Not yet sold on Jim Baron

Athletic director Bill Maher, left, and school president John Hurley flank new basketball coach Jim Baron.

Jim Baron’s introductory press conference as Canisius basketball coach was Tuesday afternoon, which seems like an eternity ago in the age of the Twitter-based news cycle.

My first inclination was that Canisius made the wrong decision. I didn’t think Baron was the right guy for the job. After sleeping on it and doing more research, I’m still not sure he was the right hire, but he’s growing on me.

When the media gathered in the Koessler Athletic Center to talk with athletic director Bill Maher after he let go of Tom Parrotta, Baron’s name was the first we mentioned as a potential successor. He was fired the same day as Parrotta and had ties to the area, whatever those are worth.

The feeling I got Tuesday talking to those in charge of decision-making was that Canisius wanted Baron all along, and everything else – perhaps even bringing in the other candidates, Jayson Gee and Dave Duda – was just part of going through the motions and meeting NCAA rules. Could Baron’s availability have played into Parrotta’s dismissal? I think that’s pushing it, but the thought certainly crossed my mind.

Baron turned 58 during the hiring process and there’s a good chance this could be his last coaching job. I thought Canisius should have brought in an up-and-coming assistant coach; someone with his best years ahead of him.

Baron was a safe pick, though the decision-makers won’t agree. When you hire a guy with 25 years of head-coaching experience, you know what you’re getting. It’s going to be better than it was, but just how much better remains to be seen. I would have liked to see the school try to hit it big with an emerging coach – basically trying to find another John Beilein, the former Canisius coach who now walks the sidelines at Michigan.

But Maher and school president John Hurley decided to go in a different direction. Maher was on the Canisius football team in 1987 when basketball coach Nick Macarchuk picked up and left for Fordham and Hurley was on the search committee that brought him here. Maher was also less than 12 months into his first formal athletic director job when he hired an assistant from the Hofstra staff named Tom Parrotta in April 2006. One hundred twenty-one losses later, Maher opted for an experienced candidate who isn’t going anywhere, not willing to delve into the unknown once again.

Baron’s press conference didn’t get off to a good start either. Everybody’s been playing up the local guy angle, but forgive me if I’m not on board with that one. He left St. Bonaventure in the spring of 2001, when the World Trade Center stood tall and the Buffalo Bills were cutting Doug Flutie in favor of Rob Johnson. In layman’s terms, that was a long time ago.

Then Baron got up to the microphone and made an Anchor Bar joke. Nobody who’s really local would make mention of the Anchor Bar. That’s a real touristy thing to do. And if anyone didn’t make that connection, Baron’s Brooklyn accent should have tipped them off – I’ve haven’t heard of the “Anca Bahr.” It must be new.

Baron also confused me talking about the impressive legacy of players from Western New York and the AAU programs here, because this area certainly isn’t known for basketball, but if he meant trying to take whatever local talent there is away from the University at Buffalo, I think that’s something people would get on board with.

The scouting report on Baron is that he isn’t going to win you over at the press conference, and I’d agree with that, because the farther removed I get from it, the more I think I understand his message.

There’s a big difference between talking to Baron and listening to what he said on a recording. At an arm’s length away, Baron seemed callous and reminded me of a cross between my old neighbor who would yell at me for going on his lawn and a character from a movie I saw once about the BTK killer. On the recording, he sounded sincere and ready to bring about change to the men’s basketball program.

Hurley and Maher were genuinely excited to bring Baron in. Hurley said he wasn’t even sure if they were going to be able to interest him or put together a package that would be acceptable to him, so they see Baron as a big step forward for the program.

While I won’t credit Baron fully if the team is successful next season – especially if Jordan Heath and Freddy Asprilla are key factors, because let’s be honest, that’s Parrotta’s team – I do give him credit for improving Canisius’ commitment to basketball.

Hurley told me the school is going to spend over $100,000 on new positions and other improvements to the program – largely paid by boosters and other financing. While you could say any coach would have done better with that much more help, Baron forced Canisius’ hand and I’m giving him full marks for that. It had to be weird for a man without a job to think of himself as having leverage on an employer, but make no mistake, the school made sure it found a way to meet the demands Baron wanted (he should have asked for an ice rink, too).

Amid all the overly optimistic lines being thrown around at the rally – er, press conference – there was one thing Baron said that I really liked:

“What I told the players is I’m a little bit different type of coach. Other coaches come in and they look at the players and say, ‘they’re not my players.’ Every program that I’ve been a part of, the program’s players become my players. I become part of the program. It’s our program. It’s our team. It’s our family. And I told these guys, you’re part of the tradition, you’re part of the program and you’re going to be a part of what we do. And you’re an important part of what we do.”

