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On College Basketball

For Boston College men’s basketball, the challenge is to become relevant again

Jim Christian's coaching tenure at BC came to an end this year after seven seasons and a 78-132 record.
Jim Christian's coaching tenure at BC came to an end this year after seven seasons and a 78-132 record.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The most telling part about the midseason upheaval in the Boston College men’s basketball program a week ago was how little it moved the needle.

The program’s problems run deeper than its decade-long run of futility on the court. The Eagles have to face a harsher reality that a series of missteps over the years has put the program in a position of irrelevance.

BC’s fall from grace in the Atlantic Coast Conference traces back to its ugly split with Al Skinner in 2010. In some ways, Skinner’s success — he was the winningest coach in BC history, putting the Eagles alongside Duke and North Carolina as the top programs in the conference — skewed the reality of how difficult it is to turn BC into a competitive program.

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The Eagles went to the NCAA Tournament seven times in 12 years under Skinner. They haven’t been back since.

One question BC now faces is how to be both quick and calculated in trying to climb back. Another is how broad will BC be in its search for a new coach.

In recent years, the Eagles have reaped the benefits of smart, splashy, and diverse hires in key positions. In 2017, Martin Jarmond was brought in from Ohio State to lead the athletics department. He was the first Black AD at BC and the youngest AD at a Power Five school. His charisma and connections helped put BC football back on a national platform. His fund-raising savvy re-engaged alumni and built the resources needed to compete in the ACC.

Jarmond, in turn, hired Jeff Hafley to lead a football program that had grown stagnant. Hafley brought a fresh and forward-thinking perspective honed at the highest levels of college and professional football. Jarmond also brought in Vaughn Williams, now at Bentley, and Jocelyn Fisher Gates as his top assistants and hired Joanna Bernabei-McNamee to lead women’s basketball, Jason Kennedy to coach volleyball, and Jason Lowe to head the women’s soccer program.

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Still, of the 29 programs within the department, six are led by women and just one by a Black person.

Addressing the lack of Black leaders across college sports in New England, BC’s associate vice president for communications Jack Dunn told the Globe last year, “As with many colleges in the Greater Boston area, we continue to struggle to find diverse candidates.”

As the Eagles search for a replacement for men’s basketball coach Jim Christian, they don’t have to look far for those candidates.

Howard Eisley, who led the Eagles to the Elite Eight in 1994, has excelled as an assistant at Michigan under Juwan Howard, learning the inside-outs of a top-five program.

The Eagles have pursued Harvard coach Tommy Amaker for years. Amaker has used the Harvard brand to turn Crimson basketball into a brand of its own. Along with seven conference titles and four NCAA Tournament appearances, Amaker has fostered an environment that encourages social awareness and engagement.

Michigan assistant Howard Eisley, a BC alumnus, is among a strong pool of diverse candidates as the Eagles search for a new head coach.
Michigan assistant Howard Eisley, a BC alumnus, is among a strong pool of diverse candidates as the Eagles search for a new head coach.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The same can be said for James Jones at Yale and his brother Joe Jones at Boston University. James Jones led Yale to the Ivy League title last season, its fourth since 2015. Joe Jones pushed BU to the Patriot League crown.

Within the ACC, Virginia’s Jason Williford has built a reputation as one of the top assistants in the conference in his 12 years with the Cavaliers. He also spent five years as an assistant at BU under Dennis Wolfe.

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At North Carolina Central, LeVelle Moton has led the Eagles to four 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament trips in 11 years. He has squeezed every ounce of potential out of a program with limited resources with acumen for the game and a presence that goes beyond the court, something that was on display a year ago when he called out Power Five coaches for not speaking out against police brutality.

In that small sample lies experience at elite programs along with NCAA Tournament track records and track records for building a culture that encourages players to look at the world in a broader sense.

After Skinner was fired in 2010, the Eagles hired Steve Donahue from Cornell. His success in the Ivy League did not translate to the ACC. Christian coached in the Mid-American Conference before jumping to the ACC and was never able to find solid footing.

Since 2011, BC men’s basketball has produced one winning season — and to a degree, even that was a disappointment. In 2017-18, Christian had the explosive backcourt duo of Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman. Both had talent that would take them to the NBA, and with Christian in his fourth season as coach, he believed they gave the Eagles enough firepower to reach the NCAA Tournament. But that talent translated to only a 19-win season that ended with a one-and-done trip to the NIT.

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Perhaps the most lasting way Christian left his fingerprints on the program, however, was by pointing out all the aspects in which BC was behind the curve compared with other teams in the ACC — from major things like not having its own practice facility to simpler things like nutrition.

What’s become clear over the past decade is that the job the Eagles are looking to fill isn’t an easy one. To give itself a chance to be relevant again, BC has to give itself a chance to compete. The Eagles’ next steps will go a long way in determining whether the next 10 years look anything like the last.


Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.