Christian returns to MAC as Bobcats coach

Nick Shook

Illinois basketball coach John Groce followed a path that many coaches have taken to land big-time collegiate coaching jobs.

It begins with an assistant coaching job at a large school, followed by the first head coaching job in a mid-major conference, such as the Mid-American Conference. Build the program into a consistent contender, make a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances — maybe even pull off a run into the Sweet Sixteen — and suddenly major conferences are calling for you to come lead their program.

Groce was the latest coach to complete this jump from mid-major to major college basketball, leaving Ohio University after coaching the Bobcats to a MAC Tournament title and a NCAA Tournament run that ended with a painful, overtime loss to No. 1 seed North Carolina. Less than a week after the loss, Illinois, one of the Big Ten’s better programs, dialed Groce and invited him out to Champaign, Ill. Soon enough, Groce was named the program’s new head coach, and Ohio was suddenly without one.

Top assistants, including Ohio State’s Jeff Boals, were rumored to be the favorites for Ohio’s coaching search. But no one mentioned the name of a former top coaching candidate in the MAC, who had already made the transition to a bigger conference.

That is, until Sunday evening. reported that Texas Christian University head coach Jim Christian was strongly considering leaving the head coaching position as the leader of the Horned Frogs to make a return to the MAC with the Bobcats. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, sources close to TCU confirmed Monday that Christian was indeed returning to the conference in which he was highly successful coaching with Kent State.

Christian led the Flashes to four MAC East Division crowns, two MAC Tournament titles, two NCAA Tournament appearances and compiled an overall record of 138-58. His success at Kent State led to his hiring at TCU, a member of the Mountain West (and soon to be a member of the Big 12 in 2012-13), in 2008.

But after making the jump from mid-major to major with TCU, why would Christian return to the MAC? 

The road to success wasn’t nearly as easy for Christian at TCU. In four seasons, Christian finished 56-73. Though it was rumored Christian, whose contract ran through 2015, was on the hot seat, TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte denied the rumor.  

So what else would attract a coach to return to the MAC?


“The only thing that [Christian] told me was that they’re making an incredible commitment to him and it was a job that he felt like he couldn’t turn down,” said Kent State coach Rob Senderoff, who was an assistant to Christian at Kent State from 2002-06.

Ohio has reportedly guaranteed Christian a new locker room for the team, chartered flights to five games per year and provide funding necessary to pay for six non-conference teams to travel to Athens to face the Bobcats at the university’s Convocation Center each season. Ohio will also increase Christian’s annual salary by $10,000 to $600,000 as part of a six-year contract.

Quite an incredible commitment indeed.

“Jim’s a great coach,” Senderoff said. “He’s at a very good basketball program where I’m sure he’s going to do very well. Jim has a [coaching] style that is similar to the style that we play here. He’s a tough, defensive-minded coach. His kids play hard and compete. He’s going to have a good team coming back.”

Senderoff knows Christian’s return to the MAC may be a bit odd at first, but has no doubts his former colleague will succeed with the Bobcats.

“I’m sure it’ll be strange for him coming back to the M.A.C. Center, because he spent six years coaching here,” Senderoff said. “He’s going to be in the visitor’s locker room.”

The Bobcats may have lost their up-and-coming coach in Groce, but it gained a veteran of the conference who will likely rival his past employer for years to come. 

Ohio is expected to introduce Christian as the program’s head coach at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].