up by telling me whether or not the Dutchmen had won. This is how I learned I was going to see Bryan Adams at the same time the Dutchmen would play for the ECC title in Buffalo on March 6, 1994. No. I’m still not over it.

That first year at Hofstra featured almost daily calls to my Dad’s office, an unspoken acknowledgment on both of our parts that he was having a tougher time than anticipated adjusting to his firstborn leaving the house and going to an out-of-state college.

Our nightly phone calls 20 years later are much different. Now Dad is a widower with legs that are all but shot due to nerve damage, so he spends most of his days limping around alone in the house he once shared with my Mom, surrounded by memories that comfort him as much as they remind him of what he has lost.

These calls, too, are filled with unspoken acknowledgment, this time of how much life has changed for all of us since Mom died. But a little shred of long-gone normalcy pops up when we talk sports, just as we’ve done for as long as I can remember.

“How they looking this year?” he asked me about the Dutchmen.

Before I knew it, 10 minutes had gone by. Other than a smattering of Tweets buried beneath an avalanche of 140-character hiccups about baseball, football, hockey and general slapdickery, I hadn’t written about the basketball team or about the upheaval within the CAA.

But I’d apparently managed to absorb enough to talk his ear off about the five returning players, the four newcomers who could play right away, the three transfers who would sit out a year, the two teams Hofstra was going to play over the weekend and the CAA in a pear tree.

My anticipation built throughout Friday. I figured it was a good sign when I walked to my car in my mother-in-law’s apartment complex and saw a truck from “ECC Construction” parked next to me.

In case Litos thinks I'm making up construction companies now, too.

My wife and I spent the car ride to the Arena quoting “Major League” in reference to the new cast of characters awaiting us. During the game, meanwhile, we helped each other figure out who was who.

“Four is Jenkins, right?”
“So the grad seniors—11 is Upshaw and three is Nesmith?”
“No, other way around.”
“Got it, thanks.”

We also realized that while our wonder and innocence regarding college basketball is gone, we can still experience those sensations through our Molly.

Not only was Molly subjected to a whole lot of depressing home games in her first few months, but she had to watch them from the confines of the car seat in which we carried her. At the home opener, though, we learned immediately that she was coordinated enough to sit in her own chair and snack on her Cheerios.

Once the game started, we learned she could slide into a standing position, lean on and bang the chair in front of hers and gaze intently at the action taking place on the floor. And you can imagine the parental pride we felt when Molly followed suit as the cheerleaders raised their hands prior to a Hofstra foul shot.

"I hope Daddy's a better writer than he is a photographer," Molly said.

Meanwhile, as Molly ate and clapped, Hofstra jumped out to an early lead over Monmouth as her Daddy lapsed into familiar habits.

The Dutchmen ended up losing 88-84. But at some point that night, I realized that while it’s impossible to replicate the wide-eyed delight that accompanied our initial introduction to Hofstra sports, we could still get to know a Flying Dutchmen team in the type of organic and surprising way we did in our first year on campus—which, of course, for me was 1993-94.

As Hofstra newcomers 20 years ago, we had no expectations of a team full of strangers but already knew we were naturally invested. And with no idea who would coach the team the next season—or if Hofstra would find a real league in which to play—we were able to enjoy the moment without worrying about what was ahead.

The future is considerably less clouded today. There’s a little of Butch van Breda Kolff to Mihalich, whom I could see living at Twin Oaks, if only there was still a Twin Oaks. But Mihalich is just saying hello 20 years after VBK’s season-long goodbye. And we also know a year from now that Hofstra will be in a league with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Yet with our new approach to transfers—get excited about ‘em when they suit up and not a moment before—we can view next season as a present we haven’t peeked at, or even shook for a hint at what’s inside.

And with grad transfers Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith playing vital roles this year in their one-and-done seasons—and no expectations accompanying Hofstra, which was picked last in its conference for the first time since joining the NAC in 1994-95—there’s a purity and a certain this-will-never-be-repeated-again vibe to the season that we felt when the Dutchmen were competing in a temporary, piecemeal conference.

The full circle continued arcing outward two weeks ago last night. I was at the Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum as Hofstra played defending national champion Louisville in the first game of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tipoff, which is a tournament Hofstra participated in back in 1993-94.

This time, instead of recapping what I’d seen to my Dad, I was trying to get information on what had just happened via the Coliseum’s familiarly awful wireless. Joining me in my efforts was an Islanders media relations intern, a Hofstra student who may or may not have been born yet in December 1993.

We knew Hofstra was down by more than 20 in the first half, but by just 15 at intermission. And the Dutchmen were getting even closer, judging by the Tweets that managed to sneak their way through the force field surrounding the Coliseum early in the second half/second period.

Finally, she got an up-to-the-second report.

“We’re down 59-54,” she said.

WE’RE DOWN 59-54?! Twenty years later, I was as excited as that kid in the living room in Connecticut—except this time over Hofstra threatening LOUISVILLE. No matter how you measure it, this is progress.

Now, like then, I got some funny looks from people when I expressed my enthusiasm over Hofstra’s comparatively meek fortunes. I yelled the score to a writer friend one row in front of me.

“Dude, they’re facing LOUISVILLE,” said the writer whom I thought was my friend.

Still: This, too, qualifies as progress for a guy who headed home after his first year at Hofstra and bragged to his UConn friends that Hofstra won a conference that I may or may not have made up.

As you know, Louisville immediately became LOUISVILLE and buried the Dutchmen with 17 straight points on its way to a lopsided victory that counted as a loss, as far as the wise guys in Vegas were concerned.

“Hey Jer,” my Dad said in picking up the phone a couple hours later.

“We covered,” I said.

“I know,” he said. Twenty years later, he still checks the America’s Line in the morning but keeps track of Hofstra via the modern version of the agate page: The scrolling ticker on ESPN.

A season that began with no engagement and no expectations has morphed into one filled with interactivity and optimism. There were plenty of fist pumps from my recliner over the previous eight days as I watched the Dutchmen lead wire-to-wire at Richmond before losing in overtime, edge Hartford in the final minute (no line in The Hartford Courant for that game, per Dad, but there was an article the next day) and lead giant slayer Belmont for more than 23 minutes in a 10-point loss.

The final two games were played in Connecticut at the Mohegan Sun Arena, the home of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. That’s right: I am now excitedly watching on Long Island as Hofstra plays games in an arena in my home state that houses a professional sports team.

