Introduced one week ago as the 23rd coach in Columbia history, Jim Engles has a lot on his plate: hiring a staff, meeting new players, replacing a legendary senior class… and finding decent cell phone service in Levien Gymnasium.
Once we switched to a land line, I spoke with Coach Engles in a wide-ranging interview for this special episode of On The Vine. Among the news that will interest Lions fans: Kyle Smith’s entire 2016 recruiting class has committed to being at Columbia next year, Jesse Agel is definitely coming on board as an assistant coach, and one of Engles’ goals for next year’s team is making the Ivy League Tournament.
One moment that stood out to me came from near the end of the interview (a full transcript of which is available below the audio file). I asked Engles to speak directly to Columbia fans, and here’s part of what he said:
I watched the championship game on TV, and I saw how the crowd reacted, and I saw the gym packed. Those are moments for these people, because they want to see those moments. They want to win a championship. And that’s exactly how I envision this. That’s what I want to do. I really want to win for all those people who’ve been with Columbia for such a long time, and have been fans through the good times and the bad times.
Many thanks to Coach Engles for coming on the show, Columbia Athletics for making him available, and Miles Johnson and Sam Tydings for contributing questions.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview. Any errors of transcription are mine alone.
PA: Coach, welcome back to Columbia!
JE: Thank you so much. It’s really exciting to be back, it’s been an unbelievable couple weeks here.
PA: I’m sure it has. Let me start with a light hearted question. You come back on campus for the first time, take the head coaching job: what’s the first place you went to get food in Morningside Heights?
JE: (laughs) I went to the Amsterdam Café, then I was disappointed to realize that it had closed down. I heard it closed down probably about a month ago, so I missed the AmCaf. So I kept walking down the street and I went to Serafina, got a nice little pizza. That’s the one great thing about being at Columbia, there’s tremendous places to eat, so I was very excited to be back.
PA: I’m glad to see the neighborhood hasn’t changed too much since you’ve been gone. What’s the difference that you’ve seen since you left Columbia in 2008?
JE: I think there’s a difference, I think the culture of the athletic department has changed dramatically. When I left eight years ago, obviously having someone with Al Bagnoli’s resume, and his championships, that he brings to the football program, and then hiring Megan Griffith, who I remember when I was here she was playing, so I remember actually watching her play and her enthusiasm and her passion for the game. So, I just think there’s been some great changes to the athletic department and seeing what Kyle did with the program. Obviously, there’s an expectation now to win here, which wasn’t here in the past. And I think it’s a great time to get back involved with the program, because it’s a situation where it can get to another level.
PA: So part of that is, when you left you’d never been a head coach before. You take the head coach job at NJIT, eight years there. Can you tell me one or two things you learned as a head coach that you didn’t know when you were an assistant?
JE: That there are so many different ways to get things done. I think sometimes as an assistant coach, you’re very focused on just parts of your job. Which would be, maybe, dealing with positions and players, maybe dealing with half court action meaning dealing with either offense or defense. The recruiting, you’re very focused on a set number of recruits rather than an entire recruiting class. And then from a strategy standpoint, as you watch and you see as a head coach, you find that your ideas aren’t exactly perfect for the team you’re working with, so you’re able to find ways to be creative with the guys you’re working with and find ways to get things done. And I think that really opened my eyes when I moved from being an assistant coach at Columbia to being the head coach at NJIT, because there’s so many different ways to get to where you need to go.
PA: So a couple broader questions about your head coaching philosophy. Some of us have kicked around the non-conference scheduling question, which Kyle Smith had a lot of big challenge games — Michigan State, Villanova, Kentucky. I know that Michigan probably never wants to hear from you again. Are we going to see that same sort of scheduling? What’s your philosophy on non-conference scheduling?
JE: Yeah, I think when I was at NJIT we would play four guarantee games, or four “up” games, because I think the guys like playing those games. I think we all want to be competitive against the best, and they see a lot of those guys on the TV. Plus, they play a lot — I mean, these guys play against everybody in the summertime. So they know a lot of these guys. When we played Kentucky, Isaiah Briscoe is from Newark and most of the guys on the team literally played against him in high school or knew him personally. So I think when you play games like that there’s an extra motivation factor. Obviously you’re on the national stage, and it’s great to get to that point because when we played Michigan, and then you win a game like that, you see how much it can do for the program. We played St. John’s this year, we played South Florida, and we were able to win those games. So it gives the guys a special confidence and an extra confidence when you get to the teams that are actually in your league and on your level because you know you can compete against anybody. So I really have the same idea or the same focus of what we would do here that I had at NJIT: we’ll play some big time games and then because of our New York metropolitan area we’ll play a lot of local schools because there’s so many local schools to play. We’ll try to look at some natural rivalries and try to make our schedule fit the team and keep going from there.
PA: I saw someone in the NY Post, I forget who, kick around the idea of the “Manhattan Four” or something like that — St. John’s, Fordham, Columbia, and one other school off the top of my head that I’m forgetting. (Here’s the article. — Ed.) How do you see that local rivalry shaping up?
