Friday, April 5, 2013

Player Self Destruction Causes a Good Man to Lose His Job

Sometimes you hold off on publishing an article because you don't want to write in anger, especially when you feel someone you like and admire has been wronged.  Plus my life in South Carolina, which involves now not just a new full time job, but coaching two baseball teams and looking for a new house has got in the way.  However this two week period has allowed me to focus in on what I want to say. Throw in a terrific article by my good friend Jerry Beach and here's what I have to say.

It was two weeks ago last Friday that Hofstra fired Mo Cassara after his third season coaching the Pride.  The firing likely had to do with the recent arrests of Jamal Coombs- McDaniel for marijuana possession and Taran Buie for driving with a suspended license.  They were the fifth and sixth Hofstra players arrested this past season to go along with Jimmy Hall, Shaquille Stokes, Kendrell Washington and Dallas Anglin who were most notably arrested for stealing over $10,000 of computers, IPads etc back in November of last year.

Perhaps the "publicity" of Coombs-McDaniel and Buie were too much for the Hofstra administration to handle.  Perhaps the coach should be finally the one most held accountable when several players get in trouble with the law.  But when one looks at their arrests opposed to the arrests of the four "idiots" who betrayed the trusts of their coach and their fellow students, were they really all that "publicly" bad?   And should their coach, in this case, Cassara, truly be held accountable for his player's own actions?

What exactly did Coombs-McDaniel do?  Well he openly had marijuana in his car when he was stopped. Not smart mind you, but not exactly an act that hurts others, unless you want to say that driving under the influence of marijuana is as bad as alcohol.   Buie, as Beach notes in his article, was well known around Hofstra for being incredibly polite.  However his politeness couldn't over come a stupid act, as he was recently arrested for driving with a suspended license, which is truly a self destructive act more than an act that hurts others.

Yes for Coombs-McDaniel and Buie, this was each their second arrest in their history.  Many would say that they should have never been given a second chance.   However, many athletes and many kids are given a second chance with the hope that they will learn from their first mistake and not commit the same mistake or similar mistake again.   Some learn, some like Coombs McDaniel and Buie do not.

An example of someone who learned is Gary Neal, currently a member of the San Antonio Spurs.  While at LaSalle, Neal and another player were charged with rape of a university of New Haven female basketball player who was at LaSalle during a basketball camp.  Neal was dismissed from the team. He had maintained the sex was consensual and a jury acquitted him and the other player.  Neal walked on to Towson while the case was going on.  Once he was acquitted, the Towson trustee board had to vote to allow Neal to play for the Tigers.  Neal played two seasons for the Tigers, then went on to play professionally in Europe and then for the Spurs.  He has not had trouble with the law since the rape allegation at LaSalle.

Neal likely realized that he had a future in basketball and that the only way he could fulfill that future was to be a model citizen and not make any mistakes. Neal did not self destruct like Coombs McDaniel, Buie and many other student athletes and professional athletes do.  Student athletes are much less likely to get a third chance.

As for Buie and Coombs-McDaniel, the fact is that had both players had not been given a second chance by Cassara and Hofstra, they would have been given a second chance by some other Division I school.  And let's be honest, Cassara could not have brought these students in on his own.  Someone higher up had to sign off on them, had to vouch for them.   I'm not saying those higher ups did anything wrong.  Perhaps they too truly believed like Cassara that Buie and Coombs-McDaniel deserved a second chance.  But they had to know the risks themselves as well.

As for the four players who were arrested in November, they too were given admittance to school by higher someone higher up.  Again, I am not saying that someone higher up did anything wrong.  Heck, when the arrests were made public, a well known New York City metropolitan basketball journalist noted on Twitter that he knew two of the players quite well from covering them and he was shocked that either could do something like this.  If this journalist didn't know, how was Cassara or the Hofstra administration to know?

Now I know what some of you are saying.  The former athletic director, Jack Hayes, now the AD at Brown, signed off on those players, not the current AD, Jeff Hathaway.  Yes, but again, I am not blaming Hayes either.  There was nothing in at least the known history of the four idiots that stood out as warning signals and Buie's and Coombs-McDaniel's previous issues were publicly known.

