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There is reality, and there is truth.
Steve Masiello understands the reality. He understands that some people never will believe him, forever branding him a liar for listing himself as a Kentucky graduate on his résumé when he hadn't completed his undergraduate degree.
Manhattan's recently reinstated basketball coach doesn't blame anyone for having that opinion. There is evidence to support that conclusion, even though so much evidence lies solely in the mind of Masiello.
Only he knows. That is the truth.
In its absence, Masiello probably would think the same thing many people have thought of him over the past two-plus months.
"Unless you know me personally, unless you're around me, if I read this story, if I heard this story, I'd be like, 'How do you think you graduated?' " Masiello told The Post this week, addressing the situation for the first time. "I'd want to know that. How did you think that?"
It was something he hadn't thought about in nearly 14 years.
Since leaving Lexington in the summer of 2000, Masiello had worked as an assistant at Tulane, Manhattan and Louisville, before becoming the Jaspers' head coach in April 2011. He listed himself as a college graduate on each application, with no background check countering that claim.
The next step in the ascension of the rising star was imminent. After taking Manhattan to its first NCAA Tournament in 10 years this March, and nearly pulling an upset over mentor Rick Pitino and defending champion Louisville, Masiello instantly became the hottest name in coaching circles - in a loss.
"The game ends and you have 242 texts, half from people you've never heard from in your life," Masiello said. "I've been in this business long enough to know the Sinatra song is so true - 'Riding high in April, shot down in May.' I just happened to get lucky at the right time and get success, so I get rewarded."
Multiple schools contacted him, with South Florida making the most aggressive pursuit of the 36-year-old. Though the White Plains native was torn about leaving, Masiello agreed to accept a Godfather-style offer he couldn't refuse - a five-year deal worth more than $1 million per season.
"This is home for me and I never wanted to or want to leave New York emotionally, but there comes a point in your life where you have to make a decision and take emotion out of it," Masiello said. "I love Manhattan for reasons that people who don't know me will never understand. I earned my stripes at Manhattan at 24 years old, my first real time job. For me, that's where my mom and my dad, when he was alive, were coming to every game I coached.
"Manhattan means the world to me, but at that time, it wasn't about emotion. It was about looking at my long-term career and financial security. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a big part of it. South Florida gave me a great opportunity. It did a lot of things on paper that were eye-opening to me."
Then came the call from South Florida that started the spiral, in which he learned a seemingly routine background check revealed he did not have his degree. While planning the future of a new program, he was thrown back into a hazy past. As-good-as-it-gets became worse-than-he-knew-it-could-be.
Confused with the discrepancy, Masiello called the Kentucky registrar's office, asking who to speak to for confirmation of his degree. No such person existed. The university said their records showed he did not graduate.
I said, 'That's impossible,' " Masiello recalled. "They said, 'It's not impossible. This is what we show. This is where it stands. You haven't met your requirements.' This was as big a shock to me as everyone.
"It was earth shattering. It's 14 years later, this is now going to be my fifth job. Why is this coming up now? I'm thinking of all these things, how do I rectify this? What is the root of this problem? You get on the phone and start calling people. You try and find former teachers and academic advisors, anyone who can give me answers of what went on. I'm realizing that there is an issue here that is bigger than a phone call that's gonna make it OK."
As a senior in May 2000, Masiello participated in the school's commencement ceremony, walking in a cap and gown, and had a graduation party, but he needed to take courses over the summer to finish his degree.
Before classes began, Masiello accepted a job as an assistant at Tulane. The walk-on rented an apartment in Lexington for the summer to take the classes paid for by his parents.
"If anyone doesn't know my mother and father, it was a big deal for me to graduate," Masiello said. "They invested a lot in my education. I knew I had to stay. I left when classes were over and started my coaching career at Tulane in the fall."
He left Kentucky believing all his coursework had been completed. He never checked his grades. He never followed up with his teachers or the university. He assumed everything was done and everything was fine.
If any mail was sent to his house in New York, regarding his incomplete work, he isn't aware of it. At the time, he was already sleeping on the couch of fellow assistant Pooh Williamson in New Orleans. He says he never thought about his degree again. Life as a student was over. A new life had begun.
As for his diploma?
"I never wondered about it, that I can honestly say," Masiello said. "I never wondered about did I graduate, not once. It was a given in my mind. I thought I did what I was supposed to do. Even if I do think I did every final, what I should've done is come September, call back and make sure all my classes were passed, everything was turned in and I didn't do that at 22 years old and I'm wrong for that. I thought I was a graduate. I didn't think there was any reason for me to follow up and check it. There's no excuse for that. When I think about it, yeah, I should've followed up. If I was the same person I was at 22 as I am at 36, this wouldn't have happened.
"Even if everyone knew the whole story, I'm wrong. But there's a big difference between having intent to mislead and making a mistake at 22 years old. I should be held accountable and punished for it, but I never had intent to mislead people. Some people might say, 'I still wouldn't have thought that,' and I get that too because some people will say, 'What do you mean you didn't have your degree on your wall?' I didn't have my degree on my wall. It's just something I never really thought of. I'll tell you, it will be in August.
"Certain people will never understand. The people who are gonna think it, they're gonna think it no matter what."