That quote changed how I thought of Baron. He wasn’t a serial killer anymore, but a man wise with experience, like George Feeny from “Boy Meets World.” That was exactly what Canisius needs to hear right now. The players didn’t want Parrotta to leave and weren’t exactly sold on Baron, but having the new coach say that is really as much as anyone can ask for.

Parrotta was as involved in the school community as a coach could be, and while I don’t think we’ll be seeing the new coach’s wife wearing her lucky shirt in the stands or grabbing Subway with the players, Baron wanting to become part of the tradition and recognizing how important student involvement is will go a long way towards filling hole Parrotta left.

Hurley started off the press conference by listing the great coaches in Canisius history: Joseph Niland and Bob MacKinnon, Macarchuk and Beilein. The next time Canisius hosts one of these introductory conferences, the list will probably still be only four names long, but Baron walks into a position where it can’t get much worse than it was. Achieving the same results he has attained at other schools would be viewed as a great success, and having a basketball program it can consider even remotely successful is something the Canisius community anxiously awaits.

Canisius refutes report Jim Baron has been offered coaching job

Though multiple sources reported this morning that Jim Baron has been offered the head coaching position of Canisius’ men’s basketball team, the school says it absolutely has not made anyone an offer at this point.

Baron was fired after 11 seasons at the University of Rhode Island following a 7-24 record this year. He has Western New York ties, serving as the head coach at St. Bonaventure from 1992-01.

Canisius athletic director Bill Maher was previously asked if he was looking into hiring Baron, to which he replied, “If that’s a possibility, we would absolutely consider it.”

Baron turned 58 on Tuesday and has taken teams to the NCAA Tournament twice – St. Francis in 1991 and St. Bonaventure in 2000 – but never with Atlantic 10 member Rhode Island, which was a key factor in his firing.

Baron has a career record of 390-367 (.515) and was 184-165 at URI (83-93 in conference) and took the team to the NIT five times.

He would replace Tom Parrotta, who complied a 64-121 record in six years at Canisius, which was his first head-coaching job.

Canisius College is rumored to be several million dollars in the red, and Baron likely wouldn’t come cheap. A report from December about Baron’s contract at URI said his base salary was nearly $350,000, and could almost double based on incentives. That base salary alone would make him the highest-paid employee at Canisius, according to the most recent tax documents available.

The Buffalo News reported that Canisius is still entertaining other potential coaches while it waits to hear from Baron. Jayson Gee (assistant at Cleveland State), Anthony Evans (head coach at Norfolk St.) and Bob Walsh (head coach at Rhode Island College, different from Rhode Island University) were named specifically in the report.

Canisius was formerly rumored to be after Bobby Hurley, but he decided to stay on as an assistant under his brother Dan, who replaced Baron at URI this week.

The way only a child can

I walked out of Tom Parrotta’s house on Tuesday while his son Mikey was shooting hoops in the driveway with a friend.

“Are they done interviewing him?” the friend asked.

“Almost. Just finishing up.”

Then the friend got curious and asked a question in the way only a child can, where he says one thing that means so many others on levels he can’t possibly understand.

“Why do you guys want to talk to him?”

A shooting pain ran up my surgically repaired ankle as I planted my foot into the concrete and stopped dead in my tracks.

My mind raced. What could I tell him? He’s old enough to read the “For Sale” sign on the lawn, but how much explanation does a kid need that his neighbor is moving? I didn’t know how much he had already been told. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to tell him Mikey’s dad lost his job and the family decided to put up the house.

That would only lead the friend to more questions, anyway. If his dad ever got fired, he would probably come home acting a little different, he would tell his wife in private, maybe call his parents, and then in a day or two they would have a little family meeting to try to explain it to the kids in the simplest terms possible.

But Mikey’s dad was the coach at Canisius, a Division I basketball team that lost almost twice as many games as it won over the last six years. When he lost his job, people found out about it. It was on Twitter immediately, because that’s how news gets spread these days, and then Mikey’s dad’s boss sat down in front of news cameras later that night to explain to people why he made the tough decision to take Mikey’s dad’s job away.

Even one of the captains of the team, Chris Manhertz, said this week that he would have liked to hear the news directly from Parrotta himself, instead of finding out over the Internet like everyone else.

But little boys don’t pick up the paper or flip on the news. They may tweet, in this day and age, but I’m fairly certain he isn’t among my followers. Even still, I wouldn’t have been prepared for any of his follow-up questions. No reporters came to his house when his dad lost his job, and good luck explaining to a boy that someone could be more important than his dad.

