Category archive: Hofstra Pride

Editor's Note: All week is taking a look at new faces in new places. As part of our coverage, Andy Katz will be diving into the mid-major ranks to profile a first-year coach each day.

Joe Mihalich had a flight out of Atlanta back to Western New York on Sunday of the Final Four in April.

He didn't take it.

He had heard that Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway might call him. So he took a chance.

"I woke up Sunday and never heard from him," said Mihalich, who was prepared to go back to Niagara for his 16th season. "Then thankfully Jeff called at 1:30 p.m. We met at 2:30 p.m. and were there for hours talking about Hofstra. I realized it was a special place. The next day I flew back to Niagara and there was a voice mail to come back down Tuesday."

Mihalich took the job, making what could be perceived as a lateral move, but upon further review is not.

Niagara is in the MAAC, a largely one-bid league. Hofstra is in the Colonial Athletic Association, which through attrition and the departures of VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion is now essentially a one-bid league.

The attention, though, on Long Island versus Western New York isn't close, along with the the proximity to top recruits and his roots in Philadelphia.

The time was right for a move. And the spot made sense. Mihalich could have pined for a traditional football school gig in a power-five league. He had the pedigree, résumé and connections. But he fits at a basketball school.

Mihalich loves the leadership at Hofstra. While Hathaway had his battles at UConn with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, the relationship couldn't be smoother right now with Mihalich. Hathaway has to make this work, because Mihalich is his guy after firing Mo Cassara, who replaced Tim Welsh after Tom Pecora left Hofstra for nearby Fordham.

Mihalich said he had no plans to leave Niagara. The Purple Eagles had just won the MAAC. They had been to two NCAA tournaments and three NITs, with winning records in 12 of his 15 seasons. But he also said he could be swayed to leave for what he termed "a special place, never knowing that special place would be Hofstra."

Mihalich dismisses the streamlining of the CAA. The addition of the College of Charleston certainly staves a bit of the sting of losing Old Dominion. But the absence of VCU and George Mason still hurts. Northern teams in the CAA haven't been able to break through since joining -- Hofstra, Drexel, Northeastern and Towson. But along with Delaware, there is a distinct Northern influence now; four of the nine schools -- Charleston, James Madison, UNC Wilmington and William & Mary -- are south of Washington, D.C.

"There are a lot of great basketball programs not in football conferences, and there is still a league as good as ever and it's still called the Big East," Mihalich said. "It all starts with players. I don't know how good we're going to be, but I just love being with these kids. Our goal is to surprise a lot of people this year. We've got [a] great work ethic. These guys get along so well."

The Pride have only nine eligible players this season with three transfers. Mihalich told them that conditioning will be critical since getting hurt or in foul trouble is not acceptable.

The goal is to be in play for three days in March. Mihalich has gotten used to dealing with the stress of having to win a conference tournament. He had to do that in the MAAC and the same will occur in the CAA, which has moved its tournament to Baltimore just in time for Towson under Pat Skerry to be a legitimate contender. The usual advantage Southern teams had in Richmond, Va., (see VCU and ODU) has now shifted to Baltimore and Towson.

"Our staff is used to this," Mihalich said of having one bid. "The league has become a bit of an unknown with all the changing parts. The league has changed. We all looked around and said, 'Why not us?' Who will be the next VCU or George Mason? Who is going to be that team? We feel it could be Hofstra. I'm sure Charleston is staying it and so is James Madison."

And so is Towson, Drexel, Northeastern, Delaware, Wilmington and William & Mary. This league is wide open for years to come.

"We have a new attitude, a new culture, a new team," Mihalich said. "It all starts from the top. Everything is in place here. It's a great opportunity."

The Pride picked up two fifth-year transfers in Zeke Upshaw, who played behind Jackie Cunningham at Illinois State, and Dion Nesmith, from Monmouth. Two of the three transfers sitting out came from Niagara, Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley.  The pressure will be on them and SMU transfer Brian Bernardi to produce in practice, because there are only nine eligible players, including three freshmen.

"[The transfers] are all very good players," Mihalich said. "[Upshaw] couldn't get on the court [at Illinois State]. Dion is a good basketball player. This is a chance for these guys. They've embraced it."

