As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UMES head coach Jason Crafton was left wondering what he could do with so much spare time. Like many other people, he began a project.
“When our season got canceled, I was just looking for things to do to fill the gaps. I ended up being a guest on a podcast for the Sixers and Blue Coats,” Crafton told Mid-Major Madness. “I had a lot of fun with that.”
The fun soon caught the attention of the 76ers front office and the kid from New York created new volunteer opportunities for himself.
Over the years, Crafton had become a native son of Philadelphia. After graduating from Division-II Nyack College in 2003, former Villanova head coach Jay Wright took him in as a video coordinator at the age of 21. Two years later, current Saint Joseph’s head coach Billy Lange took Crafton in for his first assistant coaching job at the Naval Academy. The young riser in the business has stuck around the mid-Atlantic since.
“Jay Wright is the guy who brought me into the business, Billy Lange is the guy who identified me,” Crafton said. “Billy Lange was the guy who spotted me and was like, “This guy could be good.” Then we started active interactions about getting into the business in my college days.”
After some promotions and a head coaching job at his alma mater, Crafton found his way back to the Philadelphia area in 2018, becoming an assistant coach for the G League Delaware Blue Coats. Although his coaching career went in a completely different direction, he made some great connections in that season and just like the 76ers he trusted the process.
It only took another year until he found himself back as a head coach, earning his first D1 head gig at Maryland Eastern Shore. It was a struggle the first two years as the Hawks only won five games in his first year and were one of two non-Ivy League institutions to sit out 2020-21 but that also gave him a lot of time to reflect on what he had learned not only through coaching but at school.
Crafton graduated Nyack with a communications degree. If coaching wasn’t going to work out, he was probably going to work in that field. He’s used it in different ways in all of his stops. Wherever he was a head coach, he tied it into a podcast. At UMES he created the “Hone Your Craft” podcast and had several notable guest appear including Clark Kellogg. With so much free time, why not hop on a podcast and talk about the 76ers? Only the NBA and G-League played over those couple of months where nothing else was going on. He did so with the “Coat Check” podcast and impressed others with his knowledge.
There’s not many better to chat hoops with then @ClarkKelloggCBS! Be sure to get your NCAA Tournament Preview on this weeks episode of “Hone Your Craft.” Checkout the entire interview at: https://t.co/aj8AwoZiQA #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/cWL330vFVW— Jason Crafton (@JCRAFT4) March 19, 2021
After killing it, the Sixers G-League affiliate the Delaware Blue Coats brought him in to be an analyst for their studio show on DEtv for their bubble season. Although it was via zoom, he thrived and the 76ers asked him to get into a bigger role, working pre and postgame for the NBA team during the playoffs. While he was there, he had his own segment on the pregame show called “Inside the Matchup” where he talked about scouting tips and things that he thought Doc Rivers was going to do. It was all volunteer and kept him busy while his Hawks were not playing.
“You have coaches that talk about their connection with the pro game. I coached there and am actively brought back to do things,” Crafton said. “I think it adds more value to our program. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
That value was shown this season as not many people were high on the Hawks. They hadn’t played in a season, had no one proven player and many ranking systems had them dead last in the country. You can only move up, right?
It’s exactly what they did and proved to the country they weren’t going to be stepped over during the whole month of November. In the season opener they lost to Saint Joe’s at the buzzer, at the time, many people thought that was a must-win game for Crafton’s former boss, Billy Lange. Ten days later, they pulled off the win against an A10 team in Fordham, winning its first non-conference road game in five seasons. That Rams team ended up having one of their best seasons in the past 30 years. Then later in the month, they battled an NCAA Tournament team in UConn, only losing to the Huskies by nine points. They definitely proved they were better than dead last.
Incredible effort last night on a National stage. There was a March feel to this game! We will build off of this experience. S/O to our true supporters and to ALL of the new fans we made in Connecticut last night. WE appreciate you! Let’s keep building! #1WAY pic.twitter.com/zzxSfSQpJA— Jason Crafton (@JCRAFT4) December 1, 2021
“We tried to play with as much edge as we possibly could. One of the themes of our program is tenacity,” Crafton said. “I thought the guys had some anger, frustration from having a season canceled and watching other teams play.”
UMES would continue to battle, finishing 6-8 in MEAC play and going to the postseason for the first time since 2015. They would lose by double digits to Coastal Carolina in the first round of The Basketball Classic, but another opportunity came across for Crafton.
He would get a call from ESPN2 to call the first basketball game of his career. The Blue Coats needed someone to call their playoff opener against the Long Island Nets and UMES had a day off, why not?
“When the G-League playoffs begin, I randomly get a phone call that they needed someone to do the first round,” Crafton said. “Which was my first calling of a game, I had done a lot of pregame, halftime, postgame stuff, different segments but that was pretty cool to call a live game for ESPN2.”
Crafton killed the call but had to get his roster ready for next season. Like every other coach in the country, he has been working in the portal and using his connections as leverage. Although he lost one of his top scorers in Dom London, he has reloaded with a ton of JUCO talent and a potential All-MAAC player in Canisius transfer, Ahamadou Fofana. There’s even more on the way for a program that is on the rise and is looking to make its first NCAA Tournament in school history.
“I think the first phase is trying to get yourself out of the gutter and bring yourself to some kind of respectability, competitiveness. I think we’ve done that, made the first step. The second step is the hardest step, becoming a program that wins championships or consistently has winning seasons,” Crafton said.
UMES is very close to that and in a different spot from where they were just a few seasons ago. With Crafton’s hard work and versatility, UMES is a program on the rise. The 76ers organization knows it.