I thought about lying. I could have convinced myself it was for his own good, that I fibbed to protect him. But I couldn’t do it. Something like, “our bosses made us come here,” probably would have done the trick, but that’s not how it went down and I couldn’t tell him that it was.

Maybe I’d tell him a story. Kids love stories, and I could spin it to leave him with any lesson I wanted. I could tell him the story of Bob Bevilacqua, a walk-on that Parrotta ran into the ground and told he would only be a practice player, there to push the others but not to get in the games.

During a blowout against Rider one day, Parrotta put Bevilacqua into the game, and the team played much better. The walk-on was in there again 12 days later when Niagara came into the Koessler Athletic Center, where “Drinks” – the nickname Parrotta gave him in Italy, knowing, as a fluent Italian speaker, that his last name translates to “drinking water” – connected on a huge three-pointer late in the game to give a struggling team and coach a much-needed victory over its arch rival.

I had some quotes from Drinks in my backpack that would have been great to pull out. He said he feels lucky to have played for Coach Parrotta. “My future is brighter because of him” and “the way he carries himself will always serve as a model for me in my future endeavors,” were his exact words, and they would have been great for me to tell a certain inquisitive young man, but I didn’t have them in front of me.

I tried to remember what former Griff Rob Goldsberry had told me about Parrotta, that “He taught me how to become a man,” but I couldn’t remember that either.

I also wouldn’t feel right giving just one side. I’d need to balance it. For all the players who loved Parrotta and may have even shed tears upon hearing of his dismissal, some were less than warm to him. Tomas Vazquez-Simmons probably hasn’t forgotten about the six minutes he played on Senior Day last year and Rokas Gricius probably doesn’t have a ton of sympathy for a man getting the “it’s a business” speech a year after hearing it himself, when Parrotta informed him he wouldn’t have a scholarship to give Gricius for his senior season.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I had to say something. The game had stopped now, as four little eyes fixed themselves on me and four little ears anxiously awaited my answer.

I probably just should have told him how Parrotta still feels like a winner in big picture, for changing the lives of several men who happen to be better than the rest of us with an orange ball in their hands.

But then I finally knew what to say.

I smiled and tried to sound as adult and as reassuring as I could.

“Well, his dad’s a pretty important guy.”

Satisfied, the boy shrugged his shoulders and the two quickly returned to game, as if what felt like an hour never happened. The friend ran up to the hoop, set to its lowest level, and put up a two-handed shot that bounced off the backboard and went in.

Parrotta out, Canisius AD hopes to find new coach in 4-6 weeks

Tom Parrotta’s reading glasses sat on his office desk in the Koessler Athletic Center Sunday night, but they will be gone soon. Canisius has announced that Parrotta will not return for a seventh season as men’s basketball coach.

Parrotta was believed to have one year remaining on his contract, but athletic director Bill Maher said late Sunday night that the final year was school option, which Canisuis decided not to pick up.

“In the end, our goal is to compete for championships in our conference,” Maher said. “We simply have not made sufficient progress toward our goal. We think it’s in our best interest if we make this change at this point in time and move forward with our basketball program.”

Parrotta had a six-year record of 64-121 and did not have a winning season. His best year was the 2010-11 season, when the five seniors of his prized recruiting class finished 15-15 and 9-9 in MAAC play. That was also Parrotta’s only team that escaped the play-in round at the conference tournament.

This year’s team finished 5-25 overall and just 1-17 in conference play. Parrotta had a 3-10 record against rival Niagara, including Friday’s 80-70 loss in the opening round of the MAAC Tournament.

Though Maher physically wouldn’t have had a press conference Sunday night if Canisius had won in the tournament, he said Parrotta’s future was not hinging on that game.

“The loss to Niagara was not a final straw in any way at all,” Maher said. “We look at everything, we look at the full body of work over the six-year period, look at the future of our program moving forward, and make the decision we think is the best decision for us.

“I do think that we have the talent to be more competitive than we have been, and that’s been a disappointment.”

Parrotta was asked Wednesday at the team’s media day if he had heard the rumors about his future and if they were a distraction.

“Sure … [but] I don’t think it can be, because that’s the world of coaching,” Parrotta said. “If you win, you have those distractions too. Never once have we [the coaches] spoken about it, we don’t talk about it as a staff, because that’s my job. I’m in it for the right reasons and if you stay true to that, you don’t even have to go down that road.”

Parrotta was not available for comment Sunday but may speak with reporters early this week.

