Hof­s­tra’s third coach is a charm

The Washington Post Sunday - - COURTSIDE - John Fe­in­stein For more by the author, visit his blog at www.fe­in­steinon­the­brink.com.

As soon as the fi­nal buzzer sounded this past Mon­day night, Charles Jenk­ins turned and sprinted in the di­rec­tion of the Hof­s­tra stu­dent sec­tion, his arms in the air, the joy writ­ten all over his face. A few feet short of the rail­ing that sep­a­rates the stu­dents from the court, he took off and did a Lam­beau Leap into the arms of his fel­low stu­dents.

“It was such a great feel­ing to come back that way, to fight from that far down and win,” he said a few days af­ter he had scored 35 points in Hof­s­tra’s 92-90 over­time vic­tory over James Madi­son — a game in which the Pride trailed by 15 points in the sec­ond half. The stu­dents “stuck with us even when we got way down. They were still chant­ing ‘de­fense’ when we weren’t play­ing very much of it. I just wanted to share that moment with them.”

In many ways, Hof­s­tra’s come­back vic­tory was a mi­cro­cosm of this sea­son for the team and the en­tire school. A lit­tle more than a year ago, Hof­s­tra an­nounced it was drop­ping foot­ball be­cause it was swamped in red ink try­ing to com­pete on the di­vi­sion I-AA level. Last March, Tom Pec­ora left af­ter nine seas ons as men’s bas­ket­ball coach to take the Ford­ham job. He was re­placed by Tim Welsh, a hire greeted with great en­thu­si­asm be­cause Welsh had en­joyed suc­cess in the Big East while at Prov­i­dence and great suc­cess at Iona prior to that.

That joy didn’t last long. One month af­ter he was in­tro­duced as the new coach, Welsh was charged with driv­ing while in­tox­i­cated when po­lice found him asleep at the wheel of his car at a stop­light at 1 a.m. on April 30. He re­signed three days later.

“When Coach Pec­ora left it was re­ally tough,” Jenk­ins said. “He was the one who re­cruited me, who I’d played for, who I’d be­come close to. Then I was re­ally happy when Coach Welsh came be­cause I liked him a lot. All of a sud­den, he was gone too.”

While Jenk­ins and his team­mates were with­out a coach, Mo Cas­sara was with­out a job and — he be­lieved — with­out a fu­ture in coach­ing. He had been on Al Skin­ner’s staff at Bos­ton Col­lege for four years and had fig­ured he would be there a while longer be­cause Skin­ner was ne­go­ti­at­ing a con­tract ex­ten­sion.

“ Then one day I went to lunch, and when I came back Al said to me: ‘I just got out of a meet­ing with the AD. They’re mak­ing a change,’ ” Cas­sara said.

Hir­ings and fir­ings are part of the deal when you are a coach. All coaches have some kind of net­work and Welsh was a big part of Cas­sara’s: He had been Cas­sara’s coun­selor at a bas­ket­ball camp run by his fa­ther, Jerry Welsh, in Up­state New York when Cas­sara was a 10-year-old.

Not long af­ter Cas­sara lost his job at Bos­ton Col­lege, Welsh was hired at Hof­s­tra and called Cas­sara to of­fer him a job on his new staff. Nat­u­rally, he jumped at it. Be­cause re­cruit­ing was in full swing, he found some­one to watch his dogs at his home in Worces­ter, Mass., and headed to the road. He would worry about mov­ing and find­ing a place to live later. In fact, he never even signed a con­tract. Which is why things didn’t look very good when Welsh packed up his of­fice to leave.

“When he walked out that day, I fig­ured that it was it for me as a coach,” Cas­sara said. “I had two real men­tors in coach­ing — Al and Tim — and within a month they were both out of jobs. I called my par­ents and told them I was com­ing home. My dad owns two restau­rants and a bar in the town I grew up in [Can­ton, N.Y.]. My plan was to move in with them for a while and tend bar. I thought the clock had run out for me as a coach.”

Cas­sara drove back to Worces­ter, picked up his dogs from the friend they had been stay­ing with, packed his car and drove to his par­ents’ house. Then he went back to Hof­s­tra for what he thought would be an exit in­ter­view.

