“We finished 1-30 my first year and that was the greatest time I ever had as a head coach.” Those are the words of Jim Engles, the new head coach of the Columbia University Lions men’s basketball team. Engles’ remarks referred to his first season at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). This unwavering optimism to see the good in a seemingly fatal situation is among the many attributes that have defined Engles’ remarkable and distinguished career as a college basketball coach.
Engles takes over from Kyle Smith, who had a highly successful run as head coach of the Lions, including winning a school-record 25 games last season. Just three days after his NJIT Highlanders’ close loss to Columbia in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) semifinals on March 27, Engles received the call from Columbia that he had been hired to lead the team. Calling it an unlikely turn of events which he described as “crazy” but one which he looks forward to, Engles said, “I always knew that if Columbia became available, then it would be a place I wanted to go back to.”
It was a decision made much easier for the New York native because his wife works in finance in Manhattan. “She has a job that makes all the money in the family, so that’s why we stayed in the area,” Engles said jokingly, in his usual soft yet stern tone.
As he alluded to during the interview, this is not Jim’s first tenure at Columbia, where he served as assistant coach from 2003 to 2008. He recalled that, “the day I walked on campus it just felt like home.” He added: “I tell people all the time: I was a lowly assistant coach at Columbia…and it has done so much for me both personally and professionally that it got me the opportunity to be a Division 1 head coach.”
Basketball runs through his DNA. Growing up in Staten Island and attending St. Peter’s High School and then Dickinson College, he could always be found on a court practicing, playing for his school team or just playing pickup games on the neighborhood courts. “Basketball has always been important to my family,” he said. His grandfather was a player and coach at Georgetown University, while his uncle played at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jim certainly has the requisite experience to succeed in his new assignment at Columbia. He started his coaching career right out of college, accepting a job at Wagner College as an assistant in 1991, where he would spend seven years. Then he moved to Ryder College as an assistant for six years and five years for his first stint as assistant coach at Columbia University.
His first head-coaching job came in 2008 when he accepted the position at NJIT, where he would be for eight seasons and where his greatest challenge would confront him. At NJIT, he had the unenviable task of building a team from the ground up and as he puts it, “I took over a program that had no standards and I was basically trying to get the kids to feel good about themselves.” It was such an uphill task but then NJIT won its first game, ending a 51-game losing streak. “People would email me saying, ‘you are the worst coach ever. You guys suck! I can’t believe you are a Division I program,’” he said, animatedly.
A record like that and the resulting criticisms likely would have demoralized and would have sent any basketball team and its head coach into a dark place where recovery could have become an unimaginable prospect. But in his typical style, Jim was consistently reassuring and positive about the result, remembering it as the “greatest time I ever had as a coach” and the “most rewarding year I had.” Some might have accused him of being delusionary, or deceiving, but for Engles, victory was not measured in the win-loss column or in the performances of offense or defense. Instead, he took stock in the grit and effort his players demonstrated.
A lot of his success has come from focusing and instilling the right culture within the various organizations he has worked for -- a culture that is grounded in the values of hard work, grit and determination. It wasn’t always like that for Engles, as he admitted: “When I got into coaching, I was immature as to what coaching really was. Now that I’ve coached, the culture aspect of things is important … and is more prominent in terms of what I do.” For him, the process matters more than the outcome.
His focus on the culture, process and his unflappable approach in the face of losses resulted in turning NJIT into a winning program and he accumulated many awards for his coaching success in the ensuing seasons. His team’s victory in the 2014-2015 season over Michigan at Ann Arbor is considered one of the biggest upsets in recent college basketball history.
To people who know Jim, they are not surprised with his successes over the years, as they know he always is more comfortable when facing mighty challenges. This is a contention that is hard to refute because if one were to examine his career, Engles arrived at programs that he described as being in a “down cycle.”
The Columbia Lions team in 2016 will require an adjustment for Jim because he is stepping into an established program that is coming off a winning season. It is a challenge that he enthusiastically welcomes because he’s a firm believer in continuous learning and is ready to adapt his coaching style to suit changing times and changing programs.
Today, he focuses on using coaching and leadership methods he gleans from reading books on sports icons such as Joe Maddon, the manager of the Chicago Cubs team that just won this year’s World Series, and immersing himself with the latest on management and leadership counsel and research from the pages of the Harvard Business Review. He also stays up to date on cultural and social trends of his players by relying on his two teenaged children as trustworthy guides and by observing their habits and how they interact with each other and their friends. One approach he uses, and admits that was unthinkable in his younger days, is to play music before practice so that the student-athletes are having fun.
It is this adaptable style, optimism and his focus on culture and process that have defined an outstanding career and what will ensure this year’s edition of the Lions pick up right where it left off last season -- on a winning note.