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Baron hire makes sense for Canisius

I'll say this for Jim Baron: There's no artifice to the man. Baron has always been a straight shooter, a Brooklyn guy who made his way as a college basketball player and coach through his honest hard work.

Baron was genuinely taken aback when he heard that critics felt he was a little old for the Canisius coaching job, that at age 58 he might be looking for a safe place to settle into retirement.

"I haven't heard that," Baron said Wednesday, one day after taking over as the Griffs' head man. "Look at all the coaches that are 65-plus and over: [Jim] Calhoun, [Jim] Boeheim. Mike Krzyzewski is up there.

"I'm just saying, it's about energy, attitude and passion. I've never lost that drive or fire. To be honest, it's refreshing. I'm excited to be part of it."

College ball surely is a place for older men, especially the ones banking millions annually in the big time. But at Canisius' level, it's customary to hire young, eager assistants who are looking to climb the ladder.

It would have been nice for the college to find the next Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, or Josh Pastner. But Canisius couldn't afford to waste another six years watching a former assistant stumble in his first try at a top job, as they did with Tom Parrotta.

So getting Baron -- who has won 390 games, rebuilt three programs, won four Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year awards and reached two NCAA Tournaments -- is a good hire for Canisius.

Frankly, it's better than they deserve at this point.

Canisius allowed the standard to drop so low that reaching the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament -- which it hasn't done in 10 years -- was seen as progress.

The college paid coaches on the cheap, particularly the assistants. It claimed to care about the sport, but its actions suggested otherwise. The public didn't care.

Neither did the students. Parrotta's teams were doubly dreadful. They didn't win, and they were boring, too.

Baron has his flaws, but he's John Wooden in this scenario.

In his first job, he took over St. Francis (Pa.), which is in some obscure town called Loretto. When Baron reminisces about those days, he makes fond references to Allentown, which tells you the sort of metropolis he called home.

He won big there. Then Baron went to St. Bonaventure and revived a staggering program. Unwilling to fork over a huge raise, Bona let him go to Rhode Island, where he won 20 or more games six times in his 11 seasons.

"I think it's a coup in this regard," said Tony Masiello, the former Buffalo mayor and Canisius hoop star. "You get a coach that's won at three Division I levels, who brings a lot of savvy and experience and toughness.

"At this time in Canisius College history," Masiello said, "you need a coach who's gotten it done and knows what it takes to build the infrastructure. Canisius has a senior-laden team with some talent. They can win right away. I'm pumped. I wish the season started tomorrow."

Masiello has heard the whispers about Baron's age. But if the Griffs have a chance to be competitive right away, it'll help to have a veteran coach who knows how to get the best from them, while looking to the future as well.

Baron worked his guys hard at Bona. They played hard for him in return and got better. There was never a whiff of scandal, which looks good in retrospect.

"I've had all positive feedback on Baron's hiring," said Brian Dux, the former Canisius guard who became a star professional in England. "I played againstBaron-coached teams and they were always tough and well-organized."

Dux corresponds with Peter Van Paassen and Marques Green, former Bonnies who became pros. "They say he was tough and old school. His players develop through hard work."

Baron didn't come cheap. I don't know the details of the contract, but there's a reason it dragged out so long to iron out. At this level, it can be more about the compensation for the entire coaching staff, the overall commitment to the sport.

When he became Canisius' president, John Hurley said basketball was a priority. He backed it up on this hire. Hurley sent out a memo to the Canisius Campus Community, explaining the addition of two new staff positions at Baron's request.

Hurley realized the investment might cause some concern, considering the "difficulties" involved in making next year's budget. But he assured them that the basketball funds would not affect the school budget. Donations from alumni and friends will cover the investment.

Masiello said the additional expenses will be worth it if the Griffs become relevant again in college hoops. He said a good team can be a great source of exposure and revenue, as successful small schools like Gonzaga and Siena have discovered.

Now it's up to Baron to restore the program to respectability. He also has the daunting task of reconnecting Canisius basketball to an indifferent student body and a disengaged public.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm aware of that," Baron said. "I've reconnected before. I had to do it with a whole state in Rhode Island. At the Bonnies, we had to reconnect everything, the alumni, the community. We lived and breathed it there. St. Francis, same way.

"I tell you, it won't be easy," he said. "It's going to take some time, and it's going to be a challenge. But I look forward to challenges. I've never backed down from one before."

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com