And Mihalich has done the same with the area and the school.

Living in Western New York was suburban life. The faster pace of Long Island has re-energized the 56-year-old (he turns 57 Thursday).

"For me and my wife, it's like we're back in Philly 15 years ago," Mihalich said. "It's tough to get a parking spot. No one will let you in to merge. Up there, oh gosh, people are so nice."

Mihalich said he probably went to Niagara Falls roughly 75 times in 15 years. It was regular spot on a recruit's tour. There is no sightseeing on Long Island for the recruits, although they have easy access to everything in Manhattan by train. The campus is the selling point.

The timing was perfect for Mihalich and his wife, Mary. His three sons are all out of the house. Two are coaching basketball and the other track.

"Everything has been pointing to what a great opportunity this is," Mihalich said. "It's hard to explain. Somebody said when you least expect it, that perfect job would come along. I didn't realize it would be here."

But it is. Now he can't wait to see if it's as wonderful, productive and satisfying as he claims it is since his arrival.

Hofstra has had no sense of normalcy to start this season.

The Pride desperately needed to have a productive preseason after finishing 3-15 in the CAA, 10-22 overall last season. The team also has six new faces this season.

But the second presidential debate pushed the team out of its arena and practice facility for two weeks before the Oct. 16 event. Cleanup kept the Pride out of the building for one more week. The team and staff weren't even allowed on that part of the campus. The Pride used a nearby gym every day for individual workouts and eventually team practices.

Nearly two weeks later, the Pride were disrupted again -- this time by a force of nature.

On Monday, post-tropical storm Sandy unleashed its wind, rain and storm surge on Long Island and Hofstra, like countless other schools and structures that were in its path.

"It's been a real challenge for us," Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said Tuesday morning. "But I give the kids a lot of credit for their resiliency. Hopefully we won't see any more challenges coming our way."

Cassara lives on the beach and had to evacuate. So he took his two dogs and hunkered down in his office Monday night after the team practiced. The players were sent to the dorms, where it was deemed safe to ride out the storm.

The power went out at 11 p.m., and the scoreboard horn was triggered. It lasted for more than 30 minutes.

"I was walking around with my two golden retrievers and a flashlight to find a breaker," Cassara said. "My dogs were howling. It was really bad outside."

Cassara called facility managers Jay Artinian and Colm Kennedy. They braved the elements, came in and helped turn off the buzzer.

The Pride had just scrimmaged Hartford over the weekend, and the Hawks left right before Sandy. A year ago, Hofstra scrimmaged Hartford and got out right before a snowstorm that left the West Hartford area without power for a week.

"I texted [Hartford coach] John Gallagher and said, We're never scrimmaging you again," Cassara said. "It's been bad luck."

Cassara said the team was scheduled to be off Tuesday, and he hopes practice can be held Wednesday.

"I'm hoping we can get back to work Wednesday, but I'm not sure if we'll have electricity," Cassara said. "We probably won't have classes. It's a big commuter school.

"If we had a veteran team, I'd feel a lot better. It's been hard to spend time together, watch film and build the team with such a young group."

The Pride open the season at Monmouth on Nov. 9 before playing at Purdue in the 2K Sports Classic benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project. Hofstra is then scheduled to host other teams in the tournament from Nov. 16-18, with games against South Dakota State, Division II University of District of Columbia and Marshall. South Dakota State and Marshall are possible NCAA tournament teams as a favorite in the Summit and likely a second-place finisher in Conference USA, respectively.

Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager called Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino on Thursday to give him the professional courtesy of knowing that he would be contacting a few of Iamarino's member schools, widely believed to be Davidson and College of Charleston.

"I appreciate that and I'm hoping to convince them [to stay]," Iamarino said. "We've got league meetings coming up [May 29-June 1 in Asheville, N.C.] and like every other conference, except the Ivy League, I suspect, 85 to 90 percent of the issues will be centered around realignment issues."

The trickle-down effect of conference realignment seems to never end. The CAA loses anchor programs VCU (to the Atlantic 10 in the fall of 2012) and Old Dominion (to Conference USA in the fall of 2013). Those two moves came on the heels of Georgia State moving to the Sun Belt.

