(by guest author Kyle Clarke; edited by Cheryl Meyers Buth)
Canisius College Basketball Coach Jim Baron walked away from a legendary career this past March to spend more time with his family. He retired as he had always coached, with class; a noble warrior quietly heading home after battle. He embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s famous description of the character of men, seemingly so rare these days, who humbly dedicate themselves to our mutual betterment:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
(Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910).
Having coached at two Division I schools in Western New York, St. Bonaventure and Canisius (and the University of Rhode Island in between), Coach Baron earned a special place in the hearts of local college basketball fans. On the occasion of his unexpected retirement, he offered fans a glimpse into his life beyond coaching: “I have given this decision a lot of thought and I just feel like it is time for me to step aside,” Baron said in a statement at his retirement press conference. “This profession demands a lot. I recently went overseas to see my boys play basketball professionally and there I realized, I have not been able to see them or my granddaughters much at all the last few years. I want to be a dad and I want to be a grandfather.”
Before becoming the patriarch of his own family, Coach Baron enjoyed a basketball life as both a player and coach himself. He was born in Brooklyn. His personality, style of play, and coaching mentality all reflect the toughness he learned growing up. He played for St. Bonaventure in the mid-70’s where he was known for his hard-nosed, defensive play. Baron was a talented scorer but he was typically tasked with the job of shutting down the opposing team’s best players. He played a key role in leading the Bonnies to the NIT Championship in 1977 and, notably, also earned “The Ideal Bonaventure Student” award. In later days he always held up the notion of the student-athlete as a worthy and necessary ideal to be achieved.
After graduating from college, Coach Baron went on to play professionally with the Rochester Zeniths of the Continental Basketball Association and won a championship in 1979. The Zeniths played in downtown Rochester, New York at what is now known as Blue Cross Arena.
Coach Baron’s first coaching position was as an assistant at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, New York. The following year, Baron became an assistant coach at NCAA Division III Rochester University. Baron quickly rose through the college coaching ranks, becoming an assistant at Division I Loyola College in Maryland. In 1980, Coach Baron had an opportunity to return to his alma mater as assistant coach for St. Bonaventure University. Following a short stint with his former team, Baron joined the Notre Dame coaching staff, learning under the legendary Digger Phelps as an assistant coach from 1981 to 1987. There, Baron helped Notre Dame make the NCAA Tournament in 1985, ’86 & ’87. The Irish were ranked in the top 25 in both 1986 and 1987. In 1988, Coach Baron received his first Division I coaching job at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania.
When Coach Baron set foot on the St. Francis (PA) campus, the basketball program was in rough shape. In the five years prior to Baron’s tenure, the Red Flash accumulated a record of 54-85, a win percentage of just 38.8%. From the time that he took over to when his tenure with the team had ended, Baron’s record was 74-71 with a win percentage of 51.0%. The highlight of his time with the Red Flash was the 1991 season which saw the team clinch their first and only NCAA Tournament berth in school history. Due to the success that he was able to achieve with St. Francis (PA) he was then afforded an opportunity that very few coaches receive in their careers.
In 1992, Coach Baron took over the basketball program at his alma mater of St. Bonaventure University. He lived up to his reputation of turning around struggling basketball programs. Similar to his experience at St. Francis, Coach Baron was dealt a bad team in a tough conference and was asked to make the Bonnies competitive. Prior to his arrival the Bonnies had just a 34.3% win percentage during the tenure of its last two head coaches. During his tenure Baron was able to revive the program, accumulating a 50.2% win percentage and leading the Bonnies to three NIT and one NCAA tournament appearances. The Bonnies came into their 2000 NCAA tournament game matched as the 12th seed playing Tubby Smith’s 5th seeded Kentucky Wildcats, that included eventual NBA players Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince, and Jamaal Magliore. The Bonnies were able to mount a fierce second half come back and push Kentucky to double overtime before falling to the Wildcats by a score of 85-80.
I remember going to grammar school that day in my Bonaventure jersey and our teacher allowing us to watch the game and share in that experience with the team and the rest of the community. During his time as head coach, Baron left an unforgettable impression on the residents in Olean, New York; and to this day I still enjoy the “Baron Sausage Sandwich” at the local Angee’s Italian Restaurant. Bonnies’ fans will always compare teams to Coach Baron’s squads and the exciting way winning a basketball game can unify a small town and beyond.
