NEW YORK — Jim Engles is a unicorn amongst college coaches.
He’s not much of a screamer during games.
He’s never too up or too down in press conferences (just watch the presser after the biggest win of his career, NJIT’s 72-70 win over Michigan in 2014, for proof).
Rarest of all, Engles has never had to move out of the tri-state area during his career, enabling his children to grow up in one home.
That kind of stability is what the Columbia basketball program desperately needs as it enters a period of tremendous transition. Maodo Lo, Alex Rosenberg, Grant Mullins and Isaac Cohen will all be gone, which means that Engles will be forced to replace roughly half of the team’s regular rotation (and its best player) right out of the gate. Oh, and there’s that newfangled conference tournament thing starting next year, too.
All that means that Columbia needs a coach intent on sticking around for the long run as the program adjusts to the immediate shock of losing its graduating senior class and the more-difficult-to-predict ramifications of the changing week-to-week dynamic as games midway through the Ivy season serve more as determinants of playoff positioning rather than elimination games.
Fortunately for the Lions, Engles doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.
“I’ve never really had the aspirations to be to coach of Rutgers or Seton Hall or St. John’s,” Engles said after his introductory press conference on Thursday. “This is the place I’ve always wanted to be. I wanted to be in the Ivy League because you get the big-time feel but it’s so pure, because the guys are here really for the academics first.
“But you can treat these guys like they’re in any league and you get the resources you need and you can recruit nationally.”
Nationally, there’s growing a trend among mid-major coaches to bolt for the first opportunity they can find after experiencing success. Case in point: Chris Beard ditching Little Rock for UNLV after winning an NCAA Tournament game in his first season as a Division I coach.
So far, the Ivy League has remained pretty much immune to this plague. Tommy Amaker and James Jones have stayed put despite overtures from bigger programs so far. Of the coaches who did leave in the past decade or so, one (Steve Donahue) has already returned to the fold and another (Sydney Johnson) has struggled mightily at Fairfield in the MAAC after leaving his alma mater, Princeton.
Engles deserves praise for remaining at NJIT as long as he did. He took a program in the midst of the worst losing streak in Division I history, guided it through a stretch as in independent into a spot in a conference with an NCAA Tournament tie-in, and prompted the university to devote $100 million dollars to a new athletic complex. The two CIT semifinal runs and the win over Michigan? Compared to everything else he’s accomplished, those are bonuses.
When the Highlanders went 1-30 during Engles’ first season in 2008-09, he kept a sense of perspective.
“We talked about that a lot. It’s basketball. Let’s have fun with this. Let’s try to do the best we can and let’s make sure that we stick with the process and don’t worry about wins and losses,” Engles said. “And I think having that attitude and that underdog attitude really helped us as we moved forward.”
Columbia, of course, is in a position where wins and losses matter a lot more. But Engles’ steady hand will ensure that the Lions can withstand the inevitable pains associated with losing one of the best classes in program history and stay well-positioned to contend in the Ivy League for years to come.