Monday, May 14, 2018

Grasso ready to dive into year one at Bryant

Just over one month into his tenure, Jared Grasso has wasted little time in quest to raise Bryant up from depths of last year's 3-28 campaign as former Iona assistant returns to head coaching chair. (Photo by Bryant University Athletics)

Jared Grasso had seen and heard his name thrown into conversations for several head coaching vacancies over the past three years, as each advancement by the Iona program for which he served as Tim Cluess' lead assistant into the NCAA Tournament fueled a fire that had become an annual rite of passage in and around the metropolitan area. Over that time, the question of whether or not the Long Island native and basketball lifer would set out on his own shifted, becoming a matter of when more so than one of if.

The inevitable became reality six weeks ago, when Grasso departed New Rochelle -- four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships and five NCAA Tournament berths later -- to succeed Tim O'Shea at Bryant University, replacing his retired predecessor after a 3-28 season and ushering a new era of hope and prosperity into Smithfield, Rhode Island.

But why Bryant, a three-plus-hour drive from his home base, and a program with only one postseason appearance since taking the step up to Division I a decade ago?

"From the outside looking in, it was always a job that I was intrigued by," Grasso, who just turned 38 this past Friday, said of his new employer. "It reminded me a little bit of Quinnipiac, where I went to school -- beautiful campus, great facilities, and unbelievable leadership -- and it's something that excited me. After my first conversation with (athletic director) Bill Smith, I knew it was a job I wanted. I felt like it was the right fit for me."

With a satisfactory comfort level firmly in tow, Grasso -- a tireless grinder and Energizer bunny of sorts in the coaching ranks -- has already gotten to work in terms of evaluating his roster and setting up his staff, already making noise on the recruiting trail to blend youth with a base of experienced players the likes of Adam Grant and Ikenna Ndugba, a backcourt that will enter the coming season among the best in the Northeast Conference, as well as forward Sabastian Townes and a host of other Bulldogs that have already warmed up to their new leader, displaying a passion to improve just one month into the new regime.

"I think Adam has been terrific," Grasso said of Grant, who will head into his junior year Bryant's leading scorer last season with an average of 15.6 points per game. "He can really score the ball. He's a kid who really would have fit into the way we played at Iona, which is the way we want to play here -- get up and down the floor, really score the ball. Our backcourt, with him and Ike, are experienced guys who have played a lot of minutes."

"Sabastian Townes was a double-figure scorer last year. There are some pieces that are coming back that played major minutes, and there are guys who I think can continue to improve. I'm not expecting this to happen overnight, but I think they've bought in and they've started to understand mentally what my expectations are, how hard we're going to work, and I think our guys have embraced it and are taking steps in the right direction."

Grasso already got fans excited at his April 2 press conference, when he alluded to intending to employ the same uptempo attack he and Cluess spent eight seasons honing to perfection at Iona, where the Gaels ranked among the NCAA's most prolific offenses every season the two were together. But for the son of a coach and right-hand man of a winner with a Midas touch at every level, such a style is the only way he knows.

"I've always been a guy, having played for Joe DeSantis in college and having worked for him at Quinnipiac, who has always been an uptempo guy," Grasso said. "Then, having been blessed to work with Tim Cluess -- one of the best offensive basketball minds in college basketball, bar none -- I'll carry a lot of the principles of his style of play. I said in my press conference that I truly believe I got a Ph.D. in basketball and life from Tim Cluess, and I'll carry over a lot of how we ran our program, and a lot of philosophical stuff and style of play will be very similar. I inherited Ike and Adam, who are as good a backcourt as any of the returning guys in the league, and with the pieces we've added into the mix, I do think we have guys that can play that style. Moving forward, I think we'll be able to do it more and more."

With each passing day, Grasso continues to relish the second chance he is now living, eight years removed from being thrown into the fire of a difficult situation, succeeding Dereck Whittenburg at Fordham and being the interim head coach of the Rams at the tender age of 29, at the time the youngest head coach in the nation. Since the trial by fire on the Rose Hill campus, a wiser veteran has emerged, using his rookie experience as a guide for how to be more efficient this time around.

"I tell people all the time that those three or four months were probably the most beneficial of my career," he reflected. "You're always preparing to become a head coach. I was kind of thrown to the wolves becoming an interim head coach, and I've learned all the things you need to do to run a program. When you're an assistant, you have ideas, but at the end of the day, the head coach makes those decisions. I think having the opportunity to sit in that seat and understand what it encompasses, and everything that comes with being the head coach, prepared me for this time around, where I knew what to expect."

"I learned a lot at a young age, and again, a lot of it was by fire," he reiterated. "It turned me into a better assistant coach when I went back to work with Tim, and prepared me to be a better head coach. I do think that I'm much, much better now having had the chance to develop, learn, and be around some really good people."

By the same token, Iona's latest run of three straight MAAC championships -- becoming only the third school to accomplish that feat -- proved to Grasso just how valuable and laborious such consistency can truly be. 

"Being around winning and learning what it takes to win at a high level is something that I don't take for granted," he said. "You realize how hard it is to win. Sometimes people look at the success we had at Iona and take it for granted at times. Winning is really, really hard, and when you do it consistently -- and to do it at the level that Tim has at Iona -- it's something special, which is why I carry over so many things I've learned from him."

However, the perennial success in which Grasso played an integral part is now in his rearview mirror, replaced by a shared hunger with his players to turn a three-win outfit into a contender in a wide-open NEC that has traditionally been friendly to upstart programs over the years.

"The rebuild has energized me and excited me," Grasso gushed. "It gives you a little bit of a chip on your shoulder with something to prove, which is what I felt when I was a player. I get so enthused by the opportunity to come to a place that I think is a great fit, and a place where we can turn this into a program that is talked about. I think we have everything in place to do that. This has excited me and kind of reenergized me."

"It's also hard, per se, to turn a program around." he added. "But we have something to prove now. Now, we're the hunters, not the hunted. It's different having your back against the wall again with something to prove, and it's something that excites me."

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