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.