Photo courtesy of Bryant University Athletics.
By David Cordova
In the basketball profession, there’s plenty of coaches that are hoping to get an opportunity to run their own program some day. Some start out as student managers that become graduate assistants and then get promoted to the assistants. Or some are former players that get hired to be a part of the staff right away.
Either way, it’s a long road to becoming a head coach. But when the time comes, it’s time for those coaches to take advantage of the opportunity & capitalize on it to their maximum ability.
Such is the case with Jared Grasso. After years of becoming an assistant coach at five Division I schools, he was given the opportunity to become the head coach at Bryant University on April 2nd.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder since I was 15 years old and playing high school basketball, that hasn’t changed.” said Grasso. “I think I still have that same chip and I also improved as a coach. Obviously, I had a brief stint at Fordham, which helped me prepare for this, but you never think that, when you’re always talking about being a head coach, you may think you have a spring and summer and fall where, at Fordham, I was given the job on a Tuesday, and Thursday night, we were playing a game, so I think I’ve had a chance to instill my style of play and my philosophies and my culture. And I think my time at Fordham, and my eight years at Iona with Tim [Cluess] have prepared me for this challenge.”
This year, Grasso comes into a new head coaching situation at Bryant, taking over for Tim O’Shea, who led the Bulldogs to a 3-28 record last season. He elaborated, “I think I have a chip on my shoulder, as do the guys on my team, because let’s face it, last year, we were one of the worst teams in the country. Our guys never want to feel like that again, and I think we have the blueprint that can get us to the level we want to get to, if our guys are willing to work. And they have been working hard so far.”
When asked about coaching outside of the New York area, where he has made his mark for many, many years, Grasso replied, “I think I have something to prove out of the region. It’s a great opportunity, Bryant’s a phenomenal place, with unbelievable leadership, and I really think it’s a sleeping giant job. We have a beautiful campus, we have great academics, and with our great facilities, I thunk we have a chance to be, hopefully, an elite NEC program moving forward, and that’s what my expectation is. I’ve told our guys, ‘I’m not concerned with what’s happened in the past, we have the opportunity to build here and think we can be in a special, special situation.’ So I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think it was a place we could be successful over the long term, and I just think, there’s so many things we can sell there, it’s a different animal, because of the academics, because you’re talking about a beautiful New England campus, in a place, when we are successful, people come. When they had it rolling a few years ago, we’re getting great crowds, selling out home games, so I think that the future could be very bright for us.”
This season, Grasso has gained some good talent in 6-foot-7 junior forward Juan Cardenas, a transfer from Texas’ Midland College and 6-foot-1 redshirt senior point guard Byron Hawkins, who first played at Towson and Murray State, respectively. And there is 6-foot-1 freshman guard Joe Kasperzyk, who Grasso feels is one of the best freshmen guards he’s ever had to date.
On Kasperzyk: “He has been as good as any freshman I’ve ever had, thus far, and I’ll throw the Jio Fontan at Fordham, A.J. English, Sean Armand [at Iona], as a freshman, he has exceeded my expectations times 10, with his ability to pick things up right away, his toughness, and he’s just a really talented kid, so I think he has the chance to be an impact player from Day 1, and a kid four years from now that could be talked about as one of the best players ever to be in this conference.”
On Hawkins: “He averaged 13 points as a sophomore at Towson, played on an NCAA Tournament team at Murray State last year, a kid who’s just wired to score the ball, I think he has a chance to be really good in our league. I think you add another older guy to two returning guards who played a ton of minutes for two years, and then to add another veteran guy who has been to the NCAA Tournament and has been around winning, that’s the biggest piece. He’s a talented kid who can score the ball, but the biggest piece of it is that he’s tasted the NCAA Tournament. He knows what it takes to do those things.”
On Cardenas: “He’s a 6-7 junior college transfer. Really long, athletic, can block shots, can make shots, so he’s kind of a versatile forward, who can play multiple positions.”
Grasso also has two returning juniors that were marquee players that were All-NEC players in 6-foot guard Ikenna Ndugba and 6-foot-1 guard Adam Grant that are now elder statesmen that plan to lead the Bulldogs to big victories this season.
However, Grasso himself has also had experience in the NEC – as a player. He played for Quinnipiac University from 1998 to 2002 and is also a member of the school’s Hall of Fame. During his time there, he added 1,134 points and 404 assists.
When asked about how he felt about coming back to the NEC, this time as a coach, he replied, “You know what’s funny, Joe DeSantis is here doing the media stuff today. He didn’t realize my freshman year was 20 years ago, so it’s my 20-year anniversary from starting in the NEC. It’s a league I’m comfortable with and a league I know. Obviously, I was at Quinnipiac when our first year in Division I was my freshman year, so I’ve seen kind of the transition to Division I, and I know what the league is like. I know it’s league in which you’re two or three players away from competing to win the league with great parity and really good coaches and it’s why, you’re always going to league play in the last week, where teams are battling to finish from first to eighth, there’s movings in the standings in the last weekend of games, because there’s such parity in the conference. I think it’s league that I’m comfortable with, I played in it, I coached in it as an assistant, so it’s a league that I know very well.”