“I was just hop­ing they’d pay my ex­penses from the road,” he said.

Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Jack Hayes as­sured him that would be taken care of and asked if he and the other two Welsh-hired as­sis­tants, Steve DeMeo and Allen Grif­fin, would run off­sea­son work­outs while he searched for a new coach. Cas­sara agreed. The first day, at least from Jenk­ins’s point of view, didn’t go too well.

“ That was the day it all kind of crashed on me,” he said. “We had no coach. Two guys had left when Coach Pec­ora left and we had no idea who they were go­ing to hire. I just had to get out of there that day.”

The three non-coaches kept at it, though, and Hayes, af­ter talk­ing to Cas­sara at length the fol­low­ing day, was con­vinced he’d found his new coach. He sent Cas­sara to talk to Hof­s­tra Pres­i­dent Stu­art Rabi­nowitz, who agreed with Hayes. Four days af­ter he thought his coach­ing ca­reer was over, Cas­sara was a Di­vi­sion I head coach at the age of 36.

In the midst of the chaos, all three play­ers re­cruited by Pec­ora to be fresh­man in the fall of 2010 de­cided to go to other schools. Cas­sara and his staff — DeMeo and Grif­fin — went look­ing for a di­a­mond in the rough. They found two: Sheniye McLen­don, who coolly hit two free throws on Mon­day to tie the score at 79 in the fi­nal sec­onds of reg­u­la­tion, and Stephen Nwaukoni, who grabbed the re­bound on JMU’s fi­nal shot of the over­time and made two game-clinch­ing free throws af­ter be­ing fouled.

“We’re the team we are — 8-2 in the CAA and 14-7 over­all [8-3, 14-8 af­ter loss to Drexel] — be­cause we have one of the best play­ers in the coun­try in Charles,” Cas­sara said. “But with all the guys we’ve lost [two other starters have gone down since the sea­son be­gan], the play of the other kids, who have been forced into roles no one ex­pected them to be in, has been amaz­ing.”

Jenk­ins is a 6-foot-3 shoot­ing guard and is one of the most over­looked play­ers in the coun­try. He is av­er­ag­ing 23.3 points af­ter Satur­day’s game against Drexel. Those points don’t come be­cause he shoots the ball ev­ery time he touches it: he’s shoot­ing just less than 55 per­cent and is av­er­ag­ing 5.1 as­sists, 3.5 re­bounds and 1.9 steals per game. Jenk­ins, who scored 19 points against Drexel to be­come the pro­gram’s all-time lead­ing scorer, also grad­u­ated in De­cem­ber with a de­gree in lib­eral arts and sci­ences and is tak­ing grad­u­ate cour­ses right now.

“He’s Charles in charge,” Cas­sara said. “Dur­ing the over­time onMon­day, I got up a cou­ple of times to change some things on of­fense and he waved me off. I was the catcher, he was the pitcher. He was call­ing the game.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer and fall, Cas­sara and the play­ers worked tire­lessly to keep the Hof­s­tra stu­dent body and alumni in­volved with the team: Cas­sara speak­ing to any alumni group that could dig up more than one per­son to come lis­ten, the play­ers hand­ing out tick­ets and per­son­ally ask­ing stu­dents to come to the games. That may ex­plain why Jenk­ins did his leap onMon­day and why Cas­sara stood nearby grin­ning when he saw it.

“ To say it’s been a long and wind­ing road is an un­der­state­ment,” he said. “Charles de­served a moment like that but there’s still a long way to go, es­pe­cially in this league.”

Hof­s­tra’s last NCAA tour­na­ment bid was in 2001, when Jay Wright coached it to the Amer­ica East ti­tle. Given how dif­fi­cult the CAA is this year, get­ting back won’t be easy. But get­ting to where Cas­sara and his play­ers are right now hasn’t been easy, ei­ther. The rest of the jour­ney may be dif­fi­cult, but at this point the im­pos­si­ble cer­tainly seems at least a lit­tle bit pos­si­ble.

RI­CARDO ARDUENGO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Charles Jenk­ins hasHof­s­tra on the move de­spite a hec­tic off­sea­son that in­cluded two coach­ing changes.

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