Towson’s Hairston feels offseason program has helped team unity

January 12, 2013 | Robert Canady

When a basketball team is coming off a 1-31 season, it takes a strong belief by everyone involved with the program to turn the culture and results around.  With Towson’s basketball team currently sitting in first place in the Colonial Athletic Association(CAA) with a record of 3-0 (8-8 overall), there is no doubt the one person most responsible for the turnaround is Head Coach Pat Skerry.

Hairston and the Tigers came within 6 points of upseeting No. 15 ranked Georgetown

Once hired in the spring of 2011, Skerry faced a tremendous challenge of putting together a group of players that he believed would ultimately turn Towson into a team that would contend for championships in the CAA.

When Skerry came on board in April of 2011, it was too late in the recruiting season to bring in anyone of real impact for the 2011-12 season, so he set his sights on this season and beyond. Having taken over a team that finished the 2010-11 with 19 straight losses, Skerry was going to have to become a heck of a salesman to bring in any players of note to help get things going in the right direction.

One of the first recipients of Skerry’s sales pitch was 6’3” Tiger freshman Jerome Hairston who was a highly recruited point guard out of Christ High School in Asheville, NC.   Skerry had a little help from former Tiger star and current NBA player Gary Neal.  Hairston participated in the Top 100 camp the summer after his junior year in high school.  The camp invites the top 100 college prospects to participate in a summer camp coached by NBA players.   “At the top 100 camp my coach was Gary Neal and he asked me who I was being recruited by.  He was expecting to hear a bunch of big names {schools} and at the time, I was only being recruited by UNC-Asheville, James Madison and a few other small schools.  He asked if I would be interested in going to Towson, and I’m like sure, I’m open to anything,” explained Hairston.

Jerome Hairston scoring two in the upset win at Oregon St.

After the camp, Hairston and Neal stayed in contact, and ultimately, Pat Skerry called Hairston.  “When Coach Skerry called me it didn’t actually click that it was the same school. So at first I was like I don’t know where Towson is, I don’t know what their mascot is, I was thinking there’s no way,” explained Hairston.   However, Skerry did not give up and got Hairston to come visit the campus during the Homecoming football game of last season.

“Gary came out to see me during my visit and showed me around, to see how I was doing, and two weeks later I was committed to Towson,” continued Hairston.  By then, Hairston was fully aware of Towson’s losing streak, but he also knew things would be different. “I knew that Coach Skerry and Coach Bruce (Shingler) and all the other guys hadn’t been here the years prior.  I knew we would be starting fresh, and I kind of liked the idea of that, because you get to build from nothing and turn it into something.  So I took it as a challenge, “ said Hairston.

With his decision made to attend Towson in the fall of 2012, Hairston was able to focus his efforts on his high school year.   His team went 19-2 and lost in the semifinals of the NCISAA 3A Championship, while being named to the All-State team.  With his and the team’s success, interest in Hairston grew.  In addition to the JMU and UNC-Ashville, he was also recruited by, Colorado, South Carolina and George Washington universities.

Not everyone understood why he would commit to a school like Towson when he had interest from “bigger” schools.  “I have never been asked a question more, than the question; ‘why Towson’ Hairston said laughing.   But Hairston has never questioned his choice, “It’s a very personal decision as to what you feel fits best for you. I thought that this was the best place for me, and I still think that, absolutely. “

So what sold Hairston on Towson?   According to Hairston,“Coach Skerry was just a real guy and I felt like he was telling me the truth.  A lot of coaches have a way of telling you what you want to hear. The day I knew coach Skerry sold me, was the day he told me not only what I was good at, but what I needed to improve as well.  The fact that he wanted me to be better, which excited me a lot.”

Hairston and his new teammates began working toward the improved Towson look as early as last June, when a new NCAA rule permitted teams to add 8 hours a week on conditioning.  The conditioning was a very rigorous program instituted by newly hired strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. Hairston smiles as he thinks back to those summer days. “Oh yeah, we had a lot of tough times, a lot of pick-up games, a lot of early mornings and a lot of late nights, it was tough,” recalled Hairston.

When asked how that program has benefited the team, Hairston doesn’t hesitate to say how it helped them overcome a 13 point deficit with just over 7 minutes to play and beat William and Mary in double-overtime on Wednesday night. “Being this early in the season, if we hadn’t gotten together that early (in the summer) I don’t think we’d pull that game out.  Not so much physically, but mentally, we’ve grown closer as a team. We’ve been through rough patches, people have argued, so we’ve gotten all that out of the way.  Now we’re making steps towards greatness, we’re getting better all the time, and I’m very excited, because it’ll help us come together in rough times, like being down 13 points in a game.”

Being excited is something Hairston openly shows on the floor. He is one of the more animated and outgoing Tigers.  It appears Hairston is evolving in his role as starting point guard and realizes there are many ways he can help lead the team. He leads the team in assist, and has dramatically cut down on the number of turnovers per game.I feel like leaders put themselves where they need to be.  If I need to be a scoring leader, I’ll be one. If I need to be a vocal leader, I’ll be one. I feel like that’s where my calling is right now,” he said.

As Hairston mentioned, the Tigers are playing much better. They are on a four game winning streak, and are tied with Northeastern University for first place in the CAA. Skerry has often said the team would come around as they got more comfortable with each other.  Hairston believes that “You have no choice but to bond, when you’re spending five day trips here and four day trips there. You spend so much time around guys, you get to know them better. You know what they like; you know what they don’t like. You know how to bother them, you know how to get on certain peoples nerves and pick at them, and so you start to figure each other out.  It brings you together, more so than even playing the games, but you start playing better.  So getting to know each other was so big for us.”

One of the things that Skerry told Hairston that he needed to improve on during Hairston’s recruiting visit was his play defensively.  “He said he wanted me to end up being a defensive guy.– A guy that people are afraid to dribble against and a guy people are afraid to come up against on both ends of the court.   He also said he wanted me to lead more. He noticed how I led my team in AAU.  He said right off the bat he wanted me to push myself and come in and be a vocal leader.”

That philosophy of being a strong defender had already been instilled in Hairston by his father, who coached youth teams in Hairston’s native state of Wyoming.  “My father raised me to believe that defense brings your offense.  He has preached that to me my whole life.  So I’ve kind of been able to look past missed shots.  You’re always going to have missed shots, but if you get a stop you’re going to get a second chance.”

Hairston has been playing basketball since he was three years old. At that time he would hang around the teams his father was coaching. “We were watching videos of when I was little and I had the mini-hoop basket, and I was dunking on it to the Space Jams sound track,”Hairston recalled. He continued to play basketball, but also played football and soccer. He stuck with soccer until after his junior year, when he gave it up to concentrate solely on basketball.

With his team at the top of the CAA standings, Hairston was asked what he has heard from his friends and family that questioned his choice.  “I hear from a lot of them.  I don’t even have to say anything. They all keep up and are excited for me.  They see we’re changing things.  After  every win, I get about 30 text messages from my family and friends, he said laughing again.

Hairston has maintained his relationship with Neal.“Gary and I talk about every other day. He knows how many games we’ve had. He knows what my stats are. He’s there to tell me what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong.  He’s a great leader and he’s been a great mentor for me, I love him.”

Most importantly Hairston now has an answer for the “Why Towson” question. Simply, why not Towson.