And as the smattering of fans at Mohegan Sun learned Saturday and Sunday, the undermanned but high-scoring Dutchmen are fun to watch and should, at the least, avoid the basement in a CAA that looks like a former top 10 TV show whose best-known actors have all left for movie gigs. And the Dutchmen are building chemistry and cohesiveness while at least four of their league rivals—James Madison, Delaware, William & Mary and Towson—have already suspended a player.

I’m trying not to fall completely back into old habits and start daydreaming of someone I didn’t even recognize three weeks ago flinging the ball skyward at the buzzer as the 17 Hofstra fans that made their way to the CAA Tournament storm the court at Richmond, err, Baltimore and begin celebrating the Dutchmen’s first NCAA Tournament trip since 2001.

But when my wife bought us tickets last week to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden on March 21, you damn well better believe my first thought was there’s an obvious scheduling conflict. That’s the Friday of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And guess what city is among the hosts?


Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hofstra vs. defending national champions

Holy crap I have a blog? *shakes off the dust and cobwebs that have accumulated, coughs*

Anyway, I have a longer post about shedding the awfulness of last year to come at some point, but with the Flying Dutchmen less than two hours away from upsetting sneakily athletic Who is Luke Hancock and defending national champion Louisville, I thought now would be a good time to look at how Hofstra's sports teams have fared when playing the defending national champ since moving to Division I.

This will be the 33rd time Hofstra faces a reigning national champ, including the 29th time during the regular season. And tonight will be the sixth time Hofstra wins! This is an interactive blog, one in which you are encouraged to do the math!

The first five Hofstra squads to knock off a defending national champ were the 1999 football team (wait, what, we had a football team?), the 2000 softball team and the 2003, 2004 and 2008 men's lacrosse teams. See below for the entire list of games in which Hofstra has faced a reigning national champion. Said champion is listed with the year in which it won the title while the following year's result in parentheses.
’83 North Carolina State (L 82-56)

’71 Cornell (L 5-3)
’72 Virginia (L 12-5 in 1973 NCAAT)
’88 Syracuse (L 16-7)
’89 Syracuse (L 20-9)
’90 Syracuse (L 30-10)
’92 Princeton (L 9-6)
’00 Syracuse (L 18-13 in 2001 NCAAT)
’01 Princeton (L 12-4)
’02 Syracuse (W 8-6)
’05 Johns Hopkins (W 11-6)
’07 Johns Hopkins (W 8-7)

’98 UMass (W 27-14)
’99 Georgia Southern (L 48-20 in 2000 playoffs)
’01 Montana (L 21-0)
’03 Delaware (03) (L 20-19)
’04 James Madison (L 42-10)
’08 Richmond (L 47-0)

’99 Iowa (L 34-3)
’00 Iowa (L 40-3)
’01 Minnesota (L 33-10)
’04 Oklahoma State (L 30-10)
’05 Oklahoma State (L 34-9)

’05 Northwestern (L 16-9)
’06 Northwestern (L 16-4)
’07 Northwestern (L 22-4)
’08 Northwestern (L 20-6)

’99 UCLA (W 10-5)
’05 Michigan (L 5-3)
’07 Arizona (L 10-0 in 2008 NCAAT)

’09 UConn (L 91-46)

’89 North Carolina (L 8-0)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Quotebook: Joe Mihalich

Photo courtesy Hofstra athletics

Joe Mihalich sat down with a handful of ink- and pixel-stained wretches for an informal Q&A this afternoon at Hofstra’s University Clun. Here’s an edited transcript of his chat.

On leaving Niagara:

We were gonna be good next year up there. Great bunch of guys. Believe me, I spoke to the team last night. It was one of the toughest things I ever did in my life. There’s no way to keep it together during that. So I wasn’t looking. As I said [at the podium] and I said it many times, when people asked me up there ‘You gonna leave? You gonna leave?’ I would only leave if it was a great opportunity—great school, all that stuff. Here’s a chance to do something else. Is the timing perfect? That’s life. That’s life. You can’t choose opportunity the opportunity comes and then you have to make a choice. Do I wish everybody had graduated and nobody was there? I wish, but that’s not the way it was. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I sat down with Jeff, we met down in Atlanta, and the more he talked, the more excited I became. Came down yesterday and with each person I met I got more and more excited. Been on campus [before] but never saw it the way I saw it yesterday. I didn’t need the plane last night, I just could have flown home myself.

On meeting with the remaining Hofstra players:

What a great bunch of guys. I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t know them, this was my first chance to be with them. So Jeff just put us in a room downstairs, we took the coats off and just hung out for about half an hour. We could still be there now talking. It was just great—and again, not because of me, because of them. Just a great bunch of guys. They want to be good. They want to be good, and that’s the first thing you pick up as a coach—they want to be good. So I can’t wait to coach people like that.

On Hofstra’s facilities:

Just terrific. Everything’s in place. And I said up there before, this time of year, [people ask] is that a good job? Is that a good job? Is that a good job? And that’s my answer: Who’s the president, who’s the athletic director? We have a president that wants to win, we have an athletic director that wants to win the right way. But you look at the facilities, that speaks to the commitment that you need to be successful.

On his staff and if he’ll bring anyone with him from Niagara:

I’m not trying to be a wise guy, but we’re going to have a great staff. We’re going to have a great staff. I’m still working through that, I’m going about 20 steps at a time right now never mind one day at a time. But we’re going to have a great staff.

On his style of ball:

We like to play fast. You’ve got to dance with the girl you brung, so we’ll see what kind of guards we can bring in here. We bring in guys that still keep that 10-second rule in effect to get the ball over half-court, we won’t be running much. But we do like to play fast. I played for Paul Westhead in college, coached with Morgan Wooten and Speedy Morris I think the up-tempo style is fun. Fun to play that way, fun to coach that way, it’s fun to watch. We’re hoping to have an up-tempo type of team, hope it’ll be high-scoring, but again, we’re an incomplete picture right now. We’ve got some pieces to put in the puzzle.

On what attracted him to the job despite the short-term struggles Hofstra may have:

Just everything. The arena, the people, we talked about resources. It’s not just facilities, it’s people. I’m learning the people here are the greatest resources we have. We have a beautiful arena? Yes. A great weight room? Yes. Locker room? Yes. All the offices? The whole campus? Gorgeous. But it’s the people. It’s the people that are the greatest resource we have.