When asked if Bryant was a dream job for him, Grasso added: “The day I walked on campus for my interview I knew it was a job that I was supposed to have. I remember walking around campus, and it reminded me of Quinnipiac, where I had a great academic and basketball experience, with the beautiful facilities, and having the chance to sit down with President Machtley and Bill Smith, and hearing their vision for the men’s basketball program. You know, there’s great support from our leaders, so that’s the most important thing that we have great leadership. We have a chance to have a successful program because it starts from the top. So, I think we have two leaders who want to be successful in basketball, and would like for our program to be the front porch of Bryant Athletics, and that excited me, and knowing that – I remember watching Sacred Heart-Bryant, first round of the NEC Tournament, four or five years ago, place is sold out, Joe O’Shea makes a three at the buzzer, place is going crazy, so it’s a place that when you’re winning, there will be fan support, and to me, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have home court advantage in our league, especially with the new seedings and some of the things we’ve done with our facilities.”
On how campus life has been receptive to him since he stepped on campus, Grasso replied, “I think there’s been a pretty good buzz around our program. I think that both our players and the student body & the faculty are excited about the future of our program and the vision that we have for our program. I came from a place where went to five NCAA Tournaments in the last seven years, and those are the standards and expectations we have for our guys, and we’ve talked about it from Day 1. We have to work really, really hard to reach the goals that we’ve set out for ourselves, but we’ve got high expectations for our group.”
He added: “We’ve washed our hands of last year and have a group of guys who are hungry and have something to prove like Ike [Ndugba] and Adam Grant, two guys that have played a lot of minutes in the NEC, and I think we’re excited about the challenge ahead in the new system and style of play and two guys that want to go out winners and deserve to be winners.I owe it to those guys to give them everything I have to finish their careers the right way.So although I didn’t recruit Adam (Grant) and Ike (Ndugba), I’m here for them, to help them have a great experience their last two seasons. That’s been the most important thing to me with our returning guys, giving them everything I have so they can finish their careers the right way.”
Also, Grasso’s vision includes hard work, because the road to an NCAA Tournament won’t be easy. “The biggest thing I learned from Iona was how hard you have to work, every single day, in everything you do, to give yourself the chance to be successful. It’s a lot of hours and it’s long practices, and it’s guys coming back at night to the gym to get shots up. It’s long days. It’s not easy. Guys have to understand how hard you need to work to win a championship, and that’s been the biggest piece for me, instilling in our guys: a) the work ethic needed to do it, and b) the confidence to understand that we’re not that far away,” he said.
For kids and parents that are wondering about what Bryant has to offer athletically and academically, here is Grasso’s message: “I mean, we’re going to work really hard. I tell guys that when I recruit them all the time, ‘If you don’t love to play basketball, don’t come here, because we’re going to put a lot of time into this, and we’re going to work really hard, you’re going to get a really got a great education from a top-ten business school in the country, you’re going to class every day, you’re going to be on time, you’re going to be at weights, you’re going to come back to shoot at night, if this is going to be a social thing for you or you don’t love basketball, then I’m probably not the right guy for you. But if you love to play and you want to win championships and are willing to put the time in to be great, you’re not going to find a head coach or a staff, that’s going to put more time in with you guys to help you reach your goals,’ and for me at the end of the day, it’s about the 13 guys that I have in my program, and giving those guys the opportunity to reach their goals and teaching those guys what it takes to be successful on the court, but to be successful in life, because it all goes hand in hand, the academics and the weights and the basketball, that stuff goes hand in hand, and for these guys when they’re done, and hopefully have a chance to make money playing professional basketball, but when they’ve put that ball down, they’ll have learned the lessons and the work ethic and the commitment that it takes to be successful.”
Also, in the state of Rhode Island, Bryant is one of four Division I programs in the area, with Brown (Ivy League), Rhode Island (Atlantic 10) and Providence (Big East) as the alpha males.
When asked about how Bryant plans to separate themselves from the other three teams in the state and show that the Bulldogs have arrived, he replied, “That’s the plan. I have high expectations. I’m not one of those guys that say, ‘Oh, it’s okay if we win six games this year, or we want to take steps forward,’ No, I want to win a championship right now. I don’t have a lot of patience, whether that’s right or wrong, I’m ready to win today, and I told these guys that, we’re going to do this the right way, and it’s not a quick fix, but it’s also, we want to win now. Ike’s got two years left, Adam Grant’s got two years left, I owe it to those guys to be successful, what is that going to be? I don’t know. We talk about winning championships, we talk about winning the league, if those weren’t our goals, then there’s something wrong.”
He continued: “If that wasn’t my mindset or Ike’s mindset, then we shouldn’t be coaching or playing this game, because we’re here to win championships and put ourselves in position to get degrees and make money playing basketball, and those are the kind of guys that I want in our program, so to answer your question before, I want guys who want to get a degree from a great school, want to play professional basketball and want to win championships and those are the characteristics for me that, some guys would say, ‘yeah, it’s the NEC,’ I want guys who want to be pros, because then you know they’re going to work at it. And if they put the time in and are committed to it, why not? We had guys at Iona that had no Division I scholarships and are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year now, so if you’re willing to work at it, then you have the opportunity to do it, and you have a staff that’s going to push you and for guys who aren’t committed to it, I’m probably not the right guy for them.”
So far, the Bulldogs are 0-1 on their season, losing to Rhode Island in the interstate battle, 97-63. But after all, that was just game one. There’s more than thirty games left for Bryant to make things right, and that game was just a way to challenge the players before the true test starts in January, during conference play.
With the visit that Jared Grasso has set out for the Bulldogs, there’s no reason that they can’t be successful under his tutelage. But his anxiousness and competitiveness doesn’t know later, it only knows now.