Barons shoot to restore Canisius

Billy Baron went on college visits this summer to pick out his third school in as many years. He left Virginia after one semester and lasted just three more at Rhode Island.

It wasn’t supposed to work like this. He had already gone through the transfer process once and had just finished dealing with the drain of starting over. The plan was to come back to Kingston, R.I., the town he called home, and finish out his college career playing for dad, whose contract ran through the end of his senior season.

There’s a certain connotation that goes with leaving as many programs as Billy has, and he’s well aware of it. But if there’s anything synonymous with the Barons, it’s hard work. Billy’s been known to stay in the gym until 3 a.m. if that’s how long it takes to be satisfied with his game. He learned from his older brother Jimmy, who is said to have done the same – while bringing his girlfriend along to collect rebounds. Both brothers learned this work ethic from their father, Jim Baron, the man they both played for who completed his 11th season as Rhode Island’s basketball coach last year.

But Jim, by his own admission, was shocked to be fired by the Rams after a 7-24 season last  March, just a year removed from graduating the winningest class in Rhode Island history. Billy says he was blindsided as well. He wouldn’t have left the Atlantic Coast Conference for URI a year before if he thought it wasn’t going to work out.

Billy tried to grit his teeth and make the most of a tough situation. But what can make that OK? What amount of perseverance can rationalize answering to a man your father was replaced with?

“When it happened and he wasn’t there anymore, it was almost like a piece of me was gone,” Billy says. “It wasn’t the same place I’d been seeing since I was 10, 11 years old. Walk into the gym, walk into the locker room, it wasn’t the same. Especially going up into the coach’s office, which was something I had to do, seeing a new guy sitting behind that desk was very difficult. But that’s something you have to let motivate you. It builds character.”

Jim was back at home wondering what the future held. In 25 years of coaching he had never been fired from a job.

“You do a lot of soul searching,” he says. “I’ve always talked to my players about having options after they get their degree, and here I was in the same light.”

Other coaches across the country would soon find themselves in a similar position as Jim, with a lot more free time than they were used to having. Jobs started to open up and Jim took interest. Then the phone calls came. You meet an important guy or two being in college basketball as long as Baron has. One call came from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, a man Baron says he relies on a lot for guidance and advice.

Canisius pulled the plug on its coach, Tom Parrotta, hours after URI made its announcement on March 4. Baron’s name was even brought up at a press conference later that night, to which Athletic Director Bill Maher replied, “If that’s a possibility, we would absolutely consider it.”

Less than a month later, Maher was back at the podium to introduce Baron as the new coach, choosing him over Cleveland State’s Jayson Gee and Dave Duda of St. Joseph’s University, the second and third candidates who were clearly so in the minds of Canisius brass.

Suitors quickly came calling for Billy as well. Purdue pursued the 6-foot-2, 13-point-per-game guard, offering him the opportunity to play in the Big Ten. Big East member Providence went after him, armed with the added bonus that he could stay near home, just a short drive away through the nation’s smallest state.

Billy toured both schools and liked them, but he talked to people in college basketball as well. After reading an article of particular interest to him, he dropped a line to Detroit’s Ray McCallum Jr., who was named Horizon League Tournament MVP last March after Coach Ray Sr. cut down the nets.

The younger McCallum, also a 6-foot-2 guard and going into his junior year, was faced with the same decision of going to a big-name school or playing for dad. McCallum was recruited by UCLA, Kansas and Arizona, but Billy recalls his advice being clear.

“He said there’s nothing better: what else can you do when you’re on the sideline hugging your dad and going to the NCAA tournament?”

His decision ultimately wasn’t about power conferences or the TV appearances. Playing for dad was the deciding factor.

“It was honestly, do I want to play for my dad, do I not want to play for my dad,” Billy says.

“It’s a tremendous experience,” Jim says of coaching his sons. “I cherish it.”

Then it came down to a waiver. Athletes who transfer schools usually have to sit out a year. Billy did so when he left Virginia for URI, missing the second semester of his freshman season and the fall of his sophomore season. But the NCAA had a limited precedent of granting an immediate eligibility waiver to players who transfer if their dad gets fired, and Billy capitalized on it.

“I definitely expected to get that. That was a factor in me coming here, being able to play next year,” Billy says. “It was a very rare situation I was in and I was just praying the NCAA would understand.”

Jim’s father was a mason who worked so hard to support his wife and eight kids living in a Brooklyn tenement that he rarely, if ever, saw Jim play. Sometimes he’d flip on the TV and not even know Jim was going to be on or what city he was in. But the coach’s relationship with Jimmy and now Billy – it’s always “coach,” never “dad” – is the polar opposite.

Jim will watch his son from the best seat in the house as Billy plans to be the point guard leading the attack this year. Both say they flip the switch from dad to coach and son to player when they come to the court. Should anything go wrong, Jim’s master’s degree in counseling will be put to use, but Billy’s quick to remind you there’s nothing anyone can say about him being the coach’s son if he’s the hardest-working guy on the team.

If Billy has any more relationship questions for the McCallums, he can bring them to Michigan on Dec. 30 when theGriffs play the Titans, but he shouldn’t plan for a reunion in March just yet.

The Barons, father and son, inherit a program still looking up at the Detroits of the world – mid-majors that qualify for the NCAA tournament, even if only to get hammered by a top seed. The Griffs were 5-25 last year and 1-17 in conference. They haven’t been to the dance since 1996 and haven’t had a winning season since 2000-01 (heck, Canisius hasn’t even advanced from the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament since 2001-02).

Jim comes to Buffalo with a reputation for turning around struggling programs and prefers to be at Catholic schools. St. Francis was in the dumps when he took it over and St. Bonaventure wasn’t much better. Rhode Island was on probation.

But even the best feel-good story means nothing if you aren’t winning. “The proof is once we get out on the court, once those lights come on,” Jim acknowledges.

Canisius just went through six years of a great guy leading the team who couldn’t win. The task of the new coach is to restore pride at a Jesuit school with a losing program by installing a winning culture, and the 58-year-old with a rosary draped over his 2008-09 Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year award might just be the right man for the job.

Twitter: @NickVeronica

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