On recruiting:

We’ve got to get some players. I was on the phone this morning and I think we’re close to a guy already, actually. So trying to close the deal with a couple guys. There were some verbal commitments, I’m reaching out to those guys. And my message to them is maybe the most important part of the reason for your commitment was to the university itself, and that hasn’t changed. This is still a fantastic university. I know the coaches changed, and that’s [why] we’ve got to get to know each other to hopefully complete that.

On the challenge ahead:

That’s what excites you. If you didn’t—maybe it’s the wrong word—but if you didn’t like that it was a bad situation—and again, that’s a poor choice of words—but that’s a challenge. It’s a tough situation, it’s going to be more gratifying, it’ll just be more gratifying when you surprise everybody. One of my idols is a Niagara guy, Frank Layden. He always says ‘It’s better to surprise ‘em than disappoint ‘em.’ And so our goal is going to be to surprise everybody and be better than what they thought we were going to be.

Jeff explained the situation, whether it was the number of scholarships remaining, verbal commitments, APR situation—he explained everything. So it’s not the perfect situation, but again, we’re not going to talk about our problems. I mean, I love that Lou Holtz saying, it’s the truth. It really is. ‘Half the people don’t care, the other half are glad you have [problems].’ So we’re not going to do that.

On building his type of team:

Continuity is important, it really is, and Jeff Hathaway convinced me that he wants to do this the right way. He knows it’s going to be brick by brick. Sometimes, when you go for a quick fix, you take chances, they don’t work out. We’re going to be very careful about doing things the right away.

I like to play fast, so you look to speed, you look for quickness, as opposed to big, bulky guys, IF they have both, they’re [going] to the ACC, right? So probably speed and quickness more than anything else. I’ve got no problem with a guy who can make a lot of shots, It’s easier to count by 3s than by 2s.

On his hectic travel schedule leading into Wednesday:

I was going to leave [the Final Four] Sunday, Jeff asked me to stay down the day to visit. So I changed my flight to Monday morning. Monday morning flew from Atlanta to Buffalo. Tuesday back and forth, Buffalo to JFK. This morning, [got up at] 5:45, I was with my staff all last night, went to bed about 3, got up at 4. Sleep’s overrated. And then I don’t know when I’m getting home. I’m going to stay down here until I get three guys that can play.

More on his final meeting with his Niagara players:

I went back to speak to the team. I think that’s the right thing to do, is go do it in person. And believe me, it was as emotional a tine as I’ve ever been through in my life. I love those guys, I love that team. It was a hard thing to do. And as I’ve said a couple times before, that speaks to how excited I am about this opportunity, because it would have been easy to say you know what, I’m just going to stay here.

On his timetable to compete in the CAA:

I think it’s hard to put a timetable on it. I’m not trying to avoid the question. I keep coming back to the same thing: It depends on the players we can get. If we can get a couple good ones late, a couple good kids late, we can be a little better a little quicker than everybody thinks, But the important thing is to get the right kids. We want to get the right kids. And if it means a little more patience, might take a year or two to get the right kids, then I think that’s what we’re going to do. We will leave no stone unturned.

On the CAA:

I love the CAA. I thin it’s a great conference. The landscape of all the conferences right now—it just doesn’t change every day, it changes every five minutes. But I love the conference. That’s part of what excited me, that level, the conference is a terrific conference. Great leadership in the conference, great coaches in the conference, great schools in the conference. It’s going to be a real challenge, but it’s something you want to be a part of.

On if, after having just two jobs in the last 32 years, he sees Hofstra as a place at which he can retire:

When you’re a basketball coach you just think about one season, one year—not that you don’t build for the future—but one season, at a time, one year at a time. I don’t think you really plan too far ahead.

On how much he enjoys coaching:

I love what I do. I’m so lucky to do what I do. I say it everyday: I’m living the dream. I pinch myself everyday that I get to be a basketball coach. And I want everybody that I’m with to be having fun and enjoying it. Its not that it’s not hard work, not that you don’t feel like punching the wall once in a while, But I want my coaches to be that way, I want my players to be that way. I think it’s a culture that you want to build. It’s a lot better to be good and having dun doing what we’re doing. I have fun. People look at me after a game…you’ve got to understand something I am having the time of my life. Maybe we lost by one on a last-second shot and I’m not going to sleep that night. But to be coaching—just so lucky, just so lucky.

More on meeting with Hofstra’s players for the first time:

My goal wasn’t to earn their trust. My goal was just to let them know who I was and what I stood for and what I was all about. And I wanted to know what they were about, And if the trust comes with it, that’s great. But I didn’t go in there and say ‘I’ve got to earn their trust.’ I just went in there and I wanted them to feel comfortable with me. [That’s] the first thing I want to do with the players, because those poor kids have been without a coach for three weeks and they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know who’s coming, what to expect. I’ve got three sons. If they were going through that, I’d feel horrible for them. So they needed some reassurance that they were going to be OK. And I tell you what, I was so impressed. What a great bunch of guys.

On what he’d say to a fan base reeling after the last few years:

I would say ‘Com on out.’ You’re going to have ago do time. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure you enjoy Hofstra basketball. We’re going to do everything we can. We want you to walk out of the building saying ‘that’s the hardest-working team out there.’ We want you to walk out of the building saying ‘Those guys play hard. It’s fun to watch them play.’ We want to be exciting and enjoyable.

On his memories of playing Hofstra at La Salle from 1975-78:

Richie Laurel getting about 50 on us one time. Roger Gaeckler was the coach, I think it was 1976[-77] they came to the Palestra and beat us. That wasn’t supposed to happen. [Grins] Richie was from Philly, so he was extra juiced. He was great. They had a good team.

More on recruiting:

We’re going to recruit anywhere and everywhere. When you are where I was for 15 years, you have no restrictions. You answer every email and you make every phone call. You look at every tape that comes in. And if there’s a genuine mutual interest, you pursue it. We’ve had kids from Texas, Florida and California.

There’s not a player in New York City that can’t think that this isn’t a great place to go to school. It might not be the school, they might go to another one, but there can’t be a player in New York City that doesn’t think ‘Boy that would be a good option.’