So why did Cassara eventually take the blame for this?  If it was truly about negative publicity and coach accountability, why wasn't he fired after the four players were arrested in November?    Why let Cassara recruit seven new players so that he could change the program?   As Beach notes in his article, Cassara changed his recruiting style and recruited six prep schoolers.  Prep schoolers have already learned what's it like to be away from home and be on a campus.  This was Cassara's way to try to resurrect the basketball program in stature and integrity.  The Hofstra administration let him do that, only to fire him later on for the selfish acts of two of his players that really only harmed themselves.

This is not the first time in recent history that multiple players in a college sports program have been in trouble with the law. Jeff Hathaway was the athletic director at UConn when A.J. Price and Marcus Williams were arrested for attempting to sell stolen laptops.  Williams was dismissed from UConn while Price was allowed back.  UConn later had issues with Coombs-McDaniel's first arrest.  Was there talk that Jim Calhoun should be held accountable for their actions?

Four Alabama players were arrested for robbery of two other Alabama students and fraudulent use of a credit card back on February 11.  For one of the players, safety Eddie Williams, it was his second arrest in two days.  He had been previously arrested for carrying a pistol without a license at an incident at a gas station.  Yet, you didn't hear that Nick Saban should be held accountable for their actions by recruiting those four players.

If you want to say that Saban and Calhoun, along with Cassara, should be held accountable for their players' actions, then that's fine.  But let's be honest, in the case of Calhoun or Saban, they were not held accountable.  The fact that both Alabama football and UConn basketball have had very successful programs under Saban and Calhoun respectively also plays largely into the account that neither coach was under fire for those arrests.  And honestly, they shouldn't have been.

All of these players, whether it's Price, Marcus Williams, Eddie Williams or any of the six Hofstra players, are adults.  They are all at least eighteen years old. They can vote, they can serve their country in the military and if they are arrested, they are charged as an adult.   Shouldn't they be held ultimately responsible for their own actions?

In the case of the four idiots, three of the four - Anglin, Washington and Hall, depending on the results of their case, could end up at another Division I school or Division II school.  Yes someone will give them a second chance, as someone did for Coombs-McDaniel, Buie and Price.  Stokes had already transferred from Hawaii, so he cannot transfer to another Division I school.  That doesn't mean he won't get another chance at a Division II school.

In all of these cases with the Hofstra, UConn and Alabama players, these students committed criminal acts, but also acts of self destruction.  What other term describes what they did to themselves?  They were given athletic scholarships to go to school for free.  In the case of the basketball players, if they don't make the NBA, if they go to school and graduate, they can still find a successful career overseas (see Neal).  Why would someone in their position jeopardize their own future?

Simply put, many athletes think they are indestructable.  What else can explain what Eddie Williams did in the span of twenty four hours?  What else can explain how Coombs-McDaniel would be arrested twice for marijuana possession, or Buie for his two arrests, or the four Hofstra players or the four Alabama players for committing crimes on campus? They feel that as athletes they can get away with their acts or they can get a second chance. In the professional sports world, how many athletes are given multiple chances?  See Josh Hamilton, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Steve Howe among others.

The problem is that their acts of self destruction are often not just self destruction. The acts hurt someone else.  In the case of the Alabama player arrests, they physically hurt two students and  left one of those students unconscious.  In the case of the four Hofstra players, they stole equipment from their fellow students, betraying those students' trust and friendship and also put a black eye on the program and their fellow Hofstra basketball players by association.  And ultimately, the six Hofstra players cost Cassara his job.

As for Cassara, this negative publicity unfairly overshadowed all the good that he has done at the Hofstra campus over the past three years.  In fact, after Cassara's firing, that same day one well known local college basketball analyst tweeted that if Hofstra had hired Van Macon after Tom Pecora left for Fordham in 2010, the Pride would would have won the CAA championship during this three year time period.  That analyst basically hinted that Hofstra would not have had all these issues if Macon was in charge.  Another local college/high school basketball journalist commented about Hofstra's program being a circus.

If you want to see a real circus, let's step back to 2010.

