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Coach Jim Christian ready to rebuild at BC

Christian excited by challenge

BC men’s basketball coach Jim Christian has learned from his mentors and learned from his mistakes.Nell Redmond/AP

Long before he succeeded Steve Donahue as Boston College’s 12th men’s basketball coach, Jim Christian was a heady all-state “combo guard’’ who played for Ralph Willard at St. Dominic High in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

“He was a real leader, a gym rat, never out of the gym,’’ recalled Willard, the former Holy Cross, Pittsburgh, and Western Kentucky head coach whom Christian lists as his biggest coaching influence.

Christian often worked so hard in the gym, said Willard with a chuckle, “we had to throw him out.

“But, really, he’s an outstanding person.’’

As the middle child, and only son, of Tom and Delores Christian, Jim grew up playing every sport imaginable, with hockey being the notable exception.

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“Maybe street hockey, but no skates,’’ said Christian. “I couldn’t skate.’’

But when it came to basketball, he said, “for some reason, it just kind of clicked with me. It came to me and I just loved it. Maybe it was because it was one of the only games where you could just practice by yourself and I loved it.’’

An empty gym was his sanctuary. The melodic sounds of squeaking sneakers and the thump-thump-thump of a basketball bouncing off hardwood resonated with him.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t play with toys or trucks,’’ said Christian, 49, a native of Bethpage, N.Y., who in 12 seasons as a head coach at Kent State, Texas Christian, and Ohio compiled a 242-154 record with eight postseason appearances, including a pair in the NCAA Tournament.

“I just played ball,’’ he said. “That’s kind of what I did.’’

An All-Catholic League first-teamer his junior and senior years, Christian literally and figuratively grew to love the game. After reading a Sports Illustrated article on former Houston Rockets guard Mike Newlin, Christian’s father started adding two drops of iodine to his son’s orange juice in the hopes of making him taller.

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“Yeah, it’s a true story,’’ said Christian. “I did it all through high school every morning. I took two drops and a vitamin.

“I can say it worked, because I’m the only member in my family over 6 feet. My mother is 5-2, my dad is 5-9, and my sisters have had kids, but no one over 6 feet. None of my cousins are more than 6 feet. Only one guy in my family was.

“I went from like 5-7 in ninth grade to 6-3 in high school.’’

That helped Christian stand above the crowd as a Division 1 prospect when Rick Pitino recruited him to play at Boston University.

“I was a launching pad to the New York Knicks assistant job,’’ Christian joked. “I signed to play with Rick Pitino and in the summer that I was going to go play for him, he took an assistant job with the Knicks.

“So I played there for John Kuester, who was great, and I still speak to him, but I decided to transfer to the University of Rhode Island to play for Brendan Malone, a lifelong great NBA coach.

“The year I became eligible to play, he left to go to the New York Knicks, and so I ended up playing for Tommy Penders.’’

Network of coaches

Christian helped the Rams advance to the Sweet 16 of the 1988 NCAA Tournament, where they bowed to Duke, 73-72, in the regional semifinals. But he did express some regret about transferring from BU.

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“BU was going through a coaching change and quite honestly I should’ve stuck it out,’’ Christian said. “If I could live my life over again, I would have never transferred.

“Although I met some of the best friends of my life at Rhode Island, my basketball career was never the same and I wish somebody would’ve gotten to me and said, ‘Hey, this is going to be a great situation here [at BU].’

“But it was just my immaturity at that time.’’

On the flip side, Christian was exposed to different philosophies playing for different coaches, something that informed his own decision to pursue a coaching career in 1990 as an assistant at Western Kentucky under Willard.

“He has a real great demeanor, and I think that’s the biggest thing why he’s been so successful coaching,’’ Willard said. “He knows what he wants from you, he communicates it very well, and his demeanor was always encouraging — demanding, but very encouraging. He was a very, very good teacher.

“It’s one of the biggest reasons I gave him his first college coaching job.’’

It was the lifeline Christian was searching for after he realized his limitations as a player following a one-year stint with the Sydney City Comets in the Australian Basketball Association.

“The funny part about it is that people will say, ‘Well, who did you work for?’ but even more important sometimes really is the guys you’ve worked with,’’ Christian said. “My first-ever assistant coaching job, Tom Crean and I were assistants together [at Western Kentucky]. Then I went to Miami of Ohio with Thad Motta and I was there with Sean Miller and Charlie Coles.

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“When I was at Pitt [again as an assistant to Willard], Troy Weaver, who’s with the Oklahoma City Thunder, was working there. So it’s just a network that you keep developing as you go.’’

Christian’s network continued to grow in 2001 when he found himself on Stan Heath’s staff at Kent State, and he landed his first head job as Heath’s successor in 2002. Christian coached players such as Antonio Gates (whom he still refers to as “the best player I’ve ever coached”), and built a Mid-American Conference juggernaut that won 20-plus games in each of his six seasons and made postseason appearances in five of those seasons, including a pair of NCAA bids as MAC champions in 2005-06 and 2007-08.

Christian left his Midwestern comfort zone by taking a job at TCU in 2008-09, and went 56-73 in his first three seasons. He parlayed an 18-15 season in 2011-12 into a ticket back to the MAC as head coach at Ohio, where he won a regular-season title in his first season in 2012-13 and went 49-22 in two seasons in Athens before making his move to BC.

“People make moves and obviously, for me, [TCU] was a bad move, not knowing what I was getting into,’’ he said. “And you know what? In the end, when I decided to come back to Ohio, we were turning the corner. We were a possession away from being a third-place team in the [Big 12] and 3-4 possessions away from being a team that made the tournament.’’

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Help at The Heights

Now, it would appear, Christian has an even more daunting challenge, taking over a downtrodden program that went 8-24 last season. He returns three starters, including junior guard Olivier Hanlan, whom Christian made it a priority to recruit after Hanlan contemplated leaving school early for the NBA.

“I never thought of transferring, because I never liked the idea of sitting out, so it was either BC or the NBA,’’ Hanlan said. “Right when he got the job, Coach Christian went to Canada, he spoke to my parents and my brother and my old coach over there and made me realize [BC] was the best situation for me, on and off the court.

“Coach Donahue was a great guy, a high-class type of guy. But Coach Christian, he’s really good with relating with different personalities and he does a pretty good job with all the guys on the team.’’

Christian has taken measures to ensure that the missteps he made by trying to make quick fixes at TCU will not be repeated at BC, where rebuilding the program will be a long-haul process.

Christian will be supported in that endeavor by an experienced staff that includes his former Ohio assistant Bill Wuczynski, former Maryland assistant (and 1989 BU grad) Scott Spinelli, and former URI player Preston Murphy, who played for Al Skinner at URI and served as his director of basketball operations at BC from 2006-10.

In addition to returning Hanlan, Christian will welcome healthy 7-foot-1-inch junior Dennis Clifford, who was limited to two games last season because of chronic left knee issues. Christian also picked up a pair of fifth-year transfers in Dimitri Batten, a 6-3 guard from Old Dominion, and Aaron Brown, a 6-5 guard from Southern Mississippi, whom he tasked with helping establish a winning culture in a program picked 14th out of 15 teams in the ACC’s preseason media poll.

“Being somewhere where you can have some success, at this stage of the game, that’s important to me,’’ Christian said. “I could’ve easily stayed in Ohio. My wife went to school there and we had great support, a great administration, a great fan base.

“But this was one that was like, ‘Man, if I’m going to take on one more challenge, this would be ideal for me.’

“Then the opportunity, obviously, to coach against Hall of Fame coaches and some of the best programs in the nation in the ACC, how do you not get excited about that?’’


Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.