On knowing Jay Wright:

I remember him when he was in high school and college. Played at Bucknell. I remember one time, he was working at Drexel, I was working at La Salle [and] we had to drive to Pittsburgh, Drexel had a station wagon that they let the coaches use called the “Dragon Wagon.” He drove and it was just one of those things you remember, the trip out to Five Star. We just talked the whole way He’s just a first-class guy. Obviously a fantastic coach, but he’s a better person than coach.

Really, I think [Wright is] probably why I was familiar with [Hofstra]. Always liked him and always knew it could be a great place.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Press Conference Q&A: Stephen Nwaukoni

What have the last three weeks been like for you?

Just with the team and the coaches, everybody just patiently waiting. After coach Mo got fired, everybody’s been [wondering] ‘So who’s gonna be our next coach? Which assistants will we have? What’s going to happen to the recruits?’ I was just hoping and I was waiting myself, but I was hoping it would be a guy right for the job, and it definitely seems to be.

What was the first meeting with Mihalich like?

They say you can read a person from your first impression. My first impression is I think he’s a phenomenal guy, I think he’s a fabulous guy. I think he’s going to be perfect for the job. Just the way he was talking to us, he seems like a very passionate person—not just there for the checks, not just there for anything else Just there to be there for us. Everybody knows that he’s a good coach, everybody knows that he’s here to win. So this is what we’re all hoping for.

You were one of Mo’s first recruits and the last one remaining from his first year. How bittersweet have these few weeks been for you?

I know it’s a business, I know that’s how it is. But at the end of the day, I can’t control that. People always tell me—especially my guy [video coordinator] Jay Posner over there [pointing across the room]—worry about everything you can control. That was something I couldn’t control. So I was just waiting like everybody else and I was hoping it was a good guy. And like I said before, he’s a great guy. I can tell he’s a great guy.

As one of just four scholarship players left, what kind of role do you think you’ll take on over the next few months and next season?

Me being here for three years already, going into my fourth year, like Mr. Hathaway said, the president said, they expect me to steer the ship this year. They expect me to be that leader. They expect me to be that person to guide all the younger guys, guide all the older guys, just lead everybody. And that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.

Like I told a whole bunch of people and the former coaches, I’ve told them what we had to work on as a team is just bringing everybody together as a team, as one unit [interlocks hands]. Not just having different cliques, but forming a whole sum, more like a team and a unit. Because I feel like whatever we do off the court—whether it’s being in the weight room, in class, anything—the way we act and the way we conduct ourselves, that’s all going to translate to the court. And if we’re always moving together, doing things together, that unity, it’s going to build. So I just feel like me being a [senior] and taking on a new role, I feel like that’s got to happen. I’m going to do the best job to the best of my abilities to make that happen.

Did you feel that, for whatever reason, with all the moving parts and transfers who were sitting out and freshmen that didn’t work out, that there were different factions the last couple years?

I’ll just give you an example: My first year here at Hofstra, I played with Charles Jenkins, Greg Washington, Brad Kelleher, Nathaniel Lester. We were a team. We were more of a team. I feel like the more we got all these players—like transfers and freshmen—the more we started to disintegrate, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know [why], but whatever the case was, I felt like we weren’t a unit anymore. I felt like every year it got worse, you know?

But now I feel like just this group we have here today will be more of a team. I feel we’re going to be more of a unit. I can feel it. And the coach feels it. Coach Mihalich feels it. He feels a great vibe in all of us.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Hofstra hires Mihalich

Nineteen days later, the Flying Dutchmen have a new basketball coach. As first reported by Defiantly Dutch #JournalisticDingalingSwinging, Hofstra spent yesterday closing the deal with former Niagara coach Joe Mihalich and will introduce him as the 12th coach in school history (unless you count Tim Welsh, which you shouldn’t) at the University Club at noon today.

According to Newsday, Mihalich, 56, has agreed to a six-year deal. Steven Marcus Tweeted that Mihalich will be paid in excess of $400,000 per year.

As is often the case with mid-major hires, Mihalich was not Hofstra’s first choice—Kansas assistant Joe Dooley turned the job down last week and Hofstra could not agree to terms with Iona’s Tim Cluess, whose contract at the New Rochelle school carried with it an onerous buyout—but he arrives in Hempstead with impressive credentials.

Mihalich spent 15 years at Niagara, where he won two MAAC titles and a MAAC-record 265 games. He has won accolades for his coaching acumen in turning a small upstate New York school into a perennial contender in the MAAC and is recognized as one of the good guys in the industry by both his peers and those who have covered him.

Prior to taking over at Niagara, Mihalich spent 17 years as an assistant at his alma mater, La Salle, where he helped recruit five future NBA players, including Lionel Simmons.

Mihalich played four seasons at La Salle – which played in the ECC, the same conference as Hofstra, and went 3-2 against the Flying Dutchmen during Mihalich’s career – and helped the Explorers to NCAA Tournament bids as a freshman and as a senior. His junior year ended with a 92-81 loss to Hofstra in the ECC title game.

More than 35 years later, Mihalich is tasked with trying to return Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament. And in choosing to embark upon a lucrative yet massive rebuilding job at Hofstra—which has just four scholarship players remaining after a 7-25 season, the worst in the program’s Division I history—Mihalich leaves behind a loaded Niagara squad that graduates just one player from the team that won the MAAC’s regular season title this season.

Niagara became the first team in MAAC history to place two sophomores (Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason, the son of former Knicks star Anthony Mason) on the all-league team.

Sound familiar? Three years ago last month, Tom Pecora left behind a stocked cupboard at Hofstra—including reigning CAA player of the year Charles Jenkins and two members of the league’s all-freshmen team—for Fordham, which doubled his salary to lure him to rebuild a program that had just bottomed out with a 2-26 record.

The good news for Mihalich is the CAA is not the Atlantic 10—not after the A10 picked apart the CAA like a Thanksgiving turkey—and that Hofstra has actually proven it has the budget and the facilities to compete in its current conference.

But make no mistake, there’s a tightrope-walking, failure-is-not-an-option sense of urgency to Mihalich’s hiring. This is the most important athletic department hire Hofstra has made since 19 years ago this week, when the late Jim Garvey hired Jay Wright to navigate the Flying Dutchmen out of the depths of Division I.

