Jim Christian made what could have been an incredibly difficult and time consuming decision as easy as pie for Kent State University Athletic Director Laing Kennedy.
Christian was named the 21st head coach in Golden Flashes men's basketball program history on Tuesday after spending one season as former mentor Stan Heath's top assistant, much to the delight of his smiling players, proud boss and new baker.
"My wife, Saundra, baked Stan a coconut cream pie, and he still wouldn't stay," said Kennedy. "This time, the pie did the job. We got our man."
Aside from the pie, Kennedy also offered Christian some dough: A five-year contract with a base salary of $120,000 plus incentives, which is almost identical to the contract Heath signed last year.
"Jim's also not allowed to talk to (any other schools) for two years," said a half-smiling and probably half-joking Kennedy.
Christian replaces Heath, who accepted an offer to take over the nationally renowned University of Arkansas basketball program last Thursday after leading KSU to a school-record 30 victories, Mid-American Conference Tournament and regular-season titles and to the NCAA Tournament's "Elite Eight" during the storybook 2001-02 campaign.
"It's hard to put into words how excited I am to be the head basketball coach at Kent State University," Christian said. "It's the culmination of a dream for me. It's amazing. Everything's happened so fast."
The 37-year-old New York native becomes the third Flashes head coach in as many seasons. Gary Waters revitalized the program before taking over at Rutgers in 2001, then Heath took it to another level last winter before joining the Razorbacks.
"Stan stood here last year indebted to Gary Waters, and I stand here today doubly indebted to Stan Heath," Christian said. "He gave me an opportunity last year to join a great group of people and experience such a special season. Now this opportunity has opened up for me because of Stan Heath."
Heath recommended Christian to Kennedy as soon as Heath accepted the Arkansas job.
"Laing made a wise decision in promoting Jim," Heath said. "The continuity of the program is essential. The players need to feel comfortable in the transition, and Jim's relationship with them will smooth that. Jim was a valuable asset to me this year. His coaching, recruiting and game preparation all played a major role in our success."
Kennedy interviewed Christian on campus Monday, and didn't bother bringing in another candidate. In fact, no one else seriously was considered for the job.
"If I'd have done a national search, I'd have been looking at NCAA Tournament teams and teams that made the 'Sweet 16' and 'Elite Eight,' Kennedy said. "We don't have to look far to find that type of team, because we're there. I also asked people across the country that I hold in high regard who they'd recommend, and they said I didn't need to look very far.
"I wanted stability and continuity, and I knew Jim would give us that. And after I sat down with our players, it became an even more logical decision. They were all in his corner."
Christian spent nine seasons as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, Miami of Ohio, Western Kentucky and St. Francis (Pa.), then worked two years as a college basketball talent evaluator for Octagon Sports Marketing and Management in McLean, Va., before joining Heath's staff in 2001.
Christian's playing philosophy basically mirrors the one Heath implemented at Kent State, so don't expect any major changes in the years to come.
"I was just at the Final Four, and I don't know how many coaches came up to me asking what's the secret to our success," said Christian. "I don't think there's any magical formula. I think what's made our team special is our consistent work ethic, and that's the main thing I want to carry over from the last regime.
"The staples of our team were defense, rebounding, playing hard and playing unselfishly, and I don't think that ever changes."
The Flashes have captured three of the last four MAC Tournament titles and finished among the top two in the regular-season league standings for four straight years. They've also earned four NCAA tourney victories over the past two seasons, but Christian's primary goals are still league-oriented.
"We've been able to do some special things at the last two NCAA Tournaments, but we still need to stay focused on being competitive in our conference," said Christian. "If we do that, further opportunities will come. And if we keep working hard and stay focused, there's no reason we can't experience some of the same things we've experienced here in the past."
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