The CAA has to do something to maintain relevance, and the Southern Conference, and possibly the America East Conference, are ripe for the pickings. (America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen said the league won't comment on any overtures from the CAA or anyone else toward its programs, such as Boston University and Stony Brook.)

"[The CAA] is such a Southern league I think they have to replace them with Southern teams," Delaware coach Monte Ross said. "I think they have to have that Southern flavor that the league is known for, and Davidson is a quality name and program."

Said Towson coach Pat Skerry: "But we've got to get someone in the North, too. Stony Brook could be a viable option."

Davidson and College of Charleston are the most obvious choices.

Iamarino is well aware of the interest in his league's programs. But he said he has every intent of reminding the schools that they are in a competitive league and the proximity of the member schools offers low travel costs.

"We're all within the geographic footprint," Iamarino said. "We avoid missing class time. The fans can travel to road games. That's why conferences were normally put together in the first place."

Iamarino said the exit fee is $300,000 for notice of two years or more and $600,000 for less than two years.

Charleston athletic director Joe Hull said the school doesn't have a position on the matter yet and said his school was happy in the Southern Conference.

Davidson athletic director James Murphy said it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on conference affiliation. But head coach Bob McKillop was willing to speak.

He said that 25 percent of the 1,800 students on campus play a sport, meaning that a move to the CAA affects a high percentage of the student population.

"We have rigorous academic standards," McKillop said. "We've been to the NCAA tournament five times and the NIT twice in the past 10 years. We present a unique situation. But any decision will be made at the presidential level, not just a basketball decision."

Translation: Davidson is doing just fine in the Southern and doesn't necessarily need to move to the CAA. It also means that their options may not be limited to the CAA. The CAA needs Davidson to beef up its membership and provide a consistent competitor for the likes of George Mason and Drexel.

"VCU left the Colonial for the A-10, but who is to say the A-10 isn't going to change in the next three to four months? Who is to say the Big East or who is to say the Colonial won't change more?" McKillop said. "The dominoes have been blowing from the BCS. There are so many kinds of hypotheticals. Maybe James Madison and Delaware will go to the MAC in football or William & Mary to the Patriot."

Northeastern coach Bill Coen said he's hopeful that there are no knee-jerk reactions in the CAA.

"I think everyone needs to take a breath," Coen said. "You have to guard against doing something quickly that might not be a long-term solution."

George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said the onus is on the remaining schools to continue to show a commitment to remaining in the league.

"We all need to be proactive," O'Connor said. "You can't be stagnant. If you look internally and basketball is important to you then make sure you give the program all the tools to be successful."

Georgia State and Old Dominion are in the Colonial next season, but league bylaws prohibit their participation in the conference tournament. Towson and UNC Wilmington are ineligible for the tournament based on poor academic scores; Towson is appealing.

At this juncture, unless something changes, only seven schools would be eligible for the conference tournament in 2013.

O'Connor said the bylaw preventing Old Dominion and Georgia State from postseason participation should be changed when the league meets next week.

"My philosophy is that we should let the student-athletes play in championships," O'Connor said. "I think we can have conversations about our bylaws in the CAA."

O'Connor said there should be discussion about suspending or doing away with the rule altogether. He said the bylaw was put in place 10 years ago but "the world has changed in a lot of different ways. Student-athletes should have an opportunity to participate in championships."

If the membership can resolve the tournament issue, that might be the first step in trying to move ahead as one conference thinking about each other rather than the individual interests.

The CAA has to stick together at this point, or it will quickly fade from relevance.

On Feb. 22, former Connecticut assistant Patrick Sellers found himself in China, where he had gone to keep his coaching career alive after being let go by the Huskies. Upon waking up that morning, he checked his email and couldn't contain his emotion.

An email from his attorney had popped into his inbox overnight. Sellers had been exonerated by the NCAA and wouldn't face any sanctions when the Committee on Infractions released its report on UConn. That was four months after he had gone in front of the COI in Indianapolis, pleading his case that he had done nothing wrong but did what he has done for years: talk to agents on the phone about prospective recruits.

"I went to practice that day and was dunking and shooting so well," said the 42-year-old Sellers, who spent last season as an assistant with the Shanxi Dragons. "It felt so good."