There was nowhere to go but up back then, and no alternative now—especially after the 2009 decision to euthanize football turned basketball into the spotlight sport at Hofstra—but to resume the climb back to where Hofstra men’s basketball once resided under Wright and Pecora, who turned the Flying Dutchmen into the most successful program in the metro area. That becomes Mihalich’s goal today, the moment he steps off the podium and into day one at Hofstra.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Friday, April 5, 2013

In the end, Cassara done in by the good others did not do

Mo Cassara with the winners of a cake decorating contest he judged at Hofstra's Student Center in November 2011.

Days like two Fridays ago, when there’s so much news to filter and the head is filled with pinballing thoughts, lend themselves to paying particularly close attention to the random vagaries of life, such as songs on the radio or street signs, in hopes that something will provide some clarity and, in particular, a column-worthy hook that will tie everything together.

Two Fridays ago, clarity and the hook were found on a bumper sticker. As I walked into the University Club for the press conference officially announcing the dismissal of Mo Cassara, I saw a car adorned with a sticker that contained the Voltaire quote “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

(I would like to tell you that I minored in philosophy at Hofstra, which is true, and that I didn’t need to go to Google to find the author of the quote, which is false. Transparency, and all that.)

And while we’re on the subject of transparency, I suppose I should get this out of the way: If you’re looking for a coolly unemotional, middle-of-the-road take on Cassara’s firing, a.) I don’t do that here and b.) I REALLY won’t be doing that here today.

Mo Cassara is a friend of mine, and it is both fortunate and unfortunate that he’ll be a friend of mine for a far longer period of time than he was coach at Hofstra. I imagine that some people, particularly Cassara critics, will think I am simply the house organ for all things Cassara—remember, my wife and I may or may not have named our daughter after him!—or that I like him simply because he talks to me.

And while I suppose my fondness for Cassara is a byproduct of his open access policies, I am certain, after knowing him for the last three years, that it would have been my loss if I didn’t have such an avenue by which to meet and get to know him.

So with all that said: Cassara is the former coach of the Flying Dutchmen because he is a good man done in by the guiltiness of others.

I get why Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway and/or president Stuart Rabinowitz made the decision he/they made. I get how bad the events of this season and the six arrests of ex-players look for the university, and that the pride the administration takes in Hofstra is far different than the pride we take as alums.

I respect that it wasn’t an easy choice—if it was, Cassara would have been fired on March 10, or Dec. 1—and that running an athletic department or a university often means telling very nice people that their services are no longer needed.

But just because I get and respect the decision in the black-and-white sense doesn’t mean I agree with it in a world awash with sepia and tones.

Basketball-wise, I think Cassara deserved a chance to try and turn this around. There’s no sugarcoating this: His first attempt to rebuild the Dutchmen was a disaster. He’d be the first to tell you that the process failed. After his successful first season, he tried to patch holes in a decaying foundation, instead of stripping it down and starting from scratch.

But he was getting ready to do that, and going in a completely opposite direction recruiting-wise after getting burned this year by true freshmen and troubled transfers. By focusing on prep schoolers (six of the seven recruits he signed for next year are in the midst of a post-grad year right now), Cassara was bringing people to campus who were used to living away from home and surely more mature than most of the knuckleheads who ended up costing him his job.

He said numerous times over the last few months that he was looking forward to moving the troublemakers out of the program, via graduation or outright dismissal, so that he could start anew. Looking back, he spoke with a certain sense of desperation and worry, as if he feared some of these guys would manage to get into more trouble before he could get them off campus. If that was the case, he was right to worry.

In addition, recent history suggests that schools set themselves back by firing a head coach after three years or less. Between 1993 and 2009, 56 schools that played in conferences possessing an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament dismissed a coach before his fourth season. Eight more have done so since 2010, but I’m not judging their post-firing performance yet because their current coaches haven’t had four recruiting classes.

In addition, I didn’t count schools that fired coaches following NCAA investigations, a la Binghamton and Kevin Broadus, or because of poisonous personalities, a la Rutgers and Mike Rice.

Of the 56 schools to make a change in three years or less from 1993 through 2009, just 21 made the NCAA Tournament under their next coach. Maybe Cassara never would have taken the Dutchmen dancing, but Hathaway will have his hands full finding the guy who can do so—especially with a program that has a grand total of four scholarship players heading into next year.

He’ll also have quite a challenge finding someone who can match Cassara’s intangibles. I’ve followed Hofstra basketball for 20 years, and in that time nobody has tried to do more good for Hofstra basketball—or worked harder or cared more—than Cassara. And believe me, Butch van Breda Kolff, Jay Wright and Tom Pecora weren’t exactly mailing it in during their time on Hempstead Turnpike.

If anything, Cassara worked and cared too much. An avid Seinfeld fan, Cassara probably could have benefited from pulling a Costanza, and doing the exact opposite of everything, if only he had it in him to half-ass something.

Cassara got the job after a whirlwind five-day period in late April and early May 2010 where he thought he’d be out of a job, and right up until his late afternoon meeting with Hathaway March 21, he worked every day as if he’d be fired the next day.

I remember exchanging texts with him after the loss to Drexel in January 2011, when Charles Jenkins broke the school scoring record in front of a sellout crowd. It was one of just 10 losses in an often-magical season, but Cassara was despondent—quite literally to the point where he couldn’t move off his office couch, several hours after the final buzzer—over the missed opportunity to win and turn some of the first-timers into the crowd into repeat visitors.

Perhaps the most indelible image of the Cassara era is of him running parallel to a loose ball during a game against James Madison in December 2011, looking as if he might actually dive on it himself so that the Dutchmen could retain possession.

Cassara’s teams embodied their coach. As beaten up as the Dutchmen were this year, they impressed impartial writers and opposing fans alike with their effort and hustle. He should have gotten an extended chance to coach kids whose character matched their effort.

And he should have gotten an extended chance to find kids whose pride in Hofstra matched his. In the last 20 years, nobody connected with Hofstra basketball loved Hofstra more than Cassara—even if Hofstra can be a tough place to love.

It’s so easy to obsess over what Hofstra isn’t. It isn’t a giant sprawling campus far away from home with a party life that draws the attention of US News and World Report (presuming they still rank party schools). It is close to Manhattan, but it’s not in Manhattan. We play Division I sports, but not the Division I sports you see on TV. With so many commuters, added on to the plethora of students who are just going to college because it’s the thing you do from 18 to 22, it isn’t a place that easily engenders the unity we associate with college life.