JE: I think it’s a wonderful idea, obviously, when you look at what goes down in Philly with the Big Five. It’s hard, though, to put together something like that — guys gotta give up home games, people want to play at home, there’s a lot of different things that go into that. But it’s a great idea. Because of the amount of schools that are within an hour of our university, there’s so many different things that we can do. And if they were really serious about doing something like that, we would certainly be interested in joining. I think any time you can get together and have a situation where you can get local rivalries together it’s a real good fan environment and it obviously gets the players pumped up. So it’d be definitely something I’d be interested in.
PA: Let’s talk a little bit about on the court. Columbia fans are a very anxious bunch, in my experience, and want to know what the Lions are gonna look like next year. Let’s start very broadly: what’s your offensive and defensive philosophy, and what do you think this team’s going to look like on a broad picture next year?
JE: Right now, the way we’ve played and the way that I’ve been comfortable with, it’s similar to what they were doing here with what Kyle had put in place with his team. We’re going to take a lot of threes. We will play pretty fast. We really focus on sharing the basketball, we’re a pretty good assist-level team where we assist on a lot of our baskets. So we do share the ball and try to play as unselfishly as possible. It’s a perimeter-oriented type team, where rather than being a power-type it’s more of a perimeter-type offense, where everybody needs to be able to pass, dribble, shoot, and be guardable in different positions. Multi-dimensional type kids where we can take advantage of matchups because maybe a guy is a little bit more of a perimeter player and a big guy is guarding him — something Kyle did a great job of. Then defensively a lot of man-to-man has really been our focal point when I was at NJIT, just focusing on man-to-man concepts, matchups in regards to defense. Obviously rebounding, transition, all the basic stuff. As I get to know this team personally and work with them, there will be other things that I may see that this team is good at. But until I have a chance to really get on the court with them, I sort of envision that sort of being how I want to do this, but some things can change and we can tweak some things to take advantage of some certain individuals or personnel.
PA: You did have a chance to see this Columbia team a couple of times last year, both in the regular season and the CIT — the CIT semifinal, I hate to bring that up, but it’s a good memory for Columbia folks.
PA: How do you replace a guy like Maodo Lo, just having watched what he’s brought to this team? And how do you replace this senior class?
JE: That’ll be hard. I mean, those guys were such a focal point of what Columbia has accomplished over the last four years. And when you have not only what they did on the court, but the leadership — in meeting these guys, and being around these guys over the last couple weeks, and seeing them play twice and seeing them play twice, they were very dominant in what they did. They had a big role not only during the games, but in practice and on campus. When you are trying to replace not only good players but very good leaders, there is going to be a void that has to be filled by the returning guys. But I think a lot of the things that they did to get the program to where it is today — there’s an expectation right now within the roster that they’ve seen it done, and they know it can be done. So, they’ve really taught well, they’ve left a legacy for these guys and for the school, and certainly hoping that we can continue that.
PA: I know the recruiting class hasn’t been announced, that’ll be announced in the next month or so. Is there anything that you can tell us broadly about the incoming class? Have you brought anyone from NJIT? Are we keeping Coach Smith’s recruits? Where are you at in the recruiting process for this year?
JE: Unfortunately, when I got the job the admissions deadline had passed, so they had already sent out the acceptance letters. So I was told that we can’t bring any more first-year kids in. We’re definitely talking to some transfers, there could be one or two transfers we could go down the road with. I’m really relying on the kids that Kyle and his staff had recruited to come in here. They are all, right now, committed and will be attending next year. We’ve just got to get them implemented into the returning roster. And I know Kyle did a very good job, so I’m pretty sure they’re pretty good players.
PA: You mentioned staff — it was mentioned the other day that Jesse Agel will be joining you. Anything else you can share about how your staff is shaping up?
JE: Yeah, Jesse came along. Obviously he was a former head coach at Brown for a number of years. He was with me for the last three years at NJIT, so he’ll come along with me. I think he’s a great resource because he understands the Ivy League — he understands the Ivy League as a head coach, from that perspective — and he’s a very good basketball coach and recruiter, so I’m really happy to have him on board with me. Jared Czech was a former ops guy for me at NJIT. Last year he worked for the Hoop Group as the director of their basketball operations and was really able to get the camps running. He’ll come on board as a volunteer. And then I have a couple other guys in mind for the other two spots, we’re just working some things out. But I think I’m going to have a really good staff and I’m excited about the staff that I’m able to put together here.
PA: You’re coming in at a time of change in the Ivy League for a couple reasons. The biggest is the conference tournament, and I want to ask you about that in a second. But from a broader level, how has the Ivy League changed since you left Columbia eight years ago?
