Bryant head coach Jared Grasso (center) fields questions from several interested media members at Northeast Conference media day. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
Bryant University was an afterthought through much of last season, a 3-28 campaign that turned out to be the swan song for Tim O'Shea, the head coach who shepherded the Bulldog program through its baptism into Division I athletics a decade ago, reaching the postseason and several Northeast Conference tournaments along the way. Yet at the same time, the school needed a new face to take the next step in Rhode Island, guiding it through its adolescence at the highest level, so to speak.
Enter Jared Grasso.
The longtime Tim Cluess assistant who helped turn Iona into a mid-major juggernaut with five NCAA Tournament appearances in seven seasons, hired in Smithfield in April to resurrect the Bulldogs on the heels of helping make history in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference -- Iona became just the third MAAC program to win three straight conference tournaments this past March -- has wasted little time injecting new life into a college basketball landscape already vibrant with the success of in-state rivals Providence and Rhode Island, and it has started with his relentless drive to be nothing but the best.
"I've had a chip on my shoulder since I was fifteen years old playing high school basketball," Grasso said of what has fueled him to begin writing the newest chapter of his career. "That hasn't changed. I think I still have that same chip, and now it's starting to improve as a coach. I had the brief stint at Fordham, which really helped me to prepare for this, but you never think -- when you're always talking about preparing to be a head coach, you think about having a spring, summer and fall, where at Fordham, I was given the job on Tuesday and Thursday night, we were playing a game -- I think now, I've really had a chance to instill my style of play and my philosophies and my culture, and I think my time at Fordham; and especially my eight years at Iona with Tim, have prepared me for this challenge."
"Yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder, as do the guys on my team, because let's face it: We were 3-28 last year, one of the worst teams in the country, and our guys never want to feel like that again. I think I have a blueprint that can get us to the level we want to get to if our guys are willing to work, and they have worked very hard so far. 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."
The grinder mentality was ingrained into Grasso seemingly in utero: His father, Fred, enjoyed an illustrious career as a coach at various levels on Long Island, and even under Rick Pitino during the former national championship-winning coach's tenure with the New York Knicks. From as long as he could remember, young Jared developed the passion and commitment requisite to turn basketball from a hobby into a life form, and even after the elder Grasso passed away last November, the lessons under the learning tree are still being heeded as his boy embarks on his new endeavor.
"He was the most influential person in my life in general when it comes to basketball," said Jared of his father. "Being the son of a coach, there's a lot of basketball conversations that went on over the years, and he knew -- it's funny, he would always talk about 'when the right opportunity comes, you're gonna get it,' -- there were times I think my dad wanted it more than me, so he could be a part of it and be around for it. It's bittersweet, but all the lessons that I've learned and the things that he taught me in life -- both as a person and a coach -- are things that I'll carry over to our players. Again, it's bittersweet not having him around for this moment and this point of my career, but I know he's watching down and couldn't be more proud of what I am right now."
While Fred Grasso and Cluess are the major influences on Jared's basketball life, the 38-year-old firebrand draws a striking comparison to one of his current contemporaries in the New England region: UConn head coach Dan Hurley. Eight years ago, Hurley capped his rise from the high school ranks into Division I athletics with a two-year run at Wagner in which he turned the Seahawks into a 25-win outfit with a victory over the University of Pittsburgh before taking over at Rhode Island in 2012. Shortly before his first season in Kingston, Hurley spoke of feeling like he needed to go outside his comfort zone -- the New York/New Jersey region -- to prove himself as a head coach, and to prove that he could carve out his own niche in uncharted territory. An Atlantic 10 Conference championship and back-to-back NCAA Tournaments served as the impetus behind his move to UConn, and Bryant's new leader has found a similar parallel in going away, so to speak, in order to validate and vindicate himself.
"Absolutely," Grasso proclaimed. "I think I have something to prove out of the region, and I think it's a great opportunity. Bryant's an unbelievable place with unbelievable leadership, and I really do think it's a sleeping giant job. I think we have the 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 about what happened in the past. I know we have the opportunity to build here, and I really think it could be a special, special situation. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think it was a place where we could be successful over the long term. I think the future can be very bright for us."
Eight years ago, there was a strong push to hire Grasso -- at 29, the youngest head coach in the nation when he replaced Dereck Whittenburg at Fordham midway through the 2009-10 season -- full-time on the Rose Hill campus. Frank McLaughlin, the athletic director at the time, saw things differently, ultimately hiring Tom Pecora and extending his contract two months into a tenure that was cut short after five years. Undaunted, Grasso moved on to join Cluess at Iona, and learned more about himself in the process.
"I thought throughout the process, I was ready to run my own program," he said. "I felt that if I kept the Fordham job, that I would have had success there, and I knew that when I got the right opportunity, that I was going to be successful wherever it may be. I had a couple of opportunities out of the region that I didn't pursue because my father had been sick, and I wasn't going to leave New York when my father wasn't doing well. This is the opportunity that came about, and it's the perfect fit for me. I've learned you have to have a little bit of patience, and if you can live life from back to front, it'll be a lot easier to understand why things happen. Now that I'm in this position, I can look back and I can say, 'okay, now I know why I had to go through all these things to have this opportunity again.'"
"But I ended up in the perfect place for myself and the perfect situation for myself. I've always been looking for a program that I can build, and for me, it's exciting where we're coming from. I like the challenge and the task of trying to build something. Sometimes, the reality if Tim Cluess had moved on or retired and I had to take over at Iona, I would have had some difficult shoes to fill. It's hard to do what's been done there. Here, I'm really excited about building this thing with my ideas and my philosophies, and my culture."
The culture of which Grasso speaks, one rooted in endless self-improvement on and off the court, as well as treating others the way they treat oneself, has taken on a life of its own in just a short period of time. Bryant's new coach openly embraces the players he has inherited just as strongly as those he recruited, proudly declaring them to be his in much the same vein he would his two sons, two-year-old Jared Anthony and one-month-old Cole Gregory. As such, he has emerged as a staunch defender of his guys, and is willing to run through a brick wall for them the same way his players have demonstrated they would for him.
"I owe it to those guys to give them everything I have to finish their careers the right way," said Grasso. "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."
Head coach once again, Grasso's boundless energy has only multiplied since making the move from Long Island to Rhode Island. He simply knows no other way, and the zeal for which he is approaching his rebuild is no surprise to those who have come to know him.
"My adrenaline rush hasn't stopped since April 1, when I took the job," he said. "I've had an adrenaline rush for a long time, but I have the same adrenaline and competitiveness every day. One thing you can guarantee, whether my sons have me up all night and I've slept for two hours, or my kids are back in New York and I got ten hours of sleep, I'm gonna walk in the gym with the same approach and the same energy, and the same passion for competitiveness. That's what programs can be built around. If we can come out and compete every night, I'm very optimistic that we'll have a chance to be very good this year."