When Pecora left Hofstra for Fordham in March 2010, he took his signed recruits with him, including now Fordham junior guard Branden Frazier.  Then Hofstra went looking for an established coach to take over the reigns of the program.   Macon had never been a head coach on any level, nor has he been since (Macon had been an assistant to Mike Rice at Rutgers and we all now know the "circus" there).  What also didn't help Macon in March 2010 and I noted this in my article promoting Tim Cluess for the job back on March 29, 2010, is an article Steven Marcus wrote at the time promoting Macon.  In that article, Marcus noted that Pecora might "freeze out anyone else looking for recruits in his territory" if Macon didn't get the job.  My guess is that article didn't sit too well with Hayes at the time.

Well, we know what happened.  Tim Welsh was hired and then thirty days later was arrested for driving under the influence, which coincided with a Defiantly Dutch interview where he talked about personal responsibility.   He resigned and Hofstra, needing stability in the program, hired Cassara as the head coach a few days later.

During this time, Chaz Williams and Halil Kanacevic, two All CAA Rookie team members, left Hofstra to transfer to UMass and St Joseph's respectively.

So in the span of two months in 2010, you had one coach leave for an A-10 school.  Then Hofstra's two top freshmen both leave the program and leave for other A-10 schools.   A new coach is then hired and then "resigns" thirty days after as a result of the DUI.  A new coach is hired five days later.  Now that's a circus.

And think about all the adversity Cassara had to face in his first few days as a head coach.  Pecora took his "frosty" recruits with him to Fordham.  No Chaz and no Kanacevic.  Thus Cassara and his staff had to scramble to fill six scholarship player spots on his team.

So despite all this, what did Cassara do in that first season?  He took Hofstra to a twenty one win season, a 14-4 third place finish in the CAA regular season and the Pride's first CAA Tournament semifinal appearance since 2006.  And of course 2011 was the year where the CAA conference had the three other top four teams make the NCAA Tournament.  George Mason, who Hofstra beat that season at the Mack Center, won their first round game against Villanova.  ODU barely lost to eventual national runnerup Butler and of course VCU went to the Final Four.

Yes, Charles Jenkins was a key reason that Hofstra team was so successful.  Yet in the season prior with Jenkins, Chaz and Kanacevic, arguably a more talented team, the Pride finished seventh with a 10-8 conference record in a conference that was nowhere as good at the top as it was a season later when Cassara took over.

And who says that Chaz and Kanacevic would have stayed with Macon had he taken the job? It's very clear to anyone that has seen both of them play that they are very skilled players who were very successful in the Atlantic Ten the past two seasons, a conference clearly above the level of the CAA.   That's not a knock against Macon, who has been a terrific recruiter and has been responsible for players like Jenkins, Kanacevic, Chaz, Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio and Carlos Rivera, among others.  It's just that Williams and Kanacevic already knew they could play at a higher level conference. They were likely gone no matter who took over at Hofstra.

The next season in Cassara's first real recruiting season, the Pride struggled to a 10-22 record. Yet when you look at the games, Hofstra defeated two NCAA Tournament teams; Iona and LIU Brooklyn and lost ten games by seven points or less.  John Templon of Big Apple Buckets event noted that the 2011-12 Hofstra team was one of the most unlucky teams in the country.

And this season, the Pride were 3-4 before the four idiots did their damage.  Included in those three wins was a 66-63 win over Nate Wolters and South Dakota State, a team that made the NCAA Tournament for the second season in a row and won at New Mexico this season.   I was at the game the next day after the win over SDSU, a win over Division II DC.  You could tell that this team had electricity and talent.   And in a down year in the CAA, the Pride looked like they could contend.

Then came that fateful Friday in November.  Four idiots betrayed the trust of their coach and betrayed the trust in themselves.  After that, Hofstra only won four more games on the season.  But anyone who watched them play from December 1st on could tell you how hard they played.  The Pride lost twelve games by seven points or less this season.  In the last week of the season, Hofstra twice lost to second place Delaware, by one point at home and by five points in the first round of the CAA Tournament.

I got a chance to catch up with Coach Cassara after their loss at home to George Mason.  He seemed very optimistic about the new prep school recruits coming in that as he put it would change the face of the program.  Cassara also felt that he had support of the administration and that they were helping him in his recruiting of players especially .  He strongly felt he would be back next season, a way of getting a second chance for all that happened this season.