But it can still be great, if you love and embrace Hofstra for what it is—instead of obsessing over what it isn’t—and realize how rewarding the place can be if you immerse yourself in it, all the while working to make the school as great as we want it to be.

Cassara GOT that. He attended club functions throughout campus and went to athletic events and was on a first-name basis with the staff at the Student Center cafeteria because he was one of us, and one of them. He supported those who loved Hofstra and were working to turn it into something even greater because he was doing exactly that.

Instead of griping that Hofstra didn’t have a practice facility, like so many of its mid-major rivals, he began planning one. Instead of complaining about the meager crowds, he reinforced relationships with those who did show up to the Arena and daydreamed of the upcoming seasons in which the Dutchmen would regularly play in front of 4,000 fans or more.

He also got that the people who truly love Hofstra are fundamentally decent people who treat one another well and have no patience for those oozing arrogance or phoniness.

I heard an amazing story this season about how Cassara lugged his own luggage—and that of his girlfriend—through the airport on the way to or from a game. A member of the traveling party, watching Cassara struggle to balance everything, said, half-kiddingly, that he should have the student managers carry his luggage. Cassara said he’d been a student manager, and that carrying luggage was a demeaning part of the job and that he always swore he’d carry his own luggage if he ever became a head coach.

I don’t know a single Hofstra staffer who has anything bad to say about Cassara. Employees wept the morning of his dismissal. One athletic department staffer whom I trust implicitly said Cassara was the nicest head coach he’s ever encountered at the school.

For every single of the 811 days he was head coach of the Flying Dutchmen, Cassara unconditionally loved Hofstra and all those connected to it. And that’s the cruelest, saddest irony here: Few people did more to generate and spread Hofstra pride than Cassara, and he was undermined by those unappreciative of the university and the opportunities (often of the second chance variety) it provided.

Hell, Cassara was undermined almost from day one. If Welsh was smart enough to call a cab the night of April 29, 2010—less than 48 hours after sermonizing about the responsibilities of a head coach—I’m not writing these words right now.

More recently, I have gone out of my way to not mention the four thieves who ruined a season and so much more. They are unworthy of the keystrokes needed to type their names and I don’t want the traffic that would come from those Googling them.

But I hope Shaq Stokes, Jimmy Hall, Kentrell Washington and Dallas Anglin have it in them to feel remorse for what they did to Cassara, and the repercussions it will have for their former school in the years to come.

I get that Taran Buie and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel are complex people trying to emerge from exceedingly difficult upbringings, and that neither one, despite their recent arrests, is necessarily a bad guy.

Athletic staffers marveled at Buie’s politeness—he always addressed staffers by“ Mr.” and “Mrs.” even when they said it was fine for him to call them by their first names.

Personally, I’ll always remember running into Buie on the Arena concourse after a game and being moved by the gentleness he displayed upon being introduced to my daughter, who returned Buie’s broad smile as he touched her hand.

And I get that so much about this season would have been different if Coombs-McDaniel didn’t have the knees of a 40-year-old. If he’s playing this season, he’s engaged. He’s kicking Buie and everyone else in the ass—Cassara always said leadership was Coombs-McDaniel’s strongest trait—and maybe he’s able to steer four foolish newcomers away from doing something they—and we—would regret forever in October and November.

Instead, he was just one of many men, young and old, guilty of the good they did not do, and guilty of getting a good man fired.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Who will it be now?

Day 13 of Hofstra’s coaching search is complete and I suppose I should get in on the speculative bandwagon. So here goes:

I guarantee Mike Rice will not be the next coach of the Flying Dutchmen.

(Early tangential sidebar: Thank you Rutgers for making the rest of us feel better about ourselves. Three coaching changes in 36 months? Six players arrested in less than four months? Yeah well at least nobody here participated in homophobic basketball dodgeball and then thought the videotapes that were in the possession of a vindictive ex-employee wouldn’t see the light of day!)

Anyway, Rice is safely eliminated from contention, but he’s about the only candidate who won’t get consideration in what I imagine is, and will continue to be, a wide-ranging search for Jeff Hathaway.

He has been on the job less than a year but it is not too early, nor hyperbolic, to say this is the hire that will determine Hathaway’s legacy here. Hathaway took a pretty big chance firing Mo Cassara (more on that in today’s second post), a move that obviously imperiled Cassara’s incoming recruiting class and made a Towson-in-2012 season a very realistic possibility for next year’s Flying Dutchmen.

As a school now defined and anchored by a basketball program that is in its most precarious position since Jay Wright arrived in 1994, Hofstra and Hathaway cannot afford to miss with this hire.

Hofstra was already at the bottom of Division I in men’s basketball, and building a I-AA football powerhouse, when Wright got here, so there was little to be lost if he flamed out in the mid-to-late ‘90s.

But now that football is dead, the entire operation rests on men’s basketball. So Towson-in-2012 will be OK next year, as long as it is followed a year or two later by Towson-in-2013. Following it with Towson-in-1996-through-2011 will leave a ruinous, disastrous mess.

Whomever succeeds Cassara will have a monster of a rebuilding job ahead of him, and my guess is that the eventual winner of this derby will come as a surprise to many of us. As affable and accessible as Hathaway is in public, this isn’t his first rodeo, and he’s going to complete this search on the double down low.

Of course, that won’t stop me from pontificating about the possibilities, just in case one of my darts gets part of the board and allows me to brag about it to everyone. And if none of these guesses are accurate, I will disavow any knowledge of this post and delete it. #Sportswriting

--The hire will be part of the Hathaway tree, which has a whole lot of branches. He went to high school in Baltimore at DeMatha, home of one of the country’s great prep dynasties, and graduated from the University of Maryland before working for Maryland, Colorado State and UConn in the ACC, the WAC and the Big East (back when the WAC and the Big East were good). How many hundreds of coaches has he encountered? If I were a betting man, I’d wager the next Hofstra coach has shared office space or a conference with Hathaway.

--That said, the new coach almost certainly won’t be the most obvious branches of Hathaway’s tree. Why would Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell or Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, both of whom were assistants under Jim Calhoun when Hathaway was at UConn, leave their current prime gigs, with teams that are positioned to compete for NCAA Tournament berths over the next few years, for the bleakness and barrenness of Hofstra?

