In April, when Jim Christian decided to come back to the Mid-American Conference as coach of Ohio University, he knew this day would come.
The day when he, as a former Kent State coach, would return to the campus and revisit the M.A.C. Center to face his best friend and a handful of former players who now are Golden Flashes assistants.
“It’s not something I’m dreading,” Christian said of playing Kent State at 6 p.m. today. “It’s a big game for both basketball teams, so it’s something you’ve got to be a little bit excited about.”
It’s the relationships that tug at Christian a little.
“What makes it real difficult is I’m going back to a place where I have some great memories,” he said. “I met my wife there. What makes it even harder is I look at their staff and the best man at my wedding [Rob Senderoff], is the head coach. Four guys who played for me on their staff [assistants Eric Haut and DeAndre Haynes, director of basketball operations Mike McKee and graduate assistant Anthony Wilkins] are guys I have a great deal of respect for and meant a great deal to me in my life. Those are the things that kind of make it hard.”
Senderoff figures he’ll have the easier emotional path tonight, but facing his best friend and former mentor for the first time isn’t something he relishes.
“I think it’ll be a little different for him coming into the M.A.C. Center for the first time facing Kent State and the coaches on the other sideline because he won a lot of games here,” said Senderoff, who was an assistant under Christian for the Flashes for four years from 2002-06. “He’s going to be in the visitor’s locker room, which I’m sure will be the first time he’s ever been in there. I know I’ve never been in the visitor’s locker room, I don’t even know where it is. He’ll be on the other bench, which he’s never done.”
Christian went 138-58 at KSU, the best record in MAC history, before leaving for Texas Christian University. His tenure in Texas lasted just four seasons as he went 56-73. He resigned to take over Ohio’s program after John Groce left to become coach at the University of Illinois.
Christian has the Bobcats off to a 14-5 start, 5-0 in the league. Kent State has been sluggish at 11-8, 2-3.
If there are any uncomfortable feelings during pregame, Christian figures they’ll go by the wayside once the game begins.
“Once the ball goes up, I’m focused on my team and what we have to try to do to give ourselves an opportunity to win,” said Christian, who was also an assistant under Stan Heath on Kent State’s 2001-02 Elite Eight team before being promoted to head coach the following season.
Senderoff and Christian keep in touch daily, but neither seemed particularly worried about game-planning against the other.
“Rob and I talk almost every day,” Christian said. “Rob and [Toledo coach] Tod Kowalczyk, when anything happens in my life, those are the first guys I go to. It makes it hard when you play against friends and people who mean that much to you. But at the same time, you’ve got to come up with a way to be competitive.”