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Commentary: Masiello can still be a role model at Manhattan College

Steve Masiello called me for a feature story I was penning two Octobers ago. With his Manhattan College basketball team preparing for the rapidly approaching 2012-13 season, Masiello graciously granted me about 20 minutes of his day, telling me about his method for successfully rebuilding the Jaspers.

Near the end of our conversation, I told him I grew up rooting for Manhattan — that the Jaspers got me hooked on college basketball.

“That’s great. I love to hear that. I really love to hear that,” Masiello responded before telling me he wanted to catch up more the next time I visited Riverdale on a break.

His invitation was sweet. It was unsolicited and certainly unnecessary. Above all, it seemed genuine.

And that’s what has nagged me during this whirlwind of a week that’s seen Masiello go from Manhattan to the University of South Florida and from University of Kentucky graduate to college dropout. I don’t know what to believe. I can only imagine how Masiello’s Jaspers must feel.

Masiello had said on numerous occasions that he loved coaching at Manhattan College. He loved his players, their work ethic and their commitment to the program.

“This is where I want to be. I want to be in New York. I want to be with these kids. I’m really excited about the future of this program.”

That’s what Masiello told reporters after Manhattan fell to Louisville in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64 on March 20. Sounds genuine, right?

The following day, Masiello emerged as the leading candidate for the vacant USF head coaching position. By Tuesday, Masiello and Manhattan were no mas.

Or so we all thought — and I mean everyone ranging from the janitor of Draddy Gymnasium to every national college basketball writer.

But then USF killed the deal. The 36-year-old head coach had never earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky as his resume stated, according to a search firm USF had hired to conduct a background check.

Is it possible the firm made a mistake? I guess. But that would be one expensive mistake for USF, which doled out $60,000 for the background search.

With more details yet to emerge, Masiello seems like a liar to his players and employers. The New York Post reported Thursday that a source claims the degree discrepancy is due to a paperwork predicament.

Whatever the case may be, an important question arises: How much value should a college degree hold on a college basketball coach’s resume? Schools hire coaches who have graduated from college because they want their student-athletes to emulate their coaches and graduate as well. Schools want their coaches to serve not only as instructors of their sport, but also as role models to their students.

But the pending accusations notwithstanding, Masiello has served as an impeccable role model for his players. He has demanded professionalism from college students, requiring, among other things, his Jaspers to sit in the front two rows of class and to never wear sweats. He has connected with these kids. That much is made clear by watching a Manhattan game.

The players bought into his culture his first day on the job three seasons ago, and by creating an atmosphere of “Team Over Everything” — that was Manhattan’s motto this year — he has helped save college careers. Just ask Emmy Andujar, who, if not for his connection with the Jasper family, might have sought revenge for his brother’s drug-related murder.

Masiello made a mistake at the ripe, young age of 22. When applying for an entry-level coaching position at Tulane, he wrote on his resume that he had graduated from Kentucky. He got the job and ever since, he has lived the lie.

His youth doesn’t absolve him. It certainly doesn’t.

But put yourself in his shoes, a college student with a job opportunity that could jump-start your dream career. What would you do?

Say you’re a junior majoring in economics with the aspirations of running a bank. Chase offers you a good job, a college degree being the only qualification you don’t meet. What do you do?

It’s always easier to take the high road in hypothetical situations, but you would definitely at least think about straying. You would. And if you would stray, you’d try to make the most of the opportunity, just as Masiello has done for the last 14 years.

Manhattan College faces a tough decision: dismiss the coach who resuscitated the Jaspers basketball program or retain the accused liar who had his bags packed for South Florida. I can’t fault the school whichever way it leans, at least with the details that are currently public knowledge. It’s not clear-cut like Binghamton University’s 2010 buyout of Kevin Broadus, who recruited players below the school’s academic standard and then pressured teachers into awarding undeserving grades.

College basketball provides second and third chances to its student-athletes. If not for second chances, Jordan Reed might not be the star of our school’s basketball team; Cleanthony Early, who starred for nearby Sullivan County Community College, would not have led Wichita State to a perfect regular season. The list continues.

Because — and only because — Masiello had proven to be a sturdy role model before this fiasco, he deserves a second chance from the school he carried out of obscurity. Assuming he’s not years shy of completing his communications degree, he can lead by example and graduate from Manhattan College — Eddie Jordan has created a precedent for this at Rutgers. Masiello’s players will see a coach determined to right the ship, and he will undoubtedly feel indebted to the program that afforded him a second chance.

At least that’s what I’d like to believe, just as I wanted to believe his catch-up invitation and commitment to Manhattan College.

Maybe the second time’s the charm.