Q&A interview with Columbia coach Jim Engles


Jim Engles comes back to Columbia to helm the program after five years as an assistant there from 2003-08. (USA Today Sports)
Jim Engles has come back to Columbia to helm the program after five years as an assistant there from 2003 to 2008. (USA Today Sports)

IHO’s Sam Tydings caught up with first-year Columbia head coach Jim Engles, who took over the Lions’ program in April after eight years as head coach at NJIT, ironically after Columbia defeated NJIT en route to the 2016 CIT title. Engles discussed 2016-17 team leaders, what pace he wants the Lions to play at and why he’s not talking about winning with his players at the moment:

IHO: First off, with all the players who graduated last summer, who do you see as the leaders on your team right now?

Engles: I’ve been new and trying to learn these guys, and they’re trying to learn from me, so I really expect the leadership to come from everybody. I told them I want leadership to come from everybody on the team, I don’t want to rely on one guy to be the guy who’s got to be separated from the group. It’s been a group effort and the guys have really as a team stepped up to it and we’ve seen some good things. Even though we have five seniors on the team, there’s a large group of guys and they’ve done a good job accepting the fact.

IHO: Is there anyone who has stepped up as the leader of that senior class?

Engles: No, I’m really focused on making sure that everyone is holding everyone else accountable no matter what class you’re in. Making sure everyone understands what the staff is trying to teach the players. So they’ve been teaching me, this is obviously new for me as well. I’m learning the roster, learning the guys. Everyone’s been really accepting and I think everyone has stepped up from a leadership standpoint.

IHO: You coached against this team twice last year at NJIT. Out of the guys still here, who was the player you feared the most in your gameplan?

Engles: Last year when we played them, we played them twice and I think the team is different, with last year’s senior class the senior class was very senior dominant. They had all come up together so it was more – with the two teams when we played them last year I remembered Maodo (Lo) and (Alex) Rosenberg obviously so these guys played a part. Obviously, Luke (Petrasek) was a starter and is the leading returning scorer. I’m just looking from a staff perspective, he stood out. Honestly, it’s just trying to get to know each other and figure out these different guys and personalities and how to coach them,

IHO: This team under (previous coach Kyle) Smith was not the quickest-paced team in the league. Do you expect this to be a slow-it-down, defensive team or are you going to try to run more?

Engles: Obviously we’re all different and the way I coached at NJIT, I like to play fast. Part of it was the makeup of our roster. I feel comfortable with the way we played there and I also know that they had a lot of success with the way Kyle played. I think there’s a middle ground that you can find with both – I’d like to play faster but from an execution standpoint it would be crazy for me to get away from that as well. I’m trying to find that middle ground that they’re comfortable with but also what I’m comfortable with. I’d like to play faster because that’s something I’ve done as a head coach for eight years.

IHO: You were an assistant in this league, what’s your perspective on where the league is now versus when you were an assistant here and also viewing it from someone who coached outside of this league?

Engles: Things changed. I was out of the league for eight years so there have been some dramatic changes with everything: different coaches, different styles of play, different players. When I left we played some Ivy League schools (at NJIT). I’m one of those guys that during the season doesn’t watch every team. I just focus on what we’re doing, so I can’t say I actually followed the league that closely. Obviously when we played a team we’d scout them and do whatever, but I think some great things have happened, the league has taken a step up from a ratings standpoint. Being back into it and seeing how the recruiting’s changed, everyone is recruiting higher-level players, nationally ranked players. That’s more commonplace than it was when I was an assistant here. The infrastructure here is really the same, a lot of administrators are here, a lot of people who worked here when I was an assistant are still here. There are similarities from what I left, but a lot of changes basketball-wise in terms of styles of play you encounter.

IHO: What can you tell us about your freshman class? Who can contribute early in the season and who might take longer to come along?

Engles: They’re all good kids, they’re all freshmen and there is such a dramatic difference from high school and college. All four of them have the opportunity to play at some point. They’ll be relied upon at some point during the year. It depends on what roles – I’m still trying to figure out roles for different guys. That will happen naturally, we’ve only played one scrimmage so far. We played Saturday, then we have some games, so I’ll have a better idea of seeing people compete in a game setting. They all have talent, they’re all good kids, they’ve all worked hard but there is a difference in the speed of the game, the physicality of the game that they’ll encounter coming from high school to college. It’s all about how quickly they can adjust. A lot of times it’s how quickly they adjust defensively that allows them to play. That’s something that still remains to be seen.

IHO: Where do you see the team right now compared to the rest of the Ivy League?

Engles: I can’t give you a great answer. We played Yale last year, I know how great Yale is. We played Columbia last year, we played Dartmouth over the last couple of years. Until I get through the schedule and go through a year, the opinion that I have is probably going to be a bit off base until I get familiar with the different styles. I haven’t studied the teams yet. That’s the stuff that as the season starts I can see what’s going on, see what guys are doing with their kids, how the kids respond to different things. I’ll probably have a better opinion as we go on through the year.

IHO: What is a successful season to you in year one?

Engles: A successful season to me is really having a positive experience for our guys. I feel like if they’re having a positive experience, they’re listening to me, they’re listening to their teammates, they’re learning. I think if you can have that type of experience you can deem it as a success. I can say, my first year at NJIT I was 1-30. People deemed that as we were the worst team in the country that year, and we were from a record standpoint. Nobody knew how hard we worked and the stuff we did as a team to lay a foundation for that program. So that’s probably the greatest success I’ve had in my eight years as a head coach and we were 1-30. It’s all about perspective and perception. Whatever our record is at the end of the year – I’ve been in a system with teams that have played well and had good years and at the end of the year, you weren’t happy because it wasn’t a great season, they didn’t get to the potential they had or there were issues within the team. Once we get to the end of the season, like I said, it’s a learning process for all of the things we’re trying to accomplish on that end.

IHO: Does the Ivy League tournament put more pressure on you to get to at least fourth even if you might integrate guys better with a worse season but you’ll face more criticism?

Engles: If I lived my life trying to worry what people thought, I’d go crazy and probably jump off the GW Bridge. I hold myself to a very high standard, I hold these guys to a very high standard. I think that’s what everybody wants, like I said sometimes the record doesn’t reflect how good the season went. I’m still trying to gauge where we can be right now. It’s a new team for me, these are guys that I think are a talented bunch of kids but we have to put them together in a different way. They’re trying to figure out what my identity is, I’m trying to figure out what their identity is, we’re trying to put that together in a team component. It might not happen as quickly as people think it should. It’s going to happen at some point and that’s what I’m trying to get across to these guys right now. We don’t talk about winning, we don’t talk about getting to the Ivy League tournament, we don’t talk about winning a championship. We talk about, like the old coach saying: What’s in front of you that day, how are you going to practice that day? So that’s really what I’m trying to do.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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