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 seasons 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 on Monday, 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 on Monday 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.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.