By Nick Veronica
There was a moment this past season when the question came up again. It was playful remark, just a joke between old friends, but it wasn’t the first time the question had been put to Jim Baron.
Canisius pulled off a miracle comeback at the end of regulation that December night and went on to win in triple overtime at a Las Vegas tournament. Just outside the locker room at Orleans Arena, Baron ran into SMU coach Larry Brown, whose team had the next game.
Brown congratulated Baron on the win, according to a source who witnessed the exchange. Baron, then 61, thanked him, and – in his friendly, competitive Brooklyn way – teased Brown, who was coming off a suspension.
When are you going to give it up and retire already? Baron joked, according to the witness.
Brown, 75 and still sharp, shot back: You know, Jim, I should be asking you the same thing!
Both men laughed off the exchange, the witness said, and Baron returned to the court for a postgame interview. It was nothing harsh or incendiary. Just boys being boys. But the irony was certainly not lost on those who saw the conversation.
When is Jim Baron going to give it up? Can he give it up?
Baron put those questions to rest Friday, formally announcing his retirement from a coaching career than spanned nearly 40 years, including 28 as a head coach. His 892 games coached rank 40th in NCAA history. His final record stands at 462-430, putting him 80th all-time in wins and tied for fourth in losses. He went to two NCAA Tournaments, coached his alma mater and had a rebuilding project at nearly every stop along the way.
But the timing of his retirement didn’t seem to make much sense. Mid-May is awful late in the year to leave a program without a coach, which is especially out-of-character for a team-centric guy like Baron. He reiterated that he’s in good health. And he just signed a three-year extension in March! So why retire now?
Jim Baron rode an interesting line between being as tough as they come and as thoughtful as could be, though he went to great lengths to project only the former in public.
Baron grew up in low-income housing in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ‘60s. Seven boys and one girl packed into their three-bedroom apartment along with mom and dad. His father was a construction worker, a “provider” who worked long hours to put food on the table and roof over their heads. He never made it to a game or even saw Jim play basketball until he was on television.
“The beauty of growing up in the projects,” Baron said, “was everyone had the same backyard. Nobody had it better than anybody else.”
His cluster of buildings featured neighbors of every nationality. Everyone was equal – until they got on the basketball court. With 20, 25 guys there at a time, easily, you had to play well just to get on the court, and then you had to win to stay. Baron watched his older brothers and learned quickly.
Basketball helped Baron attend a parochial high school at St. John’s Prep. He was an altar boy whose priest took him to watch college games (that, wouldn’t you know it, featured St. Bonaventure and Bob Lanier). Baron credits a coach’s belief in him for playing one of the best CYO games of his life against top recruit from another school. That game led to his first – and for a long period of time, only – scholarship offer, from St. Bonaventure.
The Bonnies won the 1977 NIT Championship in Baron’s senior season. He began coaching the next year at Rochester’s Aquinas Institute, then worked his way up the ranks as an assistant coach, spending a year each at the University of Rochester, Loyola (Md.) and St. Bonaventure before spending six years on the staff at Notre Dame (although those were six hard years under Digger Phelps, so Baron says they really count like 10).
Baron took the head coaching job at St. Francis (Pa.) in 1987 and went from 7-20 his first year to 24-8 and an NCAA Tournament berth in his fourth season. He returned to his alma mater in 1992 and led them to the 2000 NCAA Tournament before leaving for Rhode Island in 2001. There, he coached his oldest son, James Jr. (who goes by Jimmy), and later coached Billy after he transferred from Virginia. Baron was shocked by his dismissal from Rhode Island after a 7-24 campaign in 2012, but Canisius let go of its coach, too, only hours later. They were a perfect match.
But within the last few years, the damnedest thing happen to Jim Baron: His kids grew up. Started their own lives. Moved overseas. Asked girlfriends to marry them. Had children. Then it was just Jim. And that’s when the question started to pop up again.
The conversation was two years ago at a restaurant in Italy. Jim remembers it so vividly that he cried recalling it Friday. He sat there with Jimmy, who was playing professionally in Rome at the time.
“He said to me, he said, ‘Dad, when are you going to slow down?’”
Jim was dumbfounded. Him? Slow down? The Brooklyn Boy did things his way – 100 miles an hour, no apologies. Canisius was either in the middle of or had just completed its best season in nearly two decades. Baron was alive and well, and happy to remind anyone who’d listen that even at his age, he was still out recruiting, still out selling the program, still out in the dining halls trying to give away tickets to any student who’d take one.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I want you around for my grandkids.’
“When something like that happens, I don’t take that lightly,” Baron said, choking up. “Then my kids leave, they go overseas, a lot of stuff’s going on. I got grandkids. I told him, ‘I want to be your dad – I don’t want to just be your coach.’”
Baron paused to gather himself. Both sons, off to the side at the press conference, were on the verge of tears. Jim’s brother, Ed, got up later for a tissue.
“I needed time by myself. I needed time away from everything,” Baron said. “I put a lot of thought into everything I do. I just felt it was the time. There’s no good time.
“This is a very tough decision because I put my heart and soul into everything I do. And that’s why I love it so much. But now it’s time to step away and give my time to my kids, my family, my grandkids, and enjoy it.”
Jimmy downplayed his role in the decision – “No, he doesn’t listen to me,” he cracked – but remembers the city that conversation took place in, the restaurant and even the food they ordered.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Dad, you have to leave, you’re done, don’t do this anymore,’” Jimmy said. “It was like, ‘Dad, listen, if you can switch to another gear and maybe allow your assistants to do some of the work they should do, then you can kind of oversee everything. You don’t have to be involved in everything. You have so much of a pedigree as a coach, to have that luxury, why not take it?’ But he’s not like that.”
Jimmy and his wife had twin daughters last summer. Jim signed an extension in March but had a change of heart after visiting his sons and their families two weeks ago in Belgium, where Billy and Jimmy play on the same professional team. He told his athletic director on Thursday that he wanted to retire.
Jim Baron loves coaching people. He has an undergraduate degree in physical education and a master’s in counseling. He gave his graduating players books on networking. He’s coached every level of basketball from troubled youth groups to Olympic teams. But boys can never outrun the shadows of their fathers, and Jim Baron is no different. His dad worked long hours and wasn’t around much. He died at 65 and never met Jimmy or Billy. Jim’s 62 and doesn’t want to go out that way. So he’s stepping away now, on a warm Friday in mid-May, with scholarships to fill and his sons by his side. He has a new team to lead – they call him Coach Pops.Follow @NickVeronica