--The buzz is Tim Cluess is very interested in the job, because of the better facilities and salary Hofstra can offer as well as the chance to return to his alma mater. But is Hofstra interested in him? Cluess is a helluva coach who could win in Antarctica, but he didn’t get a sniff when Hofstra had an opening three years ago and he’s gone to two NCAA Tournaments with Iona with the kind of questionable high major transfers that got Cassara fired. Now, Cluess shouldn’t be punished because his players didn’t get in trouble at their second collegiate stop. But my guess is Hathaway will want to go in a different direction.

--Ryan Restivo, who writes for the outstanding Big Apple Buckets and was all over the Jimmy Patsos-to-Siena hire, Tweeted Tuesday that three different MAAC coaches told him Niagara’s Joe Mihalich would be the new Hofstra coach. I’ve heard from multiple sources that he’s not in the running. One of us will obviously be right and it may be by accident, since purposeful misinformation is the name of the game this time of year. It is worth noting, though, that both Mihalich and Hathaway are DeMatha grads.

--I expect Hathaway will leave no stone unturned #cliche in his search. Three years ago, Jack Hayes consulted with Wright before hiring Tim Welsh (don’t worry, Jay, we don’t blame you). Hathaway would have nothing to lose by asking Wright if he wanted to finish his career where he started it. Maybe he wants to coach again at a place where nobody spreads vicious rumors about why the men’s basketball coach will be resigning any day now (I’m not going to dignify that chatter here, but as long as you can access the Googletron, you can figure out what I’m talking about). Probably not, but doesn’t hurt to ask, and bringing Wright back would be a giant hit with alumni.

--The new coach probably won’t be Speedy Claxton, which is a shame, because when it comes to beloved players coming home to coach/manage, I think he’d be more Robin Ventura than Clyde Drexler. Claxton has no ties to the current athletic administration, and while I don’t think he meant any harm by going to Newsday with his desires, I bet that didn’t win him any points with Hathaway.

--Claxton would be a perfect coach-in-waiting, though, under Wright or….no I’m not even going to say it, because Stuart Rabinowitz would just as soon bring back football as do THAT. But wouldn’t THAT be juicy?

--Don’t be surprised if interim coach Patrick Sellers gets serious consideration. He and Hathaway go way back and are good friends, and you can be sure Hathaway hasn’t forgotten how Sellers took the fall for Sgt. Schultz, err, Calhoun at UConn back in 2010. In addition, promoting Sellers on a permanent basis would not give Hofstra half a chance at keeping much or all of Cassara’s recruiting class and perhaps easing some of the pain of next season.

--Complete wild card here and nothing more than pure speculation on my part, but what if Cassara’s firing was part of a plan by Hathaway to help usher Hofstra into a new conference? New league, new coach, new era? Hey, it happened in 1994.

Let me say that I don’t think Hofstra is actively looking to leave the CAA, where it is now a core member surpassed in seniority by only James Madison, UNCW and William & Mary, and that the CAA will survive realignment Armageddon. But the league is certainly in a vulnerable position, and all the remaining members would be foolish not to examine every possible option to ensure they’ve got a seat whenever the music stops. And there is one local league with an uneven number of teams. Just saying.

--With the Final Four starting tomorrow, I’d imagine Hathaway will conclude his due diligence over the next 72 hours. Whomever the new coach is, I bet we know his identity next Wednesday so that Hofstra can introduce him Thursday. That’s the day Wright, Tom Pecora and Welsh all got introduced. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Friday, March 22, 2013

Cassara fired

Another one of those Friday mornings where I rub the sleep out of my eyes while trying to process lousy news about the Hofstra athletic department. Hofstra issued a press release at 10:09 in which it announced that Mo Cassara will not return as head coach. That’s a nice way, of course, of saying he got fired.

(For those of you just stopping by for the first time, previous Friday mornings from hell include learning the news of Halil Kanacevic announcing his plans to transfer, Tim Welsh getting arrested for DUI and four total morons getting arrested for stealing anything at Hofstra that wasn’t locked down)

Assistant coach Patrick Sellers has been named the interim coach. He and athletic director Jeff Hathaway will conduct a press conference at 1 p.m.

That Cassara has been dismissed after three seasons—the last of which was amongst the worst in program history, on and especially off the court—isn’t stunning, though the timing is awkward. Well, some of it anyway. Hofstra making this announcement on the first Friday of the NCAA Tournament—thereby ensuring its news cycle will last no longer than one of Molly’s diapers—is the most #ThatsSoHofstra thing and a move any presidential administration would admire.

Cassara gets the boot 13 days after the Dutchmen concluded a 7-25 season and just eight days after highly touted recruit Gabe Levin committed to Hofstra, which appeared to put the finishing bow on an impressive seven-player class heavy on prep schoolers. It was an aggressive approach by Cassara, one that was the complete opposite of the recruiting philosophy that got him into trouble in the first place.

Alas, the recruits who got Cassara in trouble weren’t done getting him in trouble. UConn transfer Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who never played a second for the Flying Dutchmen due to chronic knee woes, was arrested for marijuana possession last Friday (THERE IT IS AGAIN) following a traffic stop in Brooklyn.

And Newsday’s Steven Marcus reported this morning that Cassara told him Taran Buie, the Penn State transfer, was arrested earlier this week for a traffic violation.

That’s a mind-boggling six arrests involving Hofstra players—all Cassara recruits—in the last four months. This latest wave of bad publicity was likely the clichéd final straw for university president Stuart Rabinowitz.

Sellers’ interim appointment indicates Hathaway and the university are hopeful of keeping this recruiting class together, but whether or not that happens remains to be seen. All that is certain now is the Flying Dutchmen program, once the beacon of stability, is in transition once again.

Hard to believe that three years ago this week, the Dutchmen had one of the longest-tenured coaches in the CAA, the reigning conference player of the year and two members of the all-rookie team. Today, the program is decimated and those of us who follow it are once again asking “Now what?” Perhaps this time we’ll finally like the answer.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Delaware 62, Hofstra 57 (Or: They’ll see things so much clearer in the rear view mirror)

Those of us who played sports (played being a very broad and generous term, in some of our cases) long before we started writing about them can’t remember a time when we weren’t constantly reminded that sports teaches life lessons.

