TEACHING ON CARPET AND COURT:
A LESSON IN TIME MANAGEMENT FOR A WAGNER COACH
By ZACH SCHONBRUN
The first-grade students at Public School 80 entered Room 108 single file at 8:10 on a clear and blustery morning on Staten Island, placed their book bags in cubbyholes and waited. It was time for Bashir Mason to check their homework.
Sunlight still angled in through the windows, the voices were low and the announcements had not yet been read over the speaker system. “Look,” a student said, “look at my new pencil case.”
Mason smiled. He had been awake since 6, and he never drinks caffeine, but a long day beckoned.
He is a student teacher, in the final semester of a master’s program in education, but in a couple of hours he would resume his more celebrated role as the men’s basketball coach at Wagner College, a five-minute uphill drive away. Practices have been under way for more than two weeks to prepare for a menacing Northeast Conference schedule. The Seahawks expect to compete this season, maybe even win their conference, maybe even clinch a berth in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
But first, their coach needed to read to the children. The classroom was decorated with apples made of construction paper. Two dozen students crawled onto a rug with a zoo theme, taking their spots upon designated animals. Mason folded his 6-foot frame into a rocking chair. He spread the pages of the book wide so the children could see the pictures.
“Frog and Toad were reading a book together,” Mason began.
It takes Mason 15 minutes to make the switch from a student teacher to a Division I coach. That is all the time he is afforded.
On one morning in early October, practice began at 10 a.m. At 9:55, Mason had changed from a gray sweater and blue slacks into a long-sleeve black T-shirt and cutoff sweats. He gathered his players in a huddle in the corner of the gym and engaged them in an expletive-laced tirade, displeased by their effort and focus the past few days.
It was an abrupt U-turn from the whispering Mr. Mason persona he had assumed in the classroom about a half-hour earlier. But in a sense, it served as a reminder: playtime was over.
“I needed to recharge their batteries,” he said later.
At 29, Mason is the youngest Division I men’s basketball head coach, and his staff and administrators believe he is the only one actively assuming a dual role as an elementary schoolteacher.
It was not what Mason had envisioned. But two years ago he enrolled in a master’s program in education on campus, and he plans to finish it in December.
When Wagner promoted him from assistant to head coach in March 2012, after Dan Hurley left to coach Rhode Island, Mason had only a few credits remaining. But the last requirement — 220 hours of hands-on classroom experience — has required unusual commitment.
Five mornings a week, Mason works with Maria Premus at the Michael J. Petrides School for about two hours, always before basketball practice. On Fridays, Mason teaches, coaches and then attends class on campus for three hours in the afternoon.
“When you see a guy leading the ship like that,” the assistant Mike Babul said, “you tend to follow.”
Coaches and classrooms, even at the highest athletic level, have never been mutually exclusive. The former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel used to teach class twice a week on campus, following in the footsteps of Woody Hayes, who lectured on World War II history. For years, the basketball coach Fran Dunphy has co-taught an honors business course at Temple. La Salle Coach John Giannini has a doctorate in kinesiology from Illinois that he earned while working as an assistant there in the 1980s.
Even Walt Hameline, Wagner’s athletic director and football coach, taught kindergarten for extra money while working as an assistant football coach at SUNY Albany.
But that was decades ago. Times have changed, and so have priorities and the demands on coaches, who are paid handsomely to avoid distraction.
“Coaching a sport now is a 12-month scenario,” Hameline said. “Kids are here all summer. They’re in summer school; they’re with strength coaches; there’s always interaction. It never ends. Going back years ago, there weren’t community service scenarios. All these things now are taking up your whole life as a coach.”
Mason did not disagree, but, as Hameline noted, he has a big-picture grasp of his role. On Mason’s desk, basketball video is carefully organized, bottles of hand sanitizer are within reach, and he uses them frequently. Time management and personal care have always been prioritized.
Mason insisted that his pursuit of a graduate degree did not mean he was wavering on his desire to coach, as Hurley once thought. Instead, Mason believes he is taking initiative for his career.
“I’m not viewing it as a backup,” Mason said. “I view this as making myself more marketable. Taking that extra step to get the master’s, I don’t think there’s a lot of head coaches with that.”
He was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and the diploma from Drexel is framed and hanging in the foyer of his apartment, a short walk from campus. Mason was raised in Jersey City by a single mother, Kathy, who worked three jobs — as a home health aide, at the post office and on weekends at St. Mary’s elementary school — to care for Mason, his two sisters and an aunt, Edna, who lived in their basement.
Kathy Mason sent her son to Marist High School in Bayonne, N.J., and St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, where he played for Hurley. After a four-year career at Drexel, Mason joined Hurley on the sideline, first as an assistant at St. Benedict’s and then at Wagner in 2010.
He never could have imagined that only five years after his playing career ended, he would take the reins of a Division I program. He wondered, Do I really need to finish school now? And can I handle this workload? He dismissed the doubts, thinking about his mother.
“I can’t be lazy; I’ve got no choice,” Mason said. “My mom worked three jobs so I could go to private school growing up. How do I wake up and say going to teach for two hours and coming here to coach is hard?”
In his first season as coach, Mason drew from the techniques he learned from Hurley and Drexel Coach Bruiser Flint and augmented them with a lot of yelling. Practices were raw and chaotic, he conceded.
“At this time last year, I had no voice,” Mason said. “I was running around the gym like a maniac, thinking I was a player. I was in a full sweat every day.”
Experience has helped him reshape his approach, and so has teaching. Walking to his car after class, Mason, still speaking barely above a whisper, said it was helping him grasp how to get through to people with different levels of comprehension.
“This whole thing has just been a learning process,” Mason said. “It’s almost like coaching — you learn as you go.”
“I’m real fragile with those kids in there, but, you’ll see, there’s no holding back,” he added, referring to the switch he makes for practice, which was just about to begin.
Mason’s practices are a rush of noise, energy, wind sprints and cursing. Last week, he barred his players from the locker room and prohibited them from wearing team-issued gear at practice, angered by their nonchalance.
“He transforms,” the senior guard Latif Rivers said, holding back a smile. “He’s still a teacher on the court, but he just goes into coaching mode.”
After practice, Mason gathered his team in another huddle, this time in a different corner of the gym. His tone had changed, and so had his message. “Those were the two best practices of the year,” he said.
His players had learned his lesson.