- 1 of 2 Photos | View More Photos
By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Treating Jim Christian like an enemy will be extremely difficult for loyal backers of Kent State men's basketball.
But that's exactly what Christian will be tonight, when he guides his Mid-American Conference East Division-leading Ohio Bobcats (14-5, 5-0 MAC) into battle with the Golden Flashes (11-8, 2-3) at the M.A.C. Center. And after taking a moment to honor the former Kent State head coach who led the program through a wildly successful six-year stretch in the mid-2000s, current KSU mentor Rob Senderoff expects Flashes fans to treat him as such.
"He did a great job here for a long, long time," said Senderoff. "I would hope that he would get a really good reception from our fans and then from that point on, I would hope our fans would be cheering for the Blue & Gold the rest of the way."
Christian spent six seasons as head coach at Kent State, taking over the program after Stan Heath accepted the top job at Arkansas following the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight season of 2001-02. Christian's teams won 20 games in each of his six seasons as head coach, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and 2008. He exited following the 2007-08 season, when Kent State received its highest-ever seed in the NCAA Tournament (No. 9) and finished 28-7 overall.
Christian (138-58 at KSU) left the Flashes to take over the program at Texas Christian, where he compiled a 56-73 record in four seasons before the Bobcats lured him back into the MAC with a five-year contract that includes a $425,000 base salary plus incentives. He has inherited an Ohio squad that returns every player from its MAC Tournament championship team of a year ago that advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 before falling to North Carolina in overtime.
"I think it was just the right situation for me at the right time, to get back to where I'm comfortable. Not only from coaching in the league, but getting back to the areas we recruit," said Christian. "I'm fortunate to step into a program I have a great amount of respect for. It was just a perfect fit for me. Regardless of what type of team I inherited, it would have been a great fit for what I'm trying to do as I get older."
No one will struggle with Christian's enemy status more than Senderoff, who served on his staff at Kent State from 2002-06 and remains Christian's best friend.
"We've probably spoken three or four times a week for 17 years now," said Senderoff.
Senderoff and Christian first met at Miami of Ohio in 1995, when Christian became an assistant coach for the RedHawks and Senderoff was a graduate assistant.
"We're both from New York. When you're in Oxford, Ohio, it's not like there are a ton of New Yorkers out there," said Senderoff. "So we sort of hit it off and became very close friends."
That friendship continued to grow even after they went their separate ways. Christian left Miami after one season to become an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh, while Senderoff spent time over the next several years as an assistant at Fordham, Yale and Towson.
"I was there for the birth of his first daughter," said Senderoff. "He had some personal and some professional ups and downs, as we all do, and at one point he was out of the (coaching) profession for a couple years. He went through a divorce with his first wife, and at that time we spoke every day."
Christian said Senderoff has always been there to help him through difficult times.
"Rob's the guy that whenever something happens in my life we talk about it, whether it's basketball or non-basketball related," said Christian. "He's my best friend, and that's what you do."
Christian knew exactly what to do when he was promoted to head coach at Kent State after spending one year as Heath's top assistant.
"When he had the opportunity to become the coach here at Kent, I think I was the first person that he called and hired," said Senderoff. "I remember we were in Atlanta for the Final Four that year, he brought my wife and I out to dinner and he asked me to join the staff. When he (took over at KSU) he was still single. Now my wife and his second wife are close friends, and I was the best man at that wedding."
Christian, of course, met his wife Patty while coaching at Kent State.
"For me personally, (Kent State) is a special place," said Christian. "It's where I met my wife, the best man at my wedding coaches their team, so there's a lot of emotion going into it. But obviously the game's the most important thing."
Christian has been back in the Kent area several times to visit his in-laws, who live in Hudson, but hasn't seen a game at the M.A.C. Center since he left for Texas Christian.
"Last year his in-laws probably came to 10 of our games," said Senderoff. "There's a connection that runs pretty deep."
Christian's connection to the current Kent State coaching staff runs much deeper than just Senderoff.
"You look at the staff and (Anthony) Wilkins was on my first team (at Kent State), Eric Haut was the captain on my second team, Mike McKee played for me, DeAndre Haynes was a four-year starting point guard for me. So it's pretty deep," said Christian, who had Haut on his coaching staff at TCU. "I have so much admiration for those guys and how hard they worked for me. It's gonna be one of those interesting nights."
Christian's return to the M.A.C. Center will indeed be intriguing to virtually everyone in attendance, except the players themselves.
"Their kids don't care and our kids don't care," said Christian, referring to his return to KSU. "To them it's just a MAC East Division battle between two teams trying to put themselves in position to win a championship."