After South Florida withdrew its offer, Masiello waited to learn if Manhattan would allow him to return, with the school requiring an undergraduate degree for the head coaching position. He was placed on leave until the school reached a decision, with administration split on whether to bring back a coach they wanted back so badly the week prior.
In just a few days, the hottest name in the game thought he might be gone from the game forever.
"You don't know if you're ever gonna coach again," Masiello said. "It was horrible. I thought I was getting out of the business. I had a meeting at my house with probably the 12 closest people and I was just gonna go work a job. I was thinking of going to law school, I was thinking of working for my cousin, who's a banker, with a family friend who has a construction company.
"You get to a point, where I feel like my girlfriend and I just locked ourselves in a room. I didn't want to go out. I didn't want to be seen. You start to question things. Is it ever gonna be ok? Is it ever gonna go back to where it was 10 days ago, 20 days ago, 30 days ago? Is there any light at the end of this tunnel? It's been dark for a while. It's been dark. You're not sleeping, can't eat. Everything you live for, everything you dream about, everything you've ever worked for, everything that matters to you outside your loved ones has just been taken from you. It's a bad place to be in. it's a dark, ugly place that I don't wish on anyone.
"I think I've learned a lot more about people in the last 76 days than I've learned in 36 years of my life. Let's just say my phone's not ringing as much right now."
Light came in the form of understanding from Manhattan, which agreed to bring Masiello back upon completion of his remaining credits. After taking online classes over the past two months, Kentucky confirmed Masiello finished all his required coursework and will receive his degree in August. Last week, he was reinstated as coach at Manhattan.
"Our goal was to make the best of a challenging situation and I believe we did the fair and just thing, which was to give him a pathway to reinstatement," Manhattan athletic director Noah LeFevre said. "This wasn't a situation where we were talking to an employee who had two years left of undergraduate work to complete. He was very close. One could see how a mistake was made."
Masiello said, "The thing that really has impressed me about Manhattan has been there ability to understand. I give them a lot of credit. They came to a decision. Good or bad, I would've respected it."
The fourth-year coach - who has two years left on his contract but is prohibited from discussing if terms of his contract have changed - is back at Riverdale and running workouts, having just completed his first week back with the team. The players, the ones he brought to the school and was preparing to leave, couldn't be happier to have him back.
There isn't an ounce of awkwardness or distrust or animosity. Remembering Pitino leaving Kentucky after his freshman season in 1997, Masiello met with each player individually before officially committing to South Florida, asking for their input.
They were upset, but understood why he wanted to leave, offering their coach encouragement to do what was best for him. When Masiello learned that he did not have the degree he stresses each player to get, he constantly was lifted by the support of his kids, who he said did more for him than he could ever do for them.
"We knew he would eventually probably leave because he is a good coach," senior RaShawn Stores said. "Anybody probably would've taken that job. We were all behind him. He spoke to each of us individually and he's always been honest with us. When he told us the specifics, we said coach, go with it, that's your dream to continue to coach higher and higher.
"The trust has always been there, the trust is gonna stay there. Since the story came out, we always wanted him back and welcomed him with open arms. The love has always been there. It's like he never left."
Masiello's first recruit, senior Emmy Andujar, added, "Things went back to normal as soon as he stepped on campus. We're a family again."
A job he loved, he appreciates now more than he ever thought possible.
"I've been fortunate enough to get second opportunities," Masiello said. "Everything that's happened to me, I've brought on myself, and now I'm gonna make the best of everything I can moving forward. That's all I can do. I want to go talk about this and go to colleges and speak and educate young people. Don't do what I did. I want everyone to know what I did so I can help them not make that mistake. Don't assume anything. I lived it.
"Nothing I say can justify what happened. I am deeply sorry for what happened, because people were hurt. My players, Manhattan College, my staff, South Florida, fans, alumni, so many people were hurt by an irresponsible decision that I made at 22 years old."
Masiello doesn't expect everyone to understand, but there's one thing he thinks that everyone can understand: being young and stupid.
You may not believe him. And that is valid. But his players and employers, and family and friends do. After everything that happened, that's all he could ask for. That's all he really needs.
"This mistake is gonna be the greatest thing in my life," Masiello said. "I'm gonna learn from it, I'm gonna make other people better because of it. I'm gonna teach other people and help other people. I'm more mature for it, more humble for it. It's gonna make me a better person."
A look at the events that sent Manhattan basketball coach Steve Masiello's career into turmoil:
March 20: Appearing in their first NCAA Tournament in a decade, the 13th-seeded Jaspers led defending champion Louisville with under three minutes to play before succumbing, 71-64, in the second round in Orlando, Fla.
March 25: Masiello agrees to become the head coach at South Florida, accepting a five-year offer which would pay him more than $1 million per season.
March 26: South Florida withdraws its offer, having discovered Masiello did not possess an undergraduate degree, as is listed on his résumé. Later in the day, Manhattan places Masiello on leave, as it reviewed the situation.
April 7: Manhattan announces it will allow Masiello to return to the school after he completes his undergraduate degree. He is placed on unpaid leave.
May 29: A Kentucky spokesman confirms Masiello has completed all of his remaining undergraduate coursework and is on track to receive his degree in August.
June 6: Manhattan officially reinstates Masiello as head coach.