In May 2010, as one of two assistant coaches (Beau Archibald was the other) cited for misleading investigators during the investigation into the recruitment of former player Nate Miles, Sellers saw his UConn coaching stint end when the school didn't renew his contract.

It was a trying time to say the least.

"I was embarrassed," Sellers said. "When this came out, it put me in a bad light. I've never been in a bad light. I think I've only had about three speeding tickets in my life. I was sad. I was down. I've always tried to do things the right way. Coaches would ask me for advice coming up. I was always trying to help people and then this happens and you're just so embarrassed. I felt like I didn't do anything and I couldn't believe my name was in it."

Sellers returned to the United States on March 21, just in time to witness the UConn players he helped recruit go on a magnificent run toward the national championship. He was there in Houston at the Final Four, sitting in the stands for the two wins at Reliant Stadium -- feeling as if he had a part in the development of the program but still far removed from a second chance. He spent countless hours trying to get the word out that he was fair game for an assistant-coaching job, making it clear to everyone he knew in Houston that he was hirable.

In its reporting on the Connecticut violations, Yahoo! Sports detailed Sellers' 223 calls or text messages to the agent/manager in question (Josh Nochimson), as well as six hours of conversation with Nochimson from his office phone.

Sellers said he believes he was initially tagged with the misleading tag by the NCAA because he challenged the notion that he had done something wrong. He said he was told by his attorney that he was a bad witness.

"I told the NCAA that I call agents all the time, I talk to a lot of agents," Sellers said. "It also probably didn't help that the day I was interviewed I had food poisoning like a lot of the players that day. We had just played Michigan and none of us were feeling well that next day. It was something that we all ate. I was a bad witness. I didn't know how to react."

Sellers said when he went in front of the COI last October he told the committee there was a miscommunication from his first interview with the enforcement staff.

"I didn't lie to them," Sellers said. "I wasn't trying to mislead anyone. I was just trying to answer a question. I just told them the truth."

And the COI sided with Sellers because they didn't tag him with a show-cause or any penalty that would inhibit his ability to get another job.

Sellers interviewed with Louisville earlier this spring but didn't get the job. Then he heard his friend, Mo Cassara, had an opening at Hofstra after Allen Griffin left the staff to go to Dayton. Cassara had been the coach at Worcester (Mass.) Academy when Sellers worked at Central Connecticut.

"There was so much publicity when I left but nothing when I got cleared," Sellers said. "It's great to be with Mo now."

Cassara didn't hesitate with Sellers. He has known Sellers for a while, and his entire staff is about second chances.

Cassara was fired from Boston College with the rest of Al Skinner's staff. Steve DeMeo was fired at Providence. Wayne Morgan was fired as head coach at Iowa State.

Cassara got the gig when Tim Welsh got a DUI a few weeks into his job. A year later, Cassara is on stable ground with a new five-year contract after leading the Pride to 21 wins and 14 in the Colonial Athletic Association (tying for second with Old Dominion) in his first season as a Division I head coach.

Sellers fit the profile for Cassara -- a Northeast coach who had strong recruiting ties. There was the personal relationship, yes. But there was also the idea of giving a nod to someone who needed a boost.

"If anybody appreciates giving a chance, it's me," Cassara said. "Look at where we were a few years ago and where we are now. Things have really spun around. I'm thrilled to have him on the staff."

Sellers said he knew there would be thorough checks. Cassara said calls were made to the UConn compliance office, athletic director Jeff Hathaway and of course the NCAA.

"We did our homework and everyone was positive," Cassara said. "We've got three younger, single guys on the staff who are all close in age and Wayne obviously also has a lot of experience."

The New York-area/Big East ties are already in play. Former Arizona guard Lamont Jones will visit later this week in an effort to move closer to his Harlem home. Former UConn wing Jamal Coombs-McDaniel is also coming in.

"I'm such a better coach now than when I was before all of this happened because of the coaching in China," said Sellers, who was both an associate head coach and interim head coach with the Dragons. "I just wanted another chance to jump back in there. I just want to coach."

Now he has a chance, which didn't seem possible when the initial notice of allegations was reported and Sellers' appearance in front of the COI was documented.

Now, eight months later, Sellers is in a good place: "I'm a happy-go-lucky guy again."