JE: It’s really become just a stronger conference. Obviously, when I was here Tommy Amaker wasn’t here. So Harvard was just about to through that transformation with Tommy. And they’ve set the standard pretty high now since he’s been there. Harvard has become a major player in this. Yale, James has done a great job. There are some really good coaches in the league, I think the players have improved, I think the rosters have improved. It was always a good league, but I think now it’s a deeper league. And obviously with a couple coaching changes where guys that will inherit good rosters coming back. It’s just a stronger basketball conference, to be direct. I think it has a bright future, and it has an even better future now because you have that Ivy League tournament to play for. A lot of times, I don’t know if it held us back with recruiting, but it was something in the back of the mind that guys would think of if they were choosing during different schools. And the other thing it does is it keeps guys motivated through the whole course of the season now, so I think the play during the season will actually be higher because every game means something, all the way towards the last weekend. I think you’ll see the level of play even improve from where it is now. It’s an exciting time to get back involved here because you’re really entering a really legit mid-major conference.
PA: Yeah, exactly. Let’s talk about this tournament for one second. We’ve talked a little bit on the podcast — Harvard gets Siyani Chambers back, and they have a top 20 recruiting class or something like that, Yale coming off a great showing in the tournament, Princeton returns their entire roster — so it seems like there might be one spot up for grabs in the conference tournament. What is your goal for the team this year? Do you think that on March 11 next year we’ll be talking about Columbia playing at the Palestra?
JE: That’s certainly our goal. You know, we do have a new team, obviously there’s a changeover here, there’s a new staff and we just have to get acclimated with each other. But that’s certainly going to be something that we talk about, and I think it’s an achievable goal for us. I think it’s an achievable goal for everybody. So that’s something we will focus on as we go through the season. It’s gonna be exciting for the guys, because there is a true March Madness feel for the Ivy League, where in the past there really wasn’t that opportunity. So now these guys have something to shoot for. And when you get to those last two games, anything can happen. I think it’s great for the league in a lot of different ways, because of that and it gives the league access to a guaranteed NIT berth right now if we have a different representative. I think it can really raise the overall level of play in the league.
PA: On a personal level, you talked in your press conference about bringing your family back to Morningside Heights, about your wife’s cheering at the games. What does it mean to you at the personal level to be head coach of Columbia?
JE: It really means a lot. When I was here, Columbia has literally opened up so many opportunities for me in my career. I came from Rider University to Columbia when I came on with with Joe and inherited a team that was 2-25, 0-14. And everybody was like, “why would you go there? Penn and Princeton win the league every year, Columbia’s never won.” And for me, it was like no, that’s where I want to go, I always wanted to be in the Ivy League. The Ivy League hopefully can open up some opportunities for me to be a head coach. And it’s an experience for me that I’ve always looked at that I wanted to have. I made the jump when I was an assistant and those five years being at Columbia, meeting the people that surrounded the program, the administrators, the people on campus — having Columbia on my resume literally helped me get the job at NJIT. So being connected to Columbia so many ways — and not even being a student here, just being a coach — has opened up a world of opportunity for myself. And from a family standpoint, we’ve lived in the same house. I’ve had four different job opportunities — worked at Rider, Columbia, NJIT, and back to Columbia — we’ve lived in the same house, my daughters have grown up with the same friends, family’s been around, and there’s been no adjustment for them. So my wife certainly understands the opportunities that Columbia can open up for our family as well, because it was a great situation the first time. We’re all very excited. My daughters are wearing their Columbia shirts all over the place, so it’s almost like they’re students at Columbia right now. It’s really been a lot of fun.
PA: Alright, let me ask you one final question. I started at Columbia as a student in 2010, the very first year that Kyle Smith took over. And watching this team over the last five years, and then from afar this last year, every year the growth and excitement, every year the fans coming out in droves year over year, culminating in the CIT final — I think there are some people who would have said you couldn’t see that sort of excitement at a Columbia sporting event. What would you say to those fans who have become so invested in this team? What would you say to them about getting excited about the 2016-17 edition of the Lions.
JE: I think I’m coming in here understanding how important athletics are to these alums, and to the people surrounding the program, and obviously the kids and parents who have invested and committed to being involved in the program. So I think I understand the mission of what the school is trying to accomplish. And I certainly know how happy — I watched the championship game on TV, and I saw how the crowd reacted, and I saw the gym packed. Those are moments for these people, because they want to see those moments. They want to win a championship. And that’s exactly how I envision this. That’s what I want to do. I really want to win for all those people who’ve been with Columbia for such a long time, and have been fans through the good times and the bad times. That’s our goal, that’s our mission, to make sure we obviously understand — we want to win for ourselves, and we want to do the right thing for ourselves, but I think we also understand the commitment level we have to the people surrounding the program. So we’re definitely going to our best to do what we’re supposed to do. Make sure that we put a team on the court that will hopefully continue the progress that they’ve shown, and I think the next step is after they’ve won a CIT championship is to use the success they’ve had and continue it and hopefully grow off it.
PA: Well, Coach, thank you so much for coming on On The Vine. You’re actually our first coach ever to appear on the show. Thanks so much for taking the time out — I’m sure it’s a busy transition for you, and good luck to you in building the Columbia Lions basketball program.
JE: I appreciate. Hopefully I didn’t set the standard too high for the next coaches as they follow me.