After a nine year stint with his alma mater, Baron was hired away by in-conference rival University of Rhode Island. Baron’s longest coaching tenure was with the Rams where he spent eleven seasons. Coach Baron took what had been a mediocre team and turned them into consistent conference contenders, finishing in the top half of the conference standings in all but four of those eleven seasons. Coach Baron led Rhode Island to five NIT appearances, in which the best season ended with an NIT semifinals appearance. The Rams pushed eventual champion University of North Carolina to within one point of elimination in an overtime thriller. The highlight of Baron’s time in Rhode Island however was coaching his oldest son, Jim Baron Jr., for four seasons. During his playing career Jimmy was a 3-point specialist. He holds many Atlantic 10 Conference records for both single season and career marks. Jimmy is still currently the all-time leader for the Rams in 3-pt Field Goals made, 7th in 3-pt Field Goals Attempted, 4th in 3-pt Field Goal Percentage, and 3rd in True Shooting Percentage.
In 1992, Coach Baron decided to accept a job that brought him back to Western New York, as head coach of the Canisius College Golden Griffins. Canisius College had a proud basketball tradition. The legendary John Beilein had coached the team 15 years before. In the interim, the Golden Griffs had just one winning season. Over the course of the previous five seasons before Baron showed up, they had a win percentage of just 33.7 %. And once again, as has been the common theme throughout Baron’s career, he made an instant impact. Following a season where the Golden Griffs won a mere 5 games, Coach Baron was able to win 20 games immediately upon taking the helm. In fact, in his four years with the team Coach Baron was able to accumulate a 55.3% win percentage and a post-season berth to the College Basketball Invitational in three of his four seasons. Similar to his experience at the University of Rhode Island, Coach Baron was afforded the opportunity to coach his youngest son, Billy Baron. Billy was able to shine for his team where he averaged 20.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 5.1 apg over the course of two seasons with the team. During the 2013-2014 season Billy earned MAAC Player of The Year honors behind a 24.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 5.3 apg effort to accompany a 20-win season for the team. As Coach Baron referenced in his retirement press conference, both of his sons, Jimmy and Billy, are currently playing for successful European basketball teams.
Attorney Sal Martoche, former Appellate Division Judge and United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, is also a Canisius College graduate and basketball season ticket holder. I was able to talk to Judge Martoche about what Coach Baron meant to the program over his 4 years with the school and the praise was overwhelming: “Jim brought such a fire and passion to the sidelines. We have not seen a competitor like him since John Beilein”, Judge Martoche told me. He also recalls how adaptable Coach Baron’s teams were throughout the years stating that “if a team wanted to slow down and play in the half court, Jim could do it. If they wanted to get out and run and play at a quicker pace, Jim could do it.” We spoke of the great discipline that Coach Baron brought to the game and how he was able to get so much out of the players he recruited.
One thing Coach Baron was always good at is recruiting local talent. For example, at Canisius he was able to get players such as Phil Valentie (Aquinas Institue), Adam Weir (Canisius HS), and Jermaine Crumpton (Niagara Falls HS). Along with giving local players a chance to play at the Division 1 level, Coach Baron was able to help his players achieve something that can be easily forgotten in the world of collegiate sports — a college degree. “If his graduation rate isn’t at 100% than it is very, very close” said Judge Martoche.
While he had the privilege of teaching his players the invaluable lessons that all athletes learn through competition such as discipline, hard work, respect for each other, and teamwork, Coach Baron was able to give his players a chance at life after basketball. They can take off their jersey and put down the basketball, but nobody can take away the memories; intense games, road trips, the feeling of enjoying a good team win or busting your butt in practice following a loss. And most importantly, nobody can take away the education that was earned throughout the time they were fortunate enough to learn something about life from Coach Baron.
While in the coaching arena, before his eyes passed the shadows cast by other legends of the coaching world, great masters of the game; Coach Baron stood as tall as any of them in his love of the game, talent and leadership. His legacy is in the imprint he left on innumerable student-athletes for whom he was mentor, surrogate father and role model. As Theodore Roosevelt concluded his tribute to one of our greatest allies at the Sarbonne in 1910: “You have had a great past. I believe you will have a great future.” We wish you all the best on the road ahead, Coach. You have set an example for all of us, no matter our walk of life. You have given us the gift of shared memories and taught us how to win in the face of adversity and how to lose with grace. On behalf of a grateful community of basketball fans, we sincerely thank you.
“St. Bonaventure“, College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com
http://www.sportsreference.com/schools/st-bonaventure/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
“Canisius“, College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com.
Http://www.sports reference.com/cbb/schools/canisius/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
“Saint Francis (PA)” College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com.
Http://www.sports–reference.com/cbb/schools/saint-francis-pa/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
“Player Bio: Jim Baron” Player Bio: Jim Baron. N.P., 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.
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