Hofstra's Cassara connects with players, fans
E-mails were flying after Hofstra's disappointing loss to Drexel in front of a sold-out Mack Sports Complex crowd of 5,050 a week and a half ago when Charles Jenkins set the school's career scoring record for men's basketball. Jay Pomerantz, a recent member of the Pride Club booster organization, felt compelled to share his feelings with Dr. Stuart Rabinowitz, Hofstra's president.
"Even in a defeat," Pomerantz wrote, "I'm proud of the Hofstra basketball program. I've been going to games since 1985, and I've never seen a crowd like that."
Almost instantaneously, Pomerantz said, Rabinowitz replied, saying the game was "a true student-athletic event I will never forget. We're building it."
Pomerantz also e-mailed first-year coach Mo Cassara, telling him: That's the first of many sellouts in the Mo Cassara era." Later that evening, Pomerantz was out to dinner with his wife, when a reply from Cassara hit his cell phone. "It's like 11 p.m.," Pomerantz said, "and he sends me an e-mail that says: 'I can't sleep. I let the university down and let the kids down.' "
As palpable as the disappointment over the loss to Drexel might have been, it was far outweighed by elation over the crowd size and suddenly evident enthusiasm for Hofstra basketball. It was a tribute to Jenkins' achievement, certainly, but it also was testament to how far the program has come under Cassara since April 30, when Tim Welsh, the high-profile replacement for departed coach Tom Pecora, was arrested on a DWI charge.
Coming on the heels of the decision to dissolve the football program, things could not have been worse for Hofstra athletics. Who knew that an unheralded assistant coach hired by Welsh with no connections to Hofstra would be the one who could connect the fractured program back together, uniting players, students, administration, alumni and local fans?
Pomerantz attended a Pride Club meeting the night after the Welsh arrest, and he recalled, "The air was taken out of the room. It was depressing."
That was the night he met Cassara, the new assistant he had been following on Facebook and Twitter. In one month at Hofstra, Cassara had made a strong first impression. When Pomerantz suggested to athletic director Jack Hayes that Welsh's replacement was in the room, everything clicked.
Not only was Hayes thinking the same thing, but so was Jenkins, who bonded with the new assistant while participating in Cassara's recruiting efforts.
"We just connected away from basketball," Cassara said. "I was living in the dorm and Charles is around here all the time. I'm a young guy, and I could talk about the things he wanted to talk about away from basketball."
There was the day Cassara was riding in a car with Jenkins and Greg Washington on the way to a recruiting dinner, and the players were shocked to learn the coach, now 37, knew the lyrics to the rap songs on their radio.
"I remember Charles putting on his Twitter: 'Riding with coach and kicking the lyrics,' " Cassara said. "From that point, they realized I was on their wavelength, and I wasn't phony. They began to trust me. That was the beginning of where we are now."
Despite losing starters Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams, who transferred after Pecora left, and Nathaniel Lester, who redshirted after a season-ending injury, the Pride is 15-9 and tied for third in the Colonial Athletic Association at 9-4 going into tonight's game at Georgia State. Cassara and his staff that includes assistants Steve DeMeo, Allen Griffin and Wayne Morgan, all of whom grew up in New York, combined with Jenkins to convince the players they could win.
When they proved it on the court, Cassara's social networking began to pay off in ever-increasing crowd numbers, including another strong showing of 3,786 in the Pride's hard-fought comeback win over Northeastern on Saturday.
"I think I relate to the student body, too," Cassara said. "The night we beat James Madison, I was up until 2 or 3 a.m. returning Twitter messages and Facebook messages to students. Every game there's a few new followers. I try to post things back when there's something to do with Hofstra basketball."
Cassara carries an iPhone he uses strictly for social media. "Right before I go to bed and right after I get up, I'm constantly trying to interact," Cassara said. "It's a huge recruiting tool. You can't text message kids anymore, but you can send unlimited e-mails. A Facebook message is considered an e-mail. Every kid today has Facebook on their phone. I'm firing away on that all hours of the night."
Call it a "new school" approach, but Cassara has succeeded in making Hofstra basketball easily accessible to anyone who wants to follow it. All you have to do is go to @Coach_Cassara.