Updated Fri, Jan 25, 2013 5:56 pm
Jim Christian saw this day coming.
Since the moment he was named head coach of the Ohio men’s basketball team, Christian knew he’d find himself walking the sidelines where his coaching career began in Kent, Oh.
From 2002-2008, Christian made a name for himself in Kent State and Mid-American Conference basketball history. He was the 2006 and 2008 MAC Coach of the Year, won 138 games and qualified for the NCAA Tournament twice in his tenure.
His familiarity with the Golden Flashes program is unchallenged when compared with any other coach in Bobcat history. After all, he helped build the Flashes program that it is today.
Not only will Christian be going up against his former program, but he’ll also be calling plays from the opposite sideline of former assistants and players, now coaches at the university.
In fact, his former assistant and best man of his wedding Rob Senderoff is now in his second year as the Golden Flashes’ head coach. Having to coach against his friends and former colleagues will not be a happy reunion for Christian.
“It's hard, man. It's hard,” Christian said. “Again, these guys don't care and their players don't care, so we've got to go play. We're going to do the best we can to prepare our team.
“Kent was a special place to me, but (Ohio) is a special place, too. We're just going to do the best we can and get ready to go.”
To say, “Kent was a special place to (Christian)” is an understatement on his part. When he returns to the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center (MAC Center) on Saturday, he’ll be standing in the place where he won 61 games as head coach. When told he won that many games in the arena, Christian was even shocked a bit.
But a look over at the Kent State coaches would give Christian an understanding of why he won so many games in the MAC Center. There are three outstanding assistants who once played under Christian while at Kent State.
One of the three knows his system inside-and-out. Eric Haut played for Christian at Kent State for a short period of time before becoming an assistant from 2006-08. When Christian took the coaching position at Texas Christian, Haut followed him there for three years. The two went their separate ways when they returned to Ohio, Christian going to Ohio University and Haut returning to his alma mater.
Two more of Senderoff’s assistants are DeAndre Haynes and Mike McKee, who were both a part of an NCAA Tournament team under Christian. Haynes is regarded as one of the best players to ever play under the Ohio head coach, as well as in Kent State history. He was named 2006 MAC Player of the Year and Honorable Mention All-America.
As Christian stated, he’s “very familiar” with what Kent State’s coaching staff has prepared for Saturday’s game. Then again, they know his coaching style as well.
“I think a lot of the stuff we do here, they're doing over there. I think a lot of the stuff we ran (at Kent State) they're still running,” Christian said. “I mean you work with somebody for that many years. We helped each other put stuff together and built the program. It's a lot of similarities.”
But does that affect the way Christian or Senderoff coach this huge MAC East Division game? With both coaches knowing each other’s systems so well, how does that affect their preparation?
“In this day and age, there's so much film on everybody, there's no surprises. We pretty much know, for the most part, what everybody's trying to do,” Christian explained. “There's some wrinkles here and there, but it's like everybody else, for the most part, you understand what they're trying to do, and they understand what you're trying to do, so these games all become execution by games.
“Who can execute better, who's coming with the right mentality, who can play through the team, who can play through the scratches, that's what it comes down to.”
In the Convocation Center, Christian is used to a big student section and fans to pack the house when a big opponent comes into town. The MAC Center, as Christian says, is very similar.
A tightly packed gym that was built in 1952, the arena holds 6,327 fans and when a divisional opponent comes into Kent, especially the Bobcats who have yet to lose a conference game, every seat’s expected to be filled.
“(The MAC Center’s) not as big,” Christian said. “It's half the size of the Convo, so the acoustics are a little louder and they understand. I mean shoot, they're used to winning at home, so they understand the importance of how important it is to win these types of in-division games at home. You have to give yourself a chance.”
In terms of atmosphere, Christian has a difficult time comparing any school to Ohio.
“I don't think there's 10 better student sections in the country than (Ohio). I mean that sincerely. Our student section is off the charts,” Christian said. “(The MAC Center’s) just like here. It gets incredibly loud. There's a lot of energy.”
Christian is prepared for the changes to the program he once built when he enters the arena this weekend. He acknowledges that several things have changed since his coaching days.
“These (Kent State) players don't know me,” Christian said. “None of the students there know me. Fans maybe, but that's irrelevant when the ball goes up.”
That’s ultimately how Christian coaches. When the ballgame begins, every single outside matter is lost. The game becomes the number one priority.
So when he looks out onto the court Saturday, he won’t be giving directions to Haut, Haynes or McKee bringing the ball up the floor in a gold and blue jersey. Those days are long gone.
He’ll know Senderoff’s coaching style and what he will be planning in his huddles during timeouts, just as all of Christian’s former players will know exactly what play Christian will be drawing up in familiar situations. In the end, it comes down to the players on the court and which ones can execute the coaches’ plays to perfection.
With an All-MAC point guard in D.J. Cooper and a team undefeated in the conference this season, it’s enough to make a coach feel right at home.
But Christian isn’t planning a long stay. All he cares about now is getting out of Kent with that 62nd win in the MAC Center.