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  • Budd Bailey

Christian takes over at Canisius

Jim Christian (right) is welcomed as Canisius basketball coach by school president Steve Stoute.

By Budd Bailey

If it’s not the toughest job in Western New York sports right now, it’s close.

The men’s basketball coaching position at Canisius College is no place for the faint of heart these days. The Golden Griffins went 14-18 last season, exiting the Metro Atlantic playoffs after a first-round win. Canisius had shown some signs of life early in the campaign, but injuries took a huge toll on a relatively thin roster.

When the year ended, the exodus by the players to the transfer portal began. The exit of head coach Reggie Witherspoon added to the list of potential departures. Most of the players who had been a big part of the 2023-24 roster are at least thinking of moving on. 

There’s a matter of history at work here. The Golden Griffins haven’t been above .500 in a full season since 2017-18. They have been to the NCAA Tournament exactly once (1996) since 1957. That’s taken a toll on attendance, as you might expect. The students have usually found other things to do with their time on game nights, leaving the Koessler Center mostly to those over 50 years of age.

Athletic director Bill Maher had the usual two options when picking a replacement for a university at this level. He could have gone the promising assistant coach route. That’s what the University at Buffalo did when it hired George Halcovage, a Villanova assistant, a year ago. Maybe Maher noticed UB’s 4-27 record up the street, and didn’t think he had time for a young coach to go through the learning curve.

The other option centered taking a veteran coach who knew his way around. It would help if he had won at this level of play more or less at some point in his career, and it would help if he was willing to take the lowest salary (under $300K, according to reports) among MAAC head coaches to come to Buffalo.

Jim Christian checked those boxes. That’s why he was formally introduced on Thursday as the head coach at Canisius.

Christian was a consistent winner in the Mid-American Conference. He had at least 20 wins in all six of his seasons at Kent State (2002-2008), and added to that streak at Ohio University (2012-14). But then it was on to Boston College, where he found it difficult to compete with the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. The Eagles only had one winning season in his six-plus years there, and he was gone by the middle of the 2020-21 season.

Christian has spent the last two years as an assistant athletic director at Kent State, where he says he did everything but recruit. The 59-year-old had to wonder if he would ever have another chance to be a head coach.

“I didn’t go for many (jobs) – there were people who called,” Christian said. “But I wanted to find the right one for me. I just felt like, when this one opened, I felt like ‘This could be the one for me.’ It’s a Jesuit school, I’ve had success at this level – maybe I can get them to talk to me. I was hoping, because I really wanted to get back at it. But at the same time, I could have been at peace (not coaching again).”

A new coach’s to-do list is ridiculously long these days. One that can’t wait is figuring out who might come back from the 2023-24 team. Entering the transfer portal isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket.

“I wanted to meet with them before the press conference,” Christian said. “Everyone is looking at you (when you are a new coach), wondering what you are about. How are we going to do things? My job is as clearly as possible to explain things. How are we going to do things? … There aren’t any extra points for retaining or losing players. Those seats have to be filled, and filled with guys who want to be here.”

Speaking of seats, those empty ones at home games need to be filled much more often if Canisius is going to be competitive – even in the MAAC. Winning and ticket sales often go together, and it’s going to be tough for Christian to put a share of the spotlight on his new team.

“I worked in Boston, which also had the Red Sox and Patriots,” he said. “This (Buffalo) is a sports-crazy town.  I did find out (at Boston College) that if you win, people come out. When we beat Duke, it was a major story – even there. You reach out and create some excitement. I look at the size of our arena. We don’t need 20,000 people. We need 2,300. So it starts on the campus, reaching out.”

The hope for both sides, of course, is that Christian can find a home here. He’s had a variety of jobs over the years in climbing the ladder, only to fall off it in a sense at Boston College. If Christian had landed this job in his 30s, he might have thought of it as just another stop on a long road. But now as he approaches 60, this might be the time for him to look around a bit and not worry about that next job.  

“Just enjoy it,” he said. “Build something that will last 10 years from now. I talked to (former Canisius coach) John Beilein, who still has a connection here – with all the stuff that he’s been able to accomplish and what I’ll never accomplish. …  I went back to Kent State, and people were coming out of the stands and remembering games. That’s what this is about to me. I want to put a stamp on something else.”

That’s what Jim Baron did when he came to Canisius in 2012 under similar circumstances, arriving after a good run at Rhode Island turned sour. The Griffins won 73 games in four years during his time there, numbers that would look quite good about now. But the Canisius job has gotten immeasurably tougher since Baron retired in 2016.

In other words, if you happen to run into Christian, give him a hearty “good luck.” Because he’s going to need it.  

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