Maher said the school hopes to complete its search for a new coach in the next 4-6 weeks. Outside help may be used to aid in the process but no search firm has formally employed at this point.

Maher said Canisius would like to hire someone with head coaching experience and wouldn’t shy away from someone who has been successful at a lower level, noting the success of coaches like former Canisius head man John Beilein (now at Michigan) and current Iona coach Tim Cluess, who took a step up coming to the MAAC.

“Trying to find folks who have the ability to recruit and develop student-athletes and also have experience in coaching them would be the profile that we’re looking for,” Maher said. “Certainly, and it’s always easy to say, but someone who has head coaching experience would be preferred if we can do that.”

Maher spoke with reporters late Sunday night.

Rhode Island also fired its coach, Jim Baron, on Sunday. Maher said the school has not considered any individuals yet, but “if that’s a possibility, we would absolutely consider it.”

Players, as expected, were not happy about the decision. No players were available for comment but many voiced their frustrations on Twitter. Most are not from the area and viewed Parrotta as a father figure.

“I can’t even believe this,” Gaby Belardo, one of the more tenured and vocal players, tweeted shortly after the news was broken.

Kevin Bleeker, a freshman Parrotta recruited from the Netherlands, kept it short and sweet: “Damn, this sucks.”

“I feel sick,” Sean Ezeamama posted, while fellow walk-on Tyler Funk wrote that his “mind is spinning in every possible direction.”

Parrotta was well-liked on campus and received national recognition for implementing a program in which all players took summer classes and graduated with their master’s degrees in just four years.

Former Griff Julius Coles offered some of the best perspective on Twitter: “Coaching is a hard job to have. It’s unfortunate that keeping your job depends on wins and losses not personality traits.”

Maher acknowledged the risk that some players in the program may want to leave following Parrotta’s departure.

“That’s always a concern,” he said. “We’ll work with the young men in our program to lead them through that decision-making process, assist them with that process. Many of those young men, because of the progress they’ve made academically, are very close to graduating and it is my hope that they will see the opportunity of completing their degree requirements.”

Parrotta made a gambit this season, choosing to take in three transfers whom he believed would greatly help the team next season. Freddy Asprilla started at Kansas State before coming to Canisius and Isaac Sosa played about 25 minutes per game in both his sophomore and junior seasons at Central Florida. The team was perhaps most excited about Jordan Heath, older brother of Josiah Heath, who showed a lot of good things in practice this year and challenged other players – his brother, especially – to get better.

“You have to keep things in perspective,” Parrotta said Wednesday. “A lot of the reasons why it has been challenging [this year] is because of the calculated decision we made to bring those three guys to Canisius, which would have been unheard of on a lot of different levels. We know that’s something to look forward to. If we can inject those three guys with everybody back from this year’s team, I think we have something special.

“I think that’s something where it’s taken so long, the six years, to get to that point, where you can finally attract those kind of people to Buffalo and here to Canisius … Not just to win and kind of [have] a flash in the pan – we’re looking to sustain things. That’s what the whole approach has been about.”

But after six years and a 30-78 record in conference play, the school decided to move forward with someone else’s approach.

BREAKING: Tom Parrotta out as Canisius coach

Tom Parrotta will not return to coach the Canisius men’s basketball team next season, the school announced Sunday night.

Canisius fell to Niagara in the play-in round of the MAAC Tournament on Friday, 80-70, losing to the Purple Eagles for the third time this season to close a 5-25 season.

“After careful consideration, I have made the difficult decision to make a change in the leadership of our men’s basketball program,” athletic director Bill Maher said in a statement. “This decision comes after careful thought to what I believe is in the best interest of our men’s basketball program here at Canisius College.

“Tom has worked diligently on behalf of Canisius College and has had a significant impact on our program in a number of areas, and for that, we are grateful. However, our goal is to compete for the MAAC Championship and we have not made sufficient progress toward that goal. I appreciate Tom’s hard work and dedication to our College and the men’s basketball program, and most importantly to our student-athletes. I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.”

Parrotta had one year left on his contract after compiling a 64-121 record in his first six years on the job. Details of his buyout were not immediately available.

Canisius finished in the bottom-four of the conference in five of Parrotta’s six years, putting the team in the play-in round at the conference tournament. The 2010-11 season was the only year Canisius avoided the extra game, finishing in sixth place with a 15-15 overall record and 9-9 mark in conference games. The team lost to third-seeded Rider in the quarterfinals that year.

Neither Maher nor Parrotta were immediately available for comment. Maher may meet with press as soon as tonight.