Mequon, Wis. -- When a high school senior boy's basketball player commits to Concordia University Wisconsin and the men's basketball program, they are committing for a variety of reasons. Clearly to advance their academic career, but also to begin a new career in NCAA basketball under the leadership of head coach Shawn Cassidy.
They are choosing to be part of a family community that supports each other no matter what the cause may be. They are choosing to grow not only spiritually, but also athletically and emotionally as they lay it on the line for a program that is different.
When the CUW men's basketball team lost their Northern Athletics Conference semifinal game to Edgewood College, 89-85, at home they thought the season was over. The Falcons had just cruised through the NAC regular season with the league's first-ever undefeated season, winning by nearly 14 points a victory. They had earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and handled Wisconsin Lutheran in the opening round by 32 points.
However, with a feisty league rival in Edgewood, the battle of the top two seeds in the North Division proved to be everything the semifinal matchup was hyped up to be. The Eagles used their size inside to outrebound the Falcons, but CUW responded on nearly ever possession with a balanced scoring attack. Despite a valiant effort to cut a 10-point deficit to three in the closing seconds, late free throws slammed the door shut on the Falcons run to a title.
Had CUW just ended its magical season with a heartbreaking defeat at home?
Would the NCAA selection committee look at CUW's complete body of work and award them an at-large bid?
It seemed like a possibility.
An agonizing two-and-a-half days passed before the team gathered in their locker room to await their fate after an abrupt end to their season. As the NCAA tournament selection show leisurely went through the bracket one team at a time, white knuckles were common like a group of first timers parachuting out a plane.
Finally, there it was. Concordia Wisconsin, winners of the Northern Athletics Conference will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
The euphoria set in almost immediately with hugs, high fives, and screams of joy. All the 6 a.m. practices, excruciating weight lifting sessions and hours of sweating had finally paid off. CUW was no longer just a local university with a good men's basketball program, the Falcons were now on the national stage. A stage they had always dreamt of reaching, but now a stage they intended to be a part of year-in and year-out for seasons to come.
"Hosting the NCAA Tournament puts us on a national stage, rather than the small community that we have been used to," head coach Cassidy said. "I think this year going undefeated in conference brought some local media attention that we have never had before. Now our name is out there on a national level with the other D III powerhouses. This is a big step in the right direction."
"Our goal has always been getting to the tournament, but now it is becoming more of an expectation than a goal. We expect to be here ever year and I think the women's basketball program feels the same way. I think we have to advance in the NCAA Tournament and not just be happy we are here. We need to take it one more step."
The program will advance a notch in the pyramid of success, but that may have never been if it wasn't for the vision of President Rev. Dr. Patrick T. Ferry and Athletic Director Dr. Rob Barnhill. The two saw something in hiring longtime mentor and leader Wayne Rasmussen, prior to the 2005-06 season, for his second stint with the university. Rasmussen needed just one member to assist him in leading his program, a former player to be his right-hand man. While the visions of bigger and better things were talked about, this former student-athlete had dreams of taking the program to another level, a level beyond the .500 seasons and the last 30-plus years of mediocrity.
That person is Shawn Cassidy.
When he made one of the most difficult decisions of his professional career six years ago, deciding to move his family 2,000 miles from their home in Orange County, Calif., Cassidy chose a place he cherished deeply in his heart. A place he had spent four years of his life grinding day-in and day-out on the hardwood for a limited role on the basketball team. Those years growing and learning about leadership, trust, and more importantly about teamwork, is what drove him back to CUW.
During Cassidy's first two years after returning to CUW as an assistant, the future seemed gloomy following a pair of eight-win seasons. The two coaches had bright visions for the program, a program that desperately needed to be different from years past. After two seasons Rasmussen decided to retire from coaching and turn the reigns over to Cassidy with the hopes for greener pastures and brighter stars.
The student-athletes on the current roster during the changeover saw the differences Cassidy was implementing. Differences in the recruiting process, the complete student-athletes being sought after, the high-character men that would guide the team, and more important the relationship and family atmosphere that now meant something.
Recent graduates, along with this year's graduating class are now proud to say they are the face of the new generation of men's basketball. The pride for CUW men's basketball displayed by past graduates seemingly had gone to the wayside, but now it is with a renewed sense of passion that basketball is on the forefront of many minds. There is now an enthusiasm for a program that helps sculpt young boys into men, who become leaders in the workforce, great fathers and husbands, and men of character that want nothing but to be part of CUW basketball.
All of this change and difference in mentality Cassidy has brought to the program may have never happened if it wasn't for one coach and former mentor telling his young pupil not to give up and that he wouldn't take 'No' for an answer.
"I remember I was going through a lot of family problems and a serious illness at home," Cassidy said. "I went into Coach Rasmussen's office and explained to him why I needed to quit the basketball team and coach just told me 'No.' I tried to explain to him the issues going on in my life and that basketball was not important.
"He wouldn't let me quit and he wouldn't give me the time of day to explain myself. He told me not to be late for practice because my teammates were going to run if I was late. Looking back on that day, I appreciate what he said because I wouldn't be where I am now if he would have allowed me to quit."
Because of those few eye-opening experiences Cassidy realized that nothing comes easy in life and he teaches from his experiences towards his players now with an open-door relationship. He is honest and forthcoming no matter what the situation is; whether it is academics, a player's role on the team, or a situation in life that needs to be addressed. Cassidy has always been available to have a discussion.
The open and honest relationships that are built with those associated with men's basketball have allowed the program to become unified. A combined group of men who are straightforward with each other, willing to be true to one's self, and having the utmost trust in each other. This is why today's CUW men's basketball program is different, different for all the right reasons.