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Canisius brings Baron back to basketball home

All afternoon, Jim Baron recited lists. He did it at the lectern in his official remarks after being introduced as the next head men's basketball coach at Canisius College. He did it with the media in several question-and-answer scrums. He did it just hanging out with those gathered to talk basketball past and future.

Baron enumerated the high school basketball coaches in Western New York he's worked with in the past. He listed the players from the region -- from Tim Winn at Niagara Falls to Caswell Cyrus from Canada -- he recruited to his various basketball programs. He rattled off the starting lineup of Canisius teams he faced as a guard for St. Bonaventure back in the late 1970s. Baron may be a Brooklyn native, but his basketball career has a most definite home in Western New York.

"It's great to be back. It's tremendous," Baron said. "It's a great area. with all those high school programs and players I've seen evolve. Even Christian Laettner at Nichols. We recruited him at Notre Dame. (Baron was an assistant for the Irish from 1981 to '87.)

"It's all a part of what you do and your passion. It's your job to appreciate what's in your area. Western New York has always been a great area, certainly for me."

Baron and Rhode Island parted ways about a week before Canisius fired Tom Parrotta. Baron instantly was one of the names on the search committee's radar screen. His resume of success was just what the Golden Griffins were looking for. Mired in mediocrity for more than a decade, the program needed new life. And while Baron, at age 58, isn't considered young blood in the coaching world, he brings what Canisius needed -- experience and a winning track record.

"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," athletic director Bill Maher said. "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.

"There's some great coaches in the MAAC. There's not as many assistant coaches who are moving up to be [first year] head coaches. If you look at the hires [in the MAAC] they've been experienced guys who have come from different levels."

Men's basketball is the flagship sport for Canisius, as it is for most of the schools in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but the flag has been tattered and the ship off course for years. The Griffs last had a winning season in 2000-01, going 20-11 overall. The last time they had a sniff at the postseason was 1996, when they won the MAAC tournament title.

The challenge of rebuilding is something Baron relishes. He did it at St. Francis (Pa.) and St. Bonaventure -- both small, private Catholic schools. He helped turn around Rhode Island, going from six wins in 2004-05 to 26 wins and an NIT Final Four slot in 2009-10. He's won 390 games, been named the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year four times and guided teams to 11 postseason appearances. And he likes to play an up-tempo style that emphasizes running and athleticism -- things which generally make men's basketball players smile with anticipation.

Baron has met with the team only once as a group and will likely start meeting with individual players soon. As of now there is no anticipation of players asking to leave the program. But right now, it's just a relief to have a head coach in place.

"I think it's a relief for our guys," junior guard Alshwan Hymes said. "The last two weeks -- guys didn't know how to react. So we've just been in the weight room getting our individual workouts in. Now, we can start getting into our team workouts. It's really important for guys to start learning the new program so we can start to focus on developing as players."

From Baron's perspective, the team he has is his team. There is no notion that these are guys who belong to some other coach. Baron is big on talking family, team and community, and he is genuine in that philosophy. Part of Baron's job is to help engage the community in the process of rebuilding.

"It's everything. It's community involvement. It's the student body. It's alumni. It's children in the area and their families," Baron said. "It's a total process of development. Again, you've got to make it exciting and give them something they can be proud of. That's what I've always felt over the years. Sometimes it's been a little bit slower, but I always believe in doing it right and making it exciting."

Baron said he has made no decisions yet on staff. Assistant coaches and support staff were a reported point of discussion between Baron and Canisius during the interview process. To move the program forward, Canisius would need to increase its financial commitment, but much of that will come in the form of fundraising.

"As part of the search we looked at where we were in the program and we compared ourselves to other schools in the conference and we said we've got to do more," Canisius president John Hurley said. "And Jim was able to articulate for us what we need to be doing."

"There's a commitment from the institution to help us move forward," Maher said. "That's expanding our base budget, but there is an expectation that we will have to involve other folks and lean on our Blue and Gold Fund and our external support. A number of people have stepped forward to help us."