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Baron decides its time to hang up his whistle

Jim Baron had an epiphany after coming back from a weeklong vacation last week to visit his two sons, who play professional basketball in Belgium.

He’s 62 years old. His sons are a long way away. He now has two 11-month-old granddaughters. He has been grinding as a basketball coach for 39 years. It was time to retire.

“Going over to Belgium, spending time with my children, you know, it’s a very emotional time,” Baron said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “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’s important to me at this time.”

The decision was a surprise and a change of heart. Baron signed a three-year contract extension in early March that ran through the 2019-20 season. He compiled a 73-61 record over the past four seasons, reviving a program that had gone 52-102 in the five seasons before he arrived and sunk near the bottom of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Baron returned to Buffalo from Belgium on Sunday night. He broke the news to Canisius Athletic Director Bill Maher on Thursday afternoon.

“The news came as a surprise, even a bit of a shock, as through our contract discussions he had been very enthusiastic about continuing to coach young men and teach the game of basketball,” Maher said.

“When we brought Jim here four years ago, it was a goal of restoring … the success of Canisius basketball,” Maher said. “And over the last four years, Jim has done just that. The 73 victories is the third best in the MAAC conference over that four-year period. … It’s demonstrated that success at Canisius is possible. We thank him for his efforts.”

Canisius named Baron’s right-hand man, Pat Clarke, interim head coach and will begin a search immediately.

Baron’s oldest son, Jimmy, played for him at Rhode Island and has played professionally for seven years. Baron’s younger son, Billy, helped spark Canisius’ revival in 2013 and 2014 and has played in Europe the past two years. The two brothers played on the same Belgium team this year.

“I told them I want to be your dad,” Baron said. “I don’t want to just be your coach. It’s something I felt.”

Baron described a scene in Belgium:

“Seeing my guys after the games were over, it was kind of tough,” the coach said. “This woman came up to me and says, ‘Coach, I want to thank you for you sons.’ Meanwhile, Billy’s kissing the fans, and Jimmy’s kissing this fellow in a wheelchair. And I’m watching it and I’m saying, ‘Boy, I don’t want to miss that. I don’t want to miss that.’ They’re connecting the dots. It’s more than basketball. It’s humanity.”

Baron got choked up several times in referring to his sons and in talking about his father.

“My father was a construction worker,” he said. “He passed away at 65. I think the first time he saw me play was on television. It’s a tough time. … I was over in Italy with Jimmy and he said to me, Dad, when are you going to slow down? I said what are you talking about? He said I want you around for your grandkids. When something like that happens. I don’t take that lightly.”

That conversation happened a couple of years ago.

“I am proud, that would be the first word,” Jimmy Baron said of his father. “But definitely there’s some form of relief there because, it’s like now, No. 1, he can walk away on his own terms.”

In 29 seasons as a Division I head coach, Baron compiled a record of 462-430. He made the NCAA Tournament twice, with St. Francis (Pa.) in 1991 and St. Bonaventure in 2000. That was the Bonnies’ first NCAA season in 22 years. He also took the Bonnies to three NITs. He took Rhode Island to five NITs in 11 years. He was Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year three times with Rhode Island and once with Bona.

Canisius won 20 games Baron’s first year and 21 his second. The Griffs overachieved to an 18-14 record despite injuries in 2014-15. This past season Canisius was 14-19 and placed seventh in the MAAC.

Canisius still has work to do this offseason. The team graduated leading scorer Malcolm McMillan and its fifth and sixth scorers (Kevin Bleeker and Jamal Reynolds). The roster does not look any better than last season. There are 10 players under scholarship and three scholarship openings.

Canisius upped its commitment to the basketball program when it hired Baron, who demanded an improvement in assistant coaching salaries. Canisius ranked fifth in the 11-school MAAC in men’s basketball expenses in 2014-15 at $2.05 million, according to federal education documents. Baron also worked hard to drum up more student support, with mixed results.

“Without question the support from the institution is there,” Maher said. “The importance of basketball at Canisius will remain. And I do think we have demonstrated that we have the resources in place that can attract quality staff and find kids and put a program on the floor that will be competitive in our league.”

Clarke has been a Baron aide the past 11 years. He was promoted to associate head coach in March, although no heir-apparent understanding came with the new title. He has been a head coach in high school but never in college.

Numerous well-credentialed candidates, including former University at Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon, potentially could be pursued by Canisius.

Asked what he’s looking for in a head coach, Maher said:

“I think our league is a unique league. You have to understand the challenges of our conference, embrace them and find out what it takes to be successful here. We want someone who can articulate that and continue what we’ve done here. We’ve won a lot of games in the last four years, a lot more than we’ve won in quite a long time. I don’t want to lose sight of that success. That’s what we should expect.”

How important is head-coaching experience?

“I’ve always felt strongly about head coaching experience,” Maher said. “It’s certainly preferable. It was absolutely a criteria last time. You always have to evaluate your program and look at where it is at the time you’re making a hire. That always changes.”

Maher said he would lead the search and be in regular consultation with Canisius President John J. Hurley.

“I will lead in determining what we need to do with our program, and I will rely on key influential people, and of course our president,” Maher said. “John is very involved and very supportive of our program. Nobody makes a decision like this without the president.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com