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.

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