Who would have thought one of the most interesting college basketball off-season maneuvers would come from Columbia University?
After firing men’s basketball head coach Armond Hill March 10, the Columbia Athletics Department has racked up an impressive list of candidates for the position. Most notably, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has interviewed in Morningside Heights and publicly expressed his interest in the job. Joining him as the other celebrity candidate is Bobby Hurley, who won two national titles with Duke in 1991 and 1992. The school has contacted and interviewed several other head and assistant coaches, from Rod Baker, head coach of the CBA’s Grand Rapids Hoops, to Villanova assistant coach Joe Jones, younger brother of Yale head coach James Jones. Not bad for a basketball program that went 2-25 overall and 0-14 in the Ivy League in 2002-03.
With such high-profile candidates for the basketball coaching job, the Lions have a good opportunity to jump-start their program. Athletic Director John Reeves just has to decide what strategy he wants to take: make a move that will create buzz in the short term, or look to build a foundation for success in the long term.
For whatever reason, Columbia has often struggled to attract both strong recruits and student fans to its athletics program. This year, the school had the dubious honor of becoming the first university to go winless in the Ivy League in both football and men’s basketball. Many cite Columbia’s location in New York City, with its numerous diversions and lack of space for playing fields, as a main cause for the program’s shortcomings. The Baker Field Athletic Complex, which includes the Lawrence Wein football stadium, is a subway ride away from campus. And Levien Gymnasium has a maximum capacity of 3,400 and is well-overdue for renovations.
Hiring a coach like Abdul-Jabbar or Hurley would certainly get people excited about Lions hoops again, although perhaps not for the right reasons. Fans would be tempted to focus on what’s happening on the sideline more than what’s happening on the court. In addition, despite his 72-141 overall record, Hill did contribute eight seasons to the Columbia program, the fourth longest coaching tenure in the school’s basketball history. It is unlikely that Abdul-Jabbar or Hurley would stay around that long if other, more prominent universities come calling.
There is also the issue of whether either high-profile candidate is suitable for the position. Abdul-Jabbar in particular has struggled to get into coaching and has been hampered by his distant and troubled public persona. The Hall of Famer’s only head coaching position was with the United States Basketball League’s Oklahoma Storm in 2002. He has dabbled as an assistant coach in the NBA and at the high school level, but has never found a program that allowed him to develop a signature coaching style. In that sense, Columbia would be taking the risk that Abdul-Jabbar might be all form and no substance.
Hurley is also untested in coaching, having retired from professional basketball in 1999. Coaching, however, does run in the Hurley family. Bobby Sr. is one of the most respected high school basketball coaches in history and Bobby’s brother, Danny, has also had success at the high school level. But Hurley’s lack of experience is, again, a considerable risk, and to throw him into a program that needs such a complete overhaul may be imprudent.
Going with one of the other candidates — such as Columbia assistant Bill Johnson, who has overseen the team since Hill’s departure, or Penn assistant coach Gil Jackson — might be the university’s best chance to build a program that could be viable several years down the line.
And if the Lions are really looking for a subplot on the sidelines, Joe Jones has the credentials and the intrigue. Jones has been an assistant at Villanova for six seasons and before that at Hofstra from 1994-97. From a Yale perspective, having two Jones’ square off against each other would give fans a reason to actually go to the John J. Lee Amphitheater when the Lions come to town.
Because of Columbia’s affirmative action policies, the Athletics Department cannot name Hill’s replacement until April 10 at the earliest. But the landscape of Ivy League basketball has changed dramatically in the last two seasons, and the Lions should seize this opportunity to shake things up even more.