Jim Baron pulled off a number of surprises on the court for Canisius College during his tenure as men’s basketball head coach at the small, Jesuit institution in upstate New York.
Baron amassed a 73-59 record over four seasons with Canisius, the third highest win total in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference during that period. The Golden Griffins earned three postseason trips under Baron’s watch, a large achievement for a program that had struggled over the last decade before turning the reigns over to the veteran coach with the heavy Brooklyn accent.
Off the court, Baron found equal success at Canisius. He saw to it that every one of his basketball players abided by the term student-athlete, graduating every senior who donned the blue and gold under his tenure, and four of Baron’s players earned their master’s degrees from Canisius.
With all the tricks Baron was able to pull from his sleeve throughout the course of his coaching career, he waited until yesterday to pull his final and perhaps most surprising one, his retirement from coaching basketball.
“Yesterday afternoon, coach Baron informed me of his decision to retire from coaching basketball,” said athletic director Bill Maher on Friday. “The news came as a bit of a surprise, even a shock, as through our contract discussions, he had been very enthusiastic about continuing to coach young men and teach the game of basketball.”
On March 3, Canisius announced a three-year contract extension for Baron that was intended to keep the coach with the program through the 2019-20 season.
“It’s with much regret that we announce Jim’s retirement,” Maher continued. “We would look forward to [him as] our coach. We wish him well in his future and certainly are proud that Canisius has been part of what is a great career.”
Joined by his brother Ed and sons Jimmy and Billy, Baron was visibly emotional and teary-eyed during his nearly 25-minute goodbye to college basketball.
“I’ve given this decision a lot of thought,” an emotional Baron began. “It’s a very emotional time. [I’m] making the decision to spend more time with my family. I want to be a father. I want to be a grandfather. That’s what is important to me.”
After a tumultuous couple of offseasons around mid-major college basketball, especially in the tri-state area, replacing Baron will be the first head coaching change in the MAAC since Mike Maker replaced Jeff Bower at Marist in June 2014.
Hired on April 2, 2012, as the 23rd head coach in program history, the Brooklyn, New York, native brought 390 wins, including eight 20-win seasons, two NCAA berths and 11 postseason appearances with him to Buffalo, and was charged with what had become a familiar task during his years on the bench: reviving a program perceived as left for dead. Baron had already accomplished the task in previous stints at Saint Francis U., St. Bonaventure, and Rhode Island. To say that the men’s basketball program had struggled for six subpar seasons under Tom Parrotta would be an understatement. Although the Golden Griffins posted back-to-back 15-win seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Parrotta ended his tenure in Buffalo with a 64-121 record, including 30-78 in the MAAC.
Baron’s impact on the men’s basketball program and the basketball culture at the school in general was immediate. In year one, Baron’s Griffs went 20-14, the program’s seventh 20-win season and the first since 2000-01. Canisius went 11-7 in the MAAC, earning a berth in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, reaching the quarterfinal round. The postseason appearance was the program’s first since 1996 and the plus-15 win differential from 2011-12 to 2012-13 ranked third in Division I basketball.
“I remember what [former North Carolina State head coach Jim] Valvano said,” Baron offered. “You want to laugh and I think that we laughed a lot. You want to cry and I think we cried a lot. You want to think. You want to think a lot and I think we did that.”
“[The student-athletes] made it a heck of a day and made it a heck of a journey,” he continued. “I’ve been fortunate to be at some excellent programs where I could do it the way I wanted to do it, to develop the student-athletes.”
Along with the numerous successes achieved on the court over his lengthy career, Baron also had the unique privilege of coaching his sons over eight seasons between Rhode Island and Canisius, becoming one of only 13 Division I head coaches to coach two (or more) of his sons at the Division I level. Billy Baron played for his father during Jim’s first two years at Canisius, earning the 2014 MAAC Player of the Year Award and was also named an Associated Press All-America, Canisius’ first since 1984.
It was the desire to spend more time with his family that ultimately helped to close the door on his coaching career.
“I wish more coaches could enjoy the experience and to coach them, and to be around them, to see what they are, and what they represent, how they play, and what type of human being they are, is something that is very, very special,” Baron reflected. “It was a tough decision and I put my heart and soul into everything that I do, and that’s why I love it so much. But it’s now time to step away and give my time to my kids, and my grandkids, and enjoy it.”
Baron led Canisius to three consecutive berths in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, the only coach in the 112-year history of the program to do so. The back-to-back appearances in 2012-13 and 2013-14 marked the first time since the mid-1990s that the school earned consecutive postseason appearances.
“This program is in a good place,” Baron reflected. “I’ve tried to do that every day of every job that I’ve been in.”
But, despite the wins, and despite the academic success over his four seasons, Baron chose to walk away from the newly signed extension. The program will conduct an expedited national search for Baron’s replacement. Associate head coach Pat Clarke was named interim head coach.
“Pat has been instrumental in what we’ve done here at Canisius over the last four years with Jim’s leadership and when Jim asked me about him wanting to put Pat in that role, I was supportive of it.”
Baron, who was charged with several difficult rebuilding jobs, will retire with a career record of 462-430. He ends his coaching career tied for fourth all-time in losses, and 80th in wins. He leaves the game as a member of three Halls of Fame (St. Bonaventure Athletics, the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Saint Francis University Sports Hall of Fame) and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) International Committee for his more than 25 years of service and dedication for sharing the game of basketball with countries from around the world.
“When we brought Jim here four years ago, it was a goal of restoring Canisius basketball and the success of Canisius basketball,” Maher closed. “Over these four years, Jim has done just that.”
And even with this afternoon’s emotional goodbye, that was exactly what Canisius signed up for.