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Rudel: Baron savors SFU days, coaching ride

TYRONE — Jim Baron made a trip back in time over the weekend.

Some 32 years ago, Baron arrived at Saint Francis to coach the men’s basketball team.

One of his friends then was Harry Sickler, longtime Tyrone pillar and passionate Notre Dame alumnus who got to know Baron when he was on Digger Phelps’ basketball staff.

Now retired after 29 seasons as head coach at four schools, Baron is staying in touch with the game through clinics, some radio work and motivational speaking. Saturday night, he was the guest speaker at Tyrone’s Monogram Club.

While here, Baron drove around — from Aldrich Avenue, his old neighborhood in Altoona, to Baker School, which his son Jimmy attended, and past UPMC Altoona (then Altoona Hospital), where his youngest son, Billy, was born.

He visited Saint Francis and met with Susan Robinson-Fruchtl and Rob Krimmel and spoke with the Red Flash. Though he had been back on campus a couple times over the years, mainly for Hall of Fame functions, it was when he was still coaching elsewhere and therefore not as nostalgic.

With his career now in his rearview mirror, this trip was a little different as he enjoyed absorbing it all, and it didn’t take him long to decide that of all his stops as a head coach — from Loretto to St. Bonaventure to Rhode Island and finally Canisius, from which he retired in May of 2016 — the one here was the most special.

“When I look back,” he said, “this is probably the greatest experience I ever had.”

Baron went 74-71 in five years at Saint Francis, 132-131 in nine at Bona, 162-166 in 11 at Rhody and 73-60 in four at Canisius.

None of those jobs are the easiest in college basketball, and yet Baron’s bottom line was an overall record of 441-428, a tribute to his ability and extraordinary work ethic, which he outlined to the Tyrone club.

Saying he was one of eight kids – “you had to box out for a meal” – and being the only white family in his housing Brooklyn project made him appreciate diversity. Above all, Baron left his mark through doggedness and determination.

That was on full display at Saint Francis as he molded a championship team in his image.

Mike Iuzzolino blossomed under his watch to become the perfect complement to Joe Anderson, who broke Maurice Stokes’ hallowed scoring record. The two combined to lead the Red Flash to their only NCAA Tournament berth in 1991.

“We had leaders — Mike and John Hilvert and Joe Anderson — and great chemistry,” Baron said.

Baron is proud that his top assistants, Joe Lombardi and John Sanow, have since enjoyed success, Lombardi in the midst of a super run at IUP and Sanow in an extended tenure at Bloomsburg.

“Our coaches were terrific,” he said.

The Flash played an exciting, run-and-gun style that the community embraced, packing the DeGol Arena on a regular basis to the point where an auxiliary concession stand was set up in the far end zone, and the Stokes Club would roar late on Saturday nights.

“Absolutely magical,” Baron remembered.

The title run “catapulted me,” Baron said, to the next step on the coaching ladder, his alma mater at St. Bonaventure, where as a player he served as co-captain on the 1977 NIT champion.

He made his second NCAA trip by taking the Bonnies in 2000, when as a No. 12 seed they nearly stunned Kentucky in the first round before losing in double overtime.

In total, he had nine 20-win seasons, including five at Rhode Island before winding up his career at Canisius.

It was a most fulfilling ride, satisfying enough that, soon to be 65, he could step away in peace. He coached both his sons – Jimmy at Rhody, Billy at Canisius – and both are in the midst of long playing careers in Europe.

He’s made multiple trips there from his Pompano Beach, Fla., home, and has two grandchildren.

“They call me Coach Pops,” he said.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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