Piedmont Profile: Family keeps Jim Baker busy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mike London
Jim Baker likes to tell people he wears a suit to work every single day.
He’s not fibbing, but it’s a sweat suit. The only ties Baker likes dealing with are the ones that cause overtime at Goodman Gym.
Catawba’s casually dressed head men’s basketball coach the past 15 years, Baker has entered his 50s, but his boyish grin hasn’t exited. His black hair is still winning the battle with gray.
Long ago, Baker dallied with big-time hoops. He danced to the crazy rhythm known as March Madness at Davidson. At Virginia Tech, arenas sold out, and he had the travel budget of a sheik.
But Baker’s life moved in a circle, and he came back home. It feels right to him. At a small school, a coach with his heart in the right place changes lives.
In its recent season, Catawba was good on the court. Baker, five times the South Atlantic Conference coach of the year, boosted his career record to 286-155.
“It’s go, go, go and then it just stops, and it’s like you lost something,” Baker said. “You’ve got to fill a void for six or seven months.”
Balls have stopped bouncing, but Baker’s life is still hectic. Sadie Sasser Baker Brown, his grandmother, turned 100 in March. He helps with her finances, while she competes for the title of Catawba’s biggest fan with Baker’s mother.
“My grandmother is sharp,” Baker said. “She listens to every Catawba game on the radio. She doesn’t care for the pros, but she’ll watch college ball all day.”
Baker is married to the former Tina Waters. Their four youngsters ó Jamie, Madison, Hannah and Jacob, range from 10 to 2. They’re active, and then some.
“From 8:30 to 9:30, we’re not the most popular family in our neighborhood,” Baker said. “We’re getting four ready for bed, and there’s lots of yelling. It’s wild.”
Jamie’s never missed school ó except for Catawba road trips. All the youngsters have been part of treks, such as Catawba’s visit to Augusta, Ga., for the 2009 Southeast Regional.
“Helgi Magnusson (a former player) came up to me on the bus one night and asked if my kids were ever going to bed,” Baker said. “He said the guys were tired of watching SpongeBob.”
Jamie plays baseball and is in his fourth year of competitive basketball. Both his sisters are gymnasts.
“I think parents make a mistake if their kid isn’t out there doing something,” Baker said. “Kids need to learn how to lose. Kids need to learn how to get back up if they get knocked down.”
Baker and his younger brother Chip, now baseball administrator at Florida State, had ideal instructors growing up in Spencer. Their parents were teachers. Walt Baker, who died in 2001, was Mr. North Rowan.
Walt coached North’s first basketball team in 1958-59 ó and the next 19. He coached Jim in the 1970s.
Baker’s memories are tales of work ethic. Walt lined the cinder track by hand and maintained fields with a push-mower.
North’s football fieldhouse now bears Walt Baker’s name, but his sons ignored his career advice.
“Dad tried to talk us into going into business to make some money,” Baker said. “But Chip and I grew up with athletics all around us. That’s what we loved.”
Baker went to UNC Charlotte. He made the jayvee basketball team as a backup.
“At the last minute, the starting point guard took a redshirt,” Baker said. “Instead of playing two minutes a game, I played 38.”
He did fine, but UNCC had recruited athletes such as Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, who would lead the 49ers to the 1977 Final Four.
“I was overwhelmed by the talent,” Baker said. “And by the school. There were 500 in my biology class.”
He transferred to Catawba. Coach Sam Moir found a reserve role for him. Baker sprinkled 47 points over three seasons before graduation put him at a crossroads.
“It’s 1978, I’m standing at a pay phone and turning down a chance to go to Mooresville to teach middle school and coach the jayvees,” Baker said. “Mike Turner, a football assistant, asks me what I’m doing. I explain I’ve turned down a job because I want to be a college coach. A minute later, Turner has me in Coach Moir’s office and says, ‘Bake wants to coach. Let’s make him a coach.’ ”
Baker became a grad assistant that day. He studied psychology and got his foot in the coaching door.
He earned his master’s, paid dues as an assistant at Wingate and Belmont Abbey, then got a chance to assist at the D-I level.
Baker was at Davidson when Gerry Born hit a buzzer-beater to win the 1986 Southern Conference tournament. That shot put the Wildcats in the NCAA bracket, but they danced briefly. Kentucky had Kenny Walker and beat Davidson 75-55 at the old Charlotte Coliseum.
Virginia Tech was next for Baker ó the big-time. The Hokies competed in the Metro Conference with Memphis State, Cincinnati and Louisville. Amazing athletes were everywhere. Academics didn’t always matter.
“Louisville had 13 dunks on us one game,” Baker said.
When Virginia Tech made a coaching change in 1991, Baker landed on his feet at VMI, a no-frills school where recruiting was tough.
Twice during Baker’s odyssey, Catawba asked if he’d consider coming home. He said no. He felt the pull of being a D-I head coach and knew he was close.
By the spring of 1993, Moir had announced the 1993-94 season would be the final act of a 34-year career that produced 546 victories.
Baker was Moir’s first choice as his successor, and this time Baker said yes.
Baker came home. He got married a few weeks later. He was to assist Moir one season, then take the reins.
Moir still handled Catawba’s offense and promised 100 points nightly. Baker’s job was to try to hold the opponent under 100.
“We’d do stretches and layups, then he’d give me 40 minutes to practice defense while he went walking,” Baker said. “He’d come back soaked with sweat and say, ‘Well, Bake, if you’re done with this defense crap, let’s scrimmage.’ ”
Baker has won steadily in the D-II world.
“The hard thing at this level is the financial part, getting players with a limited budget,” he said. “My brother spends more on a baseball trip at Florida State, then we’ll spend all season.”
At Virginia Tech, Baker’s monthly phone bills averaged $400. His first month at Catawba the tab was $49. He felt good until administrator Tom Childress rapped on the door and asked him to be a bit more careful. Money wasn’t growing on trees.
“Even now, I don’t run around watching the 6-foot-8 kids play because we won’t get them,” Baker said. We don’t start recruiting until April. We try to find kids that fell through the cracks.”
Overlooked athletes keep coming to play for Baker and assistants Bill Haggerty, Marvin Moore and Freddie Lynn. They leave with rings and carrying strands of championship nets and diplomas. Most swear Catawba was the best thing that ever happened to them.
“We get good kids that work,” Baker said. “And if you put 20 pounds on them by their junior year, people are saying, ‘Wow, how did you ever get that guy?’ ”
Championship balls are stacked high in Baker’s office. He credits administrators who don’t look over his shoulder, tireless assistants and his father’s advice to limit rules.
He has just one: “Don’t embarrass yourself, your team, your school or me.”
There are still occasional feelers from big schools, but Baker, who has been known to change a diaper following a regional press conference, seems content in his sweat suit and modest office.
“No, we’re not Carolina, and we’re not Duke,” he said quietly. “But Catawba is my Duke. It’s my Carolina.”