Category archive: Columbia Lions

Patrick Chambers signed a contract extension on May 5 that was supposed to take him through the next five seasons at Boston University.

A little over three weeks later he was the head coach at Penn State.

And the timing couldn't have worked out any better for Boston College associate head coach Joe Jones.

The best job in the America East was open.

Boston University may face plenty of apathy in a pro sports-dominated city, and it lacks a rousing atmosphere for anything save an America East tournament title game. And yes, the Terriers did lose the league's top player, John Holland. But the rest of the roster is intact to make BU (along with Stony Brook) the favorite to represent the America East again in the NCAA tournament next March.

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Joe Jones
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesThe best job in the America East now belongs to Joe Jones.

"I spent five years as an assistant there,'' said New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion. "It was before they dropped football, before the Agganis Center was built, but I know that it is a very, very good job and has been for a long time. From Rick Pitino to Mike Jarvis to Dennis Wolff to Pat Chambers, year in and year out it's a job that should compete for the title."

Jones was about to fall into one of the more fortunate situations in college basketball. Few coaches -- if any -- have ever been able to land a job at a new school without having to move. Mike Montgomery did it when he was the head coach of the Golden State Warriors; after two years, he got the Cal job. Montgomery was already in the Bay Area at Stanford before his Warriors gig. And while he did get closer to his new job, he didn't have to do anything substantial, save change traffic patterns.

"I could not have imagined that this would happen,'' said Jones. "You really have to count your blessings and be fortunate. My first thought was my family. I wasn't going to put them through this again and move my [two] kids and my wife in a year. It was an unbelievable opportunity to stay in the same household and not disrupt my family.''

The Terriers didn't want to mess with a crazed head-coaching search that would stretch too far into June.

Boston University athletic director Mike Lynch was deciding between Butler associate head coach Matthew Graves and Jones. Graves had never been to Boston, but he had coached in consecutive national title games. Jones knew the area and had experience as a head coach.

He got the nod on June 23 and now has the most desirable job in the league -- and a second chance at success as a head coach.

"People don't think about your family, but to get a job and not have to move your family …'' said Joe's brother James Jones, the head coach at Yale. "He didn't anticipate this job opening. But it was the perfect storm for him. He did a tremendous job at Columbia but everyone wants to win a championship, and he's in a situation where he's got the best job in that league.''

Chambers' Terriers team had one senior last March but still won the league. And the Terriers gave Kansas fits in the first half of the NCAA tournament as a 16-seed; they were down only four at the half before losing by 19 to the top-seeded Jayhawks in the second round of the Southwest Region in Tulsa.

Now the pressure is on Jones to continue the upward climb. Sure, this is BU. The only pressure is self-imposed. But it exists, even if there isn't anyone flocking to picket the school if the Terriers don't win the America East, where BU's home attendance averaged 979 in 14 games last season.

"I think it can happen, but it's not an easy thing to win 20 games back-to-back. And with everybody back except one guy from the championship game, hopefully we'll have the same success and build on what Pat did in the past,'' said Jones.

There is a familiarity with Chambers, who was a Villanova assistant. So, too, was Jones. So the transition shouldn't be too difficult to navigate.

"It's good to have that expectation,'' Jones said. "I think they have an idea of what they want to be here. They have shown the commitment to be successful, and I love that. I've enjoyed getting to know everyone here. They know the budget and the travel, and that we need the money to go where we need to go to be successful. Now it's up to me and my staff to perform.''

Jones never finished above fourth in his seven seasons at Columbia. But that was Columbia, in a conference where Penn and Princeton dominated for so long -- and then toward the end of Jones' tenure, Cornell made a nice three-year run. Now it's Harvard's turn at the top of the Ivy League. Columbia hasn't made its mark in quite some time.

At one point, Boston University had visions of being in the Atlantic 10. Maybe it still does, and with the changing landscape in college sports there is no way to discern what direction any of these schools -- even those at this level that don't play football -- will land within 10 years. But the Terriers have plenty going for them, with strong finances, a tremendous city to attract recruits, and a destination that would be appealing to a potential conference looking to expand. Still, BU has to maintain competitive excellence to even be palatable, and that's where Jones has to take advantage of the roster.

He lost senior Jake O'Brien for this season with a broken foot. O'Brien had surgery on the foot again after he first injured it against UMass on Dec. 31, 2010. But Jones said he wasn't sure when he took job if O'Brien would have been available anyway this season. O'Brien was the team's top rebounder and third-leading scorer when he went down. But the Terriers still won the league behind Holland's 19.2 points a game. The Terriers have five seniors and will lean heavily on returnees Darryl Partin, Matt Griffin, Patrick Hazel and Jeff Pelage; all played double-figure minutes last season, with Partin the only double-figure scorer in the bunch.

"We've had three workouts so far, and this group really enjoys itself,'' Jones said. "They understand the level of intensity needed to be successful. Coach Wolff and Chambers set the tone on how it needs to be done here.''

It's all set up for Jones: the roster, the league, the city, the support. Now he just has to win -- even in Year 1, when the team is set for an America East championship run.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Saint Mary's assistant coach Kyle Smith realized what Leon Rice and Billy Grier found out for themselves when they were promised to succeed Mark Few at Gonzaga: Don't hold your breath.