But there is more to Cassara than his coaching record and recruiting.  He truly appreciated the head coaching opportunity at Hofstra. Cassara embraced that challenge by immersing himself into the Hofstra Community.  He strongly supported the women's basketball team and you saw him at a lot of their games. During his first season at one of the women's games, I remember sitting with Cassara and Defiantly Dutch talking about his recruits that he was bringing in for the next season.  He sat with us for a good thirty minutes. That's when I learned he never sleeps.

He always was appreciative of the fans and the season ticket holders.  Cassara attended many Hofstra campus events.  I sat with him at the same table at a Law School 40th anniversary event at Yankee Stadium where I gave him updates of a St John's basketball game.  A week before his firing he participated in the Hofstra Jail and Bail for Special Olympics.

And no coach, I mean no coach, embraced social media more than Mo Cassara.  Whether it was him tweeting at 5:30 in the morning to his nearly 3500 followers or sending messages out to his nearly 3000 friends on Facebook. In fact, when a Hofstra fan started a "Charles Jenkins Facts" Facebook group, which was their take on Charles Jenkins being the equal to Chuck Norris, many fans, including myself would send Charles Jenkins facts back and forth.  Where many coaches wouldn't have paid attention to that, Cassara actually added a fact to the Facebook group noting on a road trip to UNCW that "Charles Jenkins is driving the bus".

Cassara understood that he needed to promote the program, a program that, let's face it, has had an apathetic fan base and has for as long as I can remember it.  Yet he took up the challenge, getting students to come to games and getting the Lions Den student section to show up more than they ever had in the past. That 2011-12 season with Charles Jenkins, the Mack Center was often packed, full of loud supportive students consistently more than I had seen since the 2005-06 season.

But he also did it because he genuinely likes talking with people and is genuinely a good person.  On my birthday, Coach Cassara was one of the first people to wish me "Happy Birthday" on Facebook, further reminding me that he never sleeps.  Whenever I or many other season ticket holders would take a road trip, he would ask if you need a ticket and Mo would leave you one if you did.  He truly appreciated the support folks like Defiantly Dutch, Jay Pomerantz, Lee Warner, me and others gave him.

I also think Jenkins doesn't become the player he is without Cassara.  In his senior season, Jenkins blossomed as a player and more importantly as a leader.  And we're talking about someone who was already the CAA Player of the Year the season before.  But not only did Jenkins become a NBA draft pick, he also became a Hofstra fixture.  Jenkins came back to Hofstra whenever he could.  This past season, Jenkins was back in town for the NBA All Star Break and he came to a Hofstra game.  Afterwards, Jenkins stayed signing autographs until every kid had got to meet him.  A lot of that has to do with the great person that Jenkins is.  But part of me has always believed that Cassara was a major influence on him. Newsday wrote an article about Jenkins returning that night and Jenkins showed his support for Cassara in the article.

Jenkins is not the only player Cassara helped.  David Imes was buried on Tom Pecora's bench as a freshman.  He barely played and when he did, if Imes made a mistake, he was out quicker than you blinked. But under Cassara, Imes became a starter and an integral part of the team over his next three seasons.  Cassara had noted during his first season ticket holder event on how impressed he was with Imes.  Imes had several big games for Hofstra, especially in his sophomore season. His twenty point effort in a win at Drexel on January 2nd 2011 was huge, especially when the team needed a huge rebound after a loss on the road at Iona.

Imes likely would never had seen the light of day had Pecora stayed at Hofstra.  But under Cassara, he became a solid contributor.  Lost in the shuffle of the firing of Cassara was that Imes was drafted and signed by Vaqueros de Bayamon, a team in a Puerto Rican basketball league on March 22.  David Imes gets to play basketball professionally, thanks in large part to his determination and talent, but also in part to the faith Mo Cassara had in him.

But often in life, you only hear the negative, not the positive. The selfish, self destructive acts of six student athletes who Cassara had put his faith in ultimately led to his dismissal.  Several of them wasted their second chance they were given, the others will likely get a second chance.  Whether Mo Cassara gets a second chance to be a Division I head basketball coach remains to be seen.

All I can tell you is this. Like all those players, Cassara deserves a second chance.