By Joe Pantorno, Assistant Sports Editor
Talk of upcoming operas, concerts, celebrity visits and budget cuts is prevalent at a liberal arts school. At Hofstra this year though, talk of men's basketball has taken over.
In the last few years of the Tom Pecora regime the team could not reach the NCAA Tournament and attendance dropped off by almost 1,000 fans from the 2006-07 season.
In 2006-07, the last year the Pride made the NIT Tournament, the average attendance at the Mack was 3,623. Just two years later in the 2008-09 season, attendance was down to 2,681 fans per game. Attendance continued to drop the following season when 2,490 fans showed up on average for each game.
Attendance is not back to where it was four years ago, but an average of 2,874 fans are showing up to each game this season through Saturday. Saturday was the first sellout of the Mack Arena since Feb. 17, 2007 against Holy Cross.
"I went through a few years where it just went down," said senior guard Charles Jenkins. "There was a time when we were bad after they [teammates from redshirt freshman year in 2006-2007] left and we were very bad."
Things did not get better entering the 2010 offseason as a disastrous one month period saw the Pride lose two different head coaches, Pecora and Tim Welsh. To make matters worse, All – Colonial Athletic Association Freshman Team members Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams transferred, and Hofstra lost all three committed recruits, who followed Pecora to Fordham. It appeared Hofstra basketball was going to enter a very dark time.
Surprisingly, Hofstra's savior fell right into its lap in the form of one of Welsh's assistants, Mo Cassara. The former Boston College assistant took the wheel of the Pride as head honcho and something rather positive happened: the Pride began to win.
"From the spring on we made it a very important piece to this program that we make sure we get some buzz on campus and make things exciting for the students again," said Cassara. "A lot of credit goes to our team. We've won some great games and we've created a bit of a buzz."
Led by the nation's fifth leading scorer in Jenkins, the Pride jumped out to a 5-0 start in CAA play. The team's start was quite the story and the play of its senior star grabbed headlines all over the nation, from ESPN to CBS.
With all the coverage and success, fans and students began to come back in full force, most recently in last Monday's overtime win against James Madison and Saturday's loss to Drexel, where the sell out crowds rocked the Mack and the players who played there.
"We came into the season with a lot against us," said Jenkins. "I didn't really expect everyone to be so supportive of us and I think the winning is taking care of that."
While fans get pumped to see their team play, a big crowd is just as exciting for the players.
"We're humbled about it," said senior center Greg Washington. "We love these guys and they love us back and they're with us each step of the way and I think the atmosphere here Saturday was a perfect example of that."
"The fans are definitely our sixth man," said Jenkins. "When we played JMU, even though we were down they continued chanting for us and they stayed and no one left and that is one thing I'll never forget about the Lion's Den."
It is not only the product on the court that has drawn fans back to the Mack.
"The administration, the marketing people, our basketball staff have been out in the community, on campus, off campus and really on campus doing everything from handing out tickets to shaking hands and meeting kids and that is something I love to do," said Cassara
The affectionate feelings are mutual for the students of Hofstra University towards Cassara and the Pride and they realize that this year is special compared to the past few years.
"I love Mo Cassara," said senior Adam Feld. "He seems like a great person and seems like he's a guy who has gotten this team and gotten the message across."
"It's really great," said sophomore Anthony Murillo. "I like the atmosphere and want them to do better and keep winning and we'll see from there."
"I go to almost all the games," said senior Jeff Herman. "I'm really happy to see the past couple of games that the back rows of the Lion's Den have been really filling up, especially for the game on Saturday where they filled all the way to the back of the row to the next level."
The excitement has not been limited to campus however, as Hofstra basketball has hit the social networking sites of Twitter and Facebook so fans can get as close to the Pride as ever.
"I'm friends with most of the fans on Facebook," said Washington. "They hit me up before each game, they ask me if I'm ready and I always tell them the same thing that I am just as ready as they are."
Hofstra students have also taken part in Facebook's newest phenomenon, ‘Charles Jenkins Facts', where any member of the group can tell tall tales similar to Chuck Norris Facts. Two of Jenkins' favorites are: "The sun rises when Charles Jenkins wakes up," and "Jesus celebrates Charles Jenkins' birthday."
"The Charles Jenkins Facts thing is crazy," said Jenkins. "My friend called me one morning and said ‘Yo you got your own facts now,' and I went on Twitter and Facebook and I saw it on Facebook and was laughing all day."
Cassara also takes advantage of technology to get closer with the Pride faithful.
"Whether it's me going back and forth at night with students on Twitter and Facebook and I do that stuff all the time," said Cassara. "Ultimately, our student body is what really makes us go and I'm really proud of who showed up on Saturday."
This season is far from over and the Pride has a message for everyone who calls himself or herself a member of the Lion's Den.
"We're almost there, we have eight games left and I can't wait to see the turnout on Saturday," said Washington. "I love our fans and I hope they keep it up."
"I want everybody to come back Saturday despite our loss," said Jenkins. "I would definitely like to see the Mack packed again, it was a great feeling and we're going to come back and play hard for them this Saturday."