Runnin’ Griffs is not an expression typically linked with Canisius College men’s basketball. It is not a quality that has kept the program in the college hoops abyss for so long.
Nevertheless, this is a team with a new coach, a new course, a new temperament. Jim Baron, who was hired in April, took one look at the Golden Griffins program and concluded it needed a glossy transformation.
In doing so, he added the phrase Runnin’ Griffs to the Canisius vocabulary.
“We want to be free flowing in a good way, attack with an approach,” Baron said. “I want to push the ball up the floor as soon as possible. We want that to be part of our identity.”
So Canisius is up and Runnin’, but more than anything fans are starving for a winner. Baron will always be beloved in these parts for taking St. Bonaventure, his woebegone alma mater, to the NCAA Tournament in 2000. The hope is he will work the same magic for Canisius, which hasn’t been invited to the sport’s mega event since 1996.
Thirty days after his 11-year run with Rhode Island came to an end, Baron was hired to replace Tom Parrotta. Few are the times when a coach lands a Division I job a month after being fired from another. Then again, schools such as Canisius rarely have an opportunity to hire a man who has taken two different programs to the NCAAs. In near perfect synchronicity, Parrotta and Baron were fired on the same day and while the school’s brain trust considered others, it locked in on Baron immediately.
“When we looked at the profile of what we felt was going to be necessary to make us successful at Canisius, experience as a head coach was one of the key elements we wanted,” Canisius Athletics Director Bill Maher said in April. “Thankfully we had a lot of that in our candidate pool, but Jim has had experience as a head coach at the Division I level for 25 years. And the level of experience and the level of savvy that he’ll bring to our sideline and our program will help us be successful in the league.”
Frustrating as things were during his final season in Kingston, R.I. — the Rams went 4-12 in the Atlantic 10 — Baron feels reinvigorated with the Golden Griffins.
“When you get a chance to do what you love to do, you just get back at it,” said Baron, who coached St. Bonaventure from 1992 to 2001. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity and looked forward to the challenge.”
While most first-year head men inherit programs in need of a complete overhaul, Baron strolled into a good situation with size, quickness and depth on the roster. The Golden Griffins lost just one key player in erratic guard Gaby Belardo, and added four transfers in Billy Baron, Freddie Asprilla, Josiah Heath and Issac Sosa.
On paper, prospects appear promising, but Canisius had streaks of seven and 10 losses in a dreadful 5-25 season a year ago. Two months after Baron took over, ESPN said Canisius was the worst job for coaches in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, in large part because the program has been to the NCAA Tournament once in the last 50 years.
“You have to build it step by step with the infrastructure and what we need to do with developing a program, not just a basketball team,” Baron said. “The good part about it is because Bill Maher is here and [school President] John Hurley, things have been in place, especially the academic part of it, that’s a good phase of the program that’s real important to me. I like to develop student-athletes.”
Senior guard Harold Washington, who averaged a team-best 17 points last season, said it’s been a smooth transition and he has adjusted well to Baron’s up-tempo philosophy.
“It’s kind of like the Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire back in the day,” Washington said. “It’s a lot of pick and roll and get up and down the floor, whereas last year was more like get it up and get in the halfcourt set. It’s changed a lot defensively, too, and we take a lot of pride in pressuring full court and that’s something we didn’t do last year very much at all. It’s in the name, and you will see it.”
After his dismissal, Baron could afford to slow down. Rhode Island was paying him handsomely not to work. He could have taken a job in TV, spent a season traveling around the country picking the brains of other coaches, or even called it a career.
But he didn’t have time to contemplate the future or consider alternatives. When Maher offered Baron the chance to take over the Golden Griffins’ struggling basketball program, Baron couldn’t turn down a chance to return to Western New York.
A native of Brooklyn, Baron played for the Bonnies from 1973 to ’77. Canisius great Larry Fogle was a teammate of Baron’s with the CBA’s Rochester Zeniths in 1978 and he moonlighted as head coach at McQuaid Jesuit High School and later as an assistant at the University of Rochester.
“It’s very good to be back, we have a lot of friends and built a lot of relationships over the years in so many different facets of life,” Baron said. “It’s definitely good being back.”
After a brief stay as an assistant at Loyola (Md.), Baron returned to Bona for the 1980-81 season, then left for Notre Dame under Digger Phelps. Baron credited Phelps with teaching him how to develop a program.
As a head coach, Baron has resuscitated programs at every stop, first at St. Francis (Pa.), where his 1990-91 Red Flash earned an NCAA Tournament berth. Baron guided St. Bonaventure within a few points of beating Kentucky in 2000. In 2004, he led Rhode Island to the A-10 Tournament championship game.
Baron, 58, said he was discouraged by how things ended at Rhode Island, where he led the Rams to six postseason appearances and an average of 22 wins from 2007 to ’11. The bottom fell out last season at 7-24. Rhody failed to make the NCAAs during Baron’s 11 seasons and five times it failed to earn any postseason berth.
Although the Rams defeated Boston College and NCAA Tournament-bound Saint Louis last season, they lost 11 of their first 12 contests and six of their last eight.
“The year before last, we won 109 games [in the five seasons prior] and graduated everybody, that’s the most in the history of the school,” Baron said. “That’s a lot of wins in five straight seasons. Sometimes it goes in peaks and valleys when you’re doing it the right way, developing student-athletes.
“Then all of a sudden we brought in a couple of transfers and we brought in a couple of freshmen. … It’s part of the business. [Getting fired] hadn’t happened to me in 25 years in the business.”
In a way, this is Baron’s chance at redemption. His career winning percentage at Rhode Island was .494, the first time he’s left a program with a sub-.500 record. Canisius is at another low point but optimism is high because of Baron’s reputation as a program builder.
“I’ve spent a lot of time up here and I’ve been at a lot of schools in similar situations and was able to turn those programs around,” Baron said. “Sometimes when you go through doing things, it’s your body of work over the years of what you’ve done so I was real fortunate that Canisius looked at that.”