“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.