Honestly, most of the time, it’s a bunch of hooey. We are most often told sports is a metaphor for life after a tough season-ending loss, but let’s face it, we have known since we were as tall as the letters on this screen that only one team ends a season happy, and it’s usually not ours. To try and ascribe greater meaning to it is just a way of dulling the pain.

The sports-as-life sermon is also a handy excuse for coaches to stroke their egos and remind us there was a deeper purpose to the work they do directing the baseball, football or cross country teams. Alas, baseball is usually as simple as pitching the ball, hitting the ball and fielding the ball. Football is usually no more than an opportunity to engage in legalized felonious violence. And cross country really is as simple as running aimlessly in the woods because you weren’t good enough to make the baseball or football teams (or so I have heard).

But once in a while, there really are life lessons to be taught in the games we play and watch. And unfortunately for the Flying Dutchmen, there were more life lessons than wins in the 2012-13 season, which came to an ending equal parts merciful and bittersweet Saturday night with a 62-57 loss to Delaware in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament.

The Dutchmen’s 21st loss in 25 games since the arrests of the four knuckleheads was like most of the first 20 defeats. They played well in spurts and hard the whole time, and displayed impressive resiliency in shaving a 10-point deficit to three late in the second half.

Stevie Mejia (13 points), Taran Buie (13 points) and David Imes (12 points) all scored in double figures for the Dutchmen, which marked the 12th time in those 25 games that at least three players scored 10 points—not bad for a team that is down to seven scholarship players and will finish the season as one of the worst offensive teams in the country.

But as always, the Dutchmen were done in by lapses that were usually as brief as they were costly. Emptying the tank was not enough for the Dutchmen, who needed a little bit more (they were 0-for-5 from the free throw line in the second half, including four missed front ends of 1-and-1s) or a little bit less (first half fouls for Moussa Kone or turnovers to start the second half) to pull off the upset.

Hofstra lost 11 of its last 12 games decided by seven points or less. In seven of those defeats, the Dutchmen were either tied or had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final minute.

“It’s a little bit of our story all year,” Mo Cassara said from his hotel room late Saturday night. “Our margin for error’s just very small. Some guys have got to play great and we have to not turn the ball over and make free throws. And, again, tonight, there were stretches of the game we didn’t do that.”

In that regard, the end of the season provides waves of relief. It’s finally over. There are no more cruelties and near-misses to suffer, no more emotional roller coasters to ride. We can all finally begin to shake off the most grueling season most of us have ever observed or endured and look forward to brighter days.

But the ending, for all of its predictability and inevitability, still left the Dutchmen aching, because they truly believed they would pen the most unlikely Cinderella story and Hollywood ending in NCAA history.

“Our guys really felt like we could win three games,” Cassara said. “We felt like we could win tonight. We went into the game as a pretty significant underdog and we’re up at halftime and we put ourselves in a position to win.”

But there’s a reason a Hollywood ending isn’t called a Peoria ending, and so the Dutchmen were left to contemplate a season filled with lessons that are tough to absorb and appreciate in the moment.

“That’s a tough locker room, because part of you is frustrated with the mistakes you made—a couple critical errors, a couple shots we might have missed or a couple free throws we didn’t [make],” Cassara said. “But I’m so proud of that group of guys. Not only did they battle and find a way to be competitive every game, they endured a lot. They had to deal with a lot throughout the course of this year, on and off the court. And they stayed the course and remained competitive. How many games did we have that were [decided by] a couple possessions?”

Cassara paused.

“I’m rambling here a little bit,” he said, his voice scratchy and subdued. “So upset. Those guys went through a lot and I gotta give them a lot of credit.”

The Dutchmen were reminded Saturday, for the last time this season, that doing your best often does not translated into the desired result. You can work as hard as possible, care as much as possible and have as much faith in the process as possible and still not achieve your goals.

You can wake up early and go to bed late and spend every moment in between sketching out how you want to build the program, as Cassara did last spring and summer, and the vagaries of fate in the fall—a hurricane and a career-ending injury to a potential superstar—can leave you staggered and render much of your work useless.

And sometimes, fate will deliver the knockout blow in the form of four players stealing anything they could get their hands on, which teaches the harshest lesson of all: You will regularly be disappointed by those you trusted and relied upon, and forced to be accountable for and clean up the mess they created.

“There were so many life lessons in this season, from weather challenges to facility challenges to friends and teammates making really bad decisions and having to live with those decisions,” Cassara said. “Some lessons that I think some guys are going to have to take personally, our team has to take as a whole.”

One of those lessons they, and we, may be reminded of in the coming years is that effort and character are not always immediately rewarded, and that the rewards are often earned by those who don’t deserve them.

The arrests of their ex-teammates wrecked the last lap around the track for seniors Mejia, Imes and Matt Grogan and cost underclassmen Buie, Kone, Stephen Nwaukoni and Jordan Allen a precious season they’ll never get back.

Meanwhile, the three thieves who can still transfer to another Division I school will almost surely get a second chance. And let’s face it: As decimated as the Dutchmen are right now, there’s a pretty good chance that one, two or three of those undeserving rotten apples will make the NCAA Tournament before Hofstra does. That’ll be only slightly less painful than Selection Sunday 2006.

When there’s nothing left to do but pick up the pieces, affirmation must be found in intangibles. At some point out there in the real world, the Dutchmen who endured the last 25 games will rely on the experiences of this season to guide them through other challenges in the workplace and elsewhere.

That’s little consolation right now, of course. All they can do now is take solace in knowing they performed with pride, and that the effort forged a collective lifetime bond within the team while earning acknowledgment and appreciation from others who were invested in their performance.

“I gave my all,” Imes said. “I could not ask for anybody else to go through this with.”

“We’ve been fighting all year,” Mejia said. “I would not want to do it with anyone but these guys on my side.”

“I told our guys after the game: The wins and losses don’t really represent what we’ve been through, what we’ve learned and what we’ve endured,” Cassara said.

Four fools ruined a season. But those they left behind to pick up the pieces restored the Pride to Hofstra basketball. And when the brighter days arrive, nobody will forget who navigated the Flying Dutchmen through the darkest of times.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Delaware, 3/9)
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Taran Buie
1: David Imes

53: Stevie Mejia
37: Taran Buie
28: Stephen Nwaukoni
21: David Imes
14: Moussa Kone
12: Jordan Allen
3: Daquan Brown
2: Matt Grogan
1: Adam Savion

***21 points vacated

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