Grier anticipated at some point that Few would leave Gonzaga and be plucked by a power-six conference. But he never showed signs of really leaving so Grier had to find his own path and left for San Diego, a fellow West Coast Conference member. Rice was next in line for the Gonzaga throne but came to the conclusion in March that it might be time to go off on his own. He's now at Boise State.

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Kyle Smith
Courtesy of Columbia athletics Kyle Smith arrives at Columbia after serving as Randy Bennett's assistant at Saint Mary's.

Last season, Smith figured Randy Bennett would be on the move after the Gaels made a run to the Sweet 16. The timing would have been perfect. The Gaels made the NCAA tournament in two of the past three seasons, including last season after Patty Mills and Diamon Simpson had departed. But Omar Samhan's dominating presence in the middle and the collection of sharp-shooters led the Gaels to a historic run in the NCAAs.

Still, Bennett was probably would only leave for the right job. And while Oregon would have been the fit, the Ducks didn't make a play so he stayed where he had been comfortable, not wanting to bolt for just any job. That meant if Smith was ever going to bust on his own, he had to leave when the Gaels were hot.

But Smith was picky, too. He wasn't jumping to just any job, either.

"Not a lot made sense,'' Smith said.

Why? Well, Smith, 41, had a unique perspective on college athletics. He said he wanted to be where academics were first. Smith grew up in Houston but dreamed of playing in the Ivy League or at an Ivy League-like school. Rice wasn't an option so he turned to the Northeast and landed at Division III Hamilton College in upstate New York, connecting then with Hamilton grad Bill Coen, the current Northeastern coach and former Boston College assistant, whom he said helped recruit him to Hamilton.

Smith had tried to carve his assistant path in a similar fashion, but it wasn't as easy. He went from Hamilton to San Diego to work under Hank Egan, shifted to Air Force to work under former Princeton coach Joe Scott and was hoping that move would lend him to being a Patriot League or Ivy League head coach. But in 2001 he had the opportunity to stay West and work for Bennett at Saint Mary's.

He took the job and helped Bennett rebuild the Gaels into a pest in the WCC and -- ultimately -- an NCAA tournament team.

"I thought I was going to stay a West Coast guy,'' Smith said of one day being the head coach at Saint Mary's. He said he knew he wasn't going to get the Stanford job, the most coveted job in the West of a major academic-first athletic institution. "Johnny Dawkins left a great job at Duke to get the Stanford job; I wasn't going to get it."

Smith went off his projected path by pursuing Hawaii last spring, a quality job in the Western Athletic Conference but not what he said he preferred (a smaller, academic-first school). Let's not be na´ve here. Had he landed Hawaii, he would have gladly taken the job to be the head coach of a state university in a league that has access to multiple NCAA bids with a conference tournament. That's not the case in the Ivy, which has no tourney and has never had more than one NCAA bid. But Smith didn't get the gig. The job went to USC assistant Gib Arnold.

The Columbia job opportunity opened when head coach Joe Jones decided to take an assistant coaching job at Boston College under former Cornell coach Steve Donahue. No one was going to fire Jones. He had taken over a program that went 2-25 under Armond Hill and made it more than respectable by having double-digit wins in each of his seven seasons and going 7-7 in the Ivy League in three-straight seasons, including last season's 5-9 record.

Smith saw the potential. Columbia doesn't have the built-in history of Princeton and Penn. It also doesn't have the untapped name of Harvard that Tommy Amaker is resurrecting. And it doesn't have the recent unheard of Ivy success of Cornell with the Big Red's Sweet 16 run last March.

But Columbia does have New York City as a selling point and a slew of alumni that still live and work in the city.

Jones said that he loved his job and really wavered on leaving Columbia. With small children, it was a tough call but one he felt he had to make as his family decided on where to raise their kids.

"Joe was close to turning it around,'' Smith said. "He knew this job was really unique.''

Smith got the gig with plenty of firepower working for him from Hamilton, including Coen, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and others. And what he found out is how much interest locally there is in the program being successful.

Columbia has been to the NCAA tournament three times, but its last visit and Ivy League title came in 1968.

"I realized that those '68 alums really care,'' Smith said. "There are a lot of alums that do. A lot haven't left the city. I thought no one cared whether we won the league or not and assumed it was like Saint Mary's where it was in bad shape and there wasn't a lot of support. But I was wrong. I could spend all my time, every day, doing two things: handling alums and recruiting.''

Smith said Jones did a good job of maintaining relationships.

Smith left Orlando on Sunday night to head back to New York City to start camp. He was set to return by Tuesday morning to continue to recruit.

He isn't under some allusion that he can capture New York City. But there is a vacuum for the sport in the city. St. John's hired Steve Lavin to fill that void and to take control of the media market for colleges. But the Red Storm still have to win. Columbia will never be No. 1 in college basketball in the city, but if the Lions were an Ivy League champ, then there is no question the city would rally around one of its own. Cornell, from upstate Ithaca, was able to capture the interest of plenty with its remarkable run to the Sweet 16, let alone its Ivy League titles the past three seasons.

Harvard is trying to mimic the model. Princeton and Penn are attempting to make its own comeback stories. Smith wants Columbia in on the ride as well.

"Make the NCAAs? Win the Ivy League? I can't imagine it. It would be so big,'' Smith said.

For a Houston kid who dreamed of playing in the Ivy League but never got the chance, coaching in the league has fulfilled him more than he ever imagined it could.