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MAC Preview: New Ohio coach Jim Christian is back in his comfort zone

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Former Kent State coach Jim Christian returns to the MAC with Ohio (US Presswire)

When Jim Christian led Kent State to six consecutive 20-win seasons from 2002 to 2008, his name came up in connection to so many jobs that it always seemed as though he was eager to leave the MAC.

The new Ohio coach returns to the league after four trying seasons at TCU with greater appreciation for how good he has it.

One coach in the MAC was the best man in his wedding and many others are guys he has coached with and against for years. Recruiting comes easily to him because he knows the high school and AAU coaches in the region so well. And the community in Athens feels very comfortable and familiar to him, especially having his wife's family a mere two hours away.

"It feels like coming home to be honest with you," Christian said. "When you're in one area for seven years, you feel comfortable coming back. It's a perfect fit between the program, the location, everything. It has been a really easy adjustment."

Whereas Christian's job at TCU was to rebuild a long-struggling program with minimal pedigree, fan support or recruiting advantages, he takes over a thriving program at Ohio. He must only sustain the success the Bobcats enjoyed under prior coach John Groce, a challenge very similar to the one he took on at Kent State a decade ago after Stan Heath left for Arkansas.

Just like Kent State had a winning tradition buoyed by a deep NCAA tournament run the year before Christian became coach, Ohio has won 19 or more games seven of the last eight years and is six months removed from taking North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16. Christian inherits a team with five starters returning, a fan base that has purchased season tickets this offseason at a record pace and an administration more invested in basketball than perhaps any other program in the MAC.

"The similarities with Kent [State] are amazing," Christian said. "I'm not trying to fix something. They won 29 games last season. I'm only trying to keep what John built going."

Christian had something similar going at Kent State not long ago, but he was eager for a new challenge after four MAC east division titles and five postseason appearances in six years. It made it easier for Christian to leave that the president who hired him left the school in 2006 and the athletic director who was one of his closest friends planned to retire at the end of the 2009-10 school year.

"There was a lot of changes going on," Christian said. "Not that the people they hired weren't going to be great, but there was such a closeness between the administration and the basketball program that it was going to be hard to duplicate that. If it wasn't for those things, you probably wouldn't have thought about [leaving] at all."

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Jim Christian (US Presswire)

Christian is adamant he doesn't regret his four years at TCU, but he does concede it was a very difficult job.

Football is so important at TCU that basketball becomes an afterthought among donors and fans until at least January -- and maybe longer if the team isn't winning. The Horned Frogs drew between 4,000 and 4,500 fans per game during Christian's tenure, less than half the average in the Mountain West.

While Christian believes recruiting will get easier for TCU basketball as a member of the Big 12, he found it difficult in the Mountain West because the Horned Frogs were the lone Texas school in the league. He also admits he made some mistakes in recruiting his first couple years on the job that set the rebuilding process back a bit.

Christian's teams went 11-37 in the Mountain West his first three seasons at TCU before a bit of a breakthrough in year four when the Horned Frogs won 18 games and finished 7-7 in a league that produced four NCAA tournament teams. Nonetheless, with the core of that team graduating and with TCU moving to the Big 12, the program was going to enter rebuilding mode again, something Christian may not have been able to survive five years into his tenure.

"It was a great learning experience for me," Christian said. "When you inherit a situation that hasn't had a lot of success, every decision you make in recruiting, if you miss, you're going back a year. It took us a while. In the beginning, I'd say I felt a little uncomfortable. Toward the end, I figured out who the type of people you want to deal with are and who you don't. Where you can get guys and where you can't.

"But moving forward, I think it's so much better to walk into an established program where there's a culture of winning and an expectation of winning, where the university wants your particular sport to be the front porch of the university."

That was the opportunity Christian felt presented itself when he received a phone call from a mutual friend prior to the Final Four last spring gauging whether he had any interest in the Ohio job.

Immediately intrigued, Christian agreed to meet with Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus. Christian was confident the community and recruiting base would be a good fit, but he needed to determine whether he'd have the administrative support he believed he needed to keep growing the Ohio program.

During their conversation at the Final Four, Schaus assured Christian he'd have charter flights for road games that weren't drivable and ample money to hire a quality staff and to create a favorable schedule. As a result, Christian quickly accepted a contract worth a reported $425,000 per year, less than than the $600,000 per year he made at TCU yet enough to make him the highest paid basketball coach in the MAC.

"It became a no brainer for me after having conversations with Jim at the Final Four," Christian said. "You could tell the growth of the basketball program was a collaboration between John Groce and his staff and the administration. It wasn't haphazardly done. As a head coach, that was all you could ask for."

Initially some players were disappointed that a member of Groce's staff didn't get the job, but Christian said that dissipated quickly once he assured them he wasn't planning to drastically change what they had been doing. No key players left the program since they all saw the potential for a big season with MAC player of the year candidate D.J. Cooper, promising shooting guard Walter Offutt and three other starters back from last year's 29-win team.

Christian's knowledge of MAC history has made it easy for him to motivate his new team. He pointed out that Ohio hasn't won a MAC regular season title since 2000 and that none of the MAC's five previous Sweet 16 teams ever returned to the NCAA tournament the following year.

Those are goals Christian looks forward to pursuing this winter at a school where he already feels very comfortable.

"I think it's a lot different than it is when you have to try to build from scratch," he said. "Both are rewarding if you can turn the corner and do it, but obviously one is a lot easier than the other."

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