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Jabir proves perfect fit for Dayton

Sometimes you’re a cyclone and sometimes you’re just blowing a lot of wind.

To understand the difference and how it relates to Jim Jabir and his No. 11-ranked, 26-1 Dayton Flyers women’s basketball team, which opens Atlantic 10 tournament play today in Philadelphia against George Washington as the top seed, you need a prop.

So you follow the UD coach into the team’s deserted dressing room at the Donoher Center a couple of days ago.

Before you entered, you noticed the one-word message — “FAMILY” — in big letters above the door. And once inside you couldn’t miss the colorful crepe paper streamers and deep sea decorations — including Jabir’s face on an octopus — that the younger players had hung everywhere for Senior Day to make their quarters look like something akin to the underwater home of Sponge Bob Square Pants.

But none of that is what Jabir wants you to see.

“When you first start a new program you have to have an amazing amount of energy and confidence,” he was saying. “You’re like a cyclone going through town. You have to rattle every cage and bring emotion that energizes everyone.

“That’s the advantage of being a new coach. For a while you have this great momentum and get people caught up and they can ride that wave. It’s a fresh start for everyone. A second life. And at the same time there’s the promise of being a difference maker as a newcomer.”

To help cement his concepts when he blew into town to take over the program in 2003, he put up a big sign — the Goal Board, he calls it — in the dressing room.

“There it is,” he said, pointing to the five goals he put up a decade ago:

No. 1 – Win the Atlantic 10 Conference.

No. 2 – Win the Atlantic 10 tournament.

No. 3 – Earn an NCAA tournament bid.

No. 4 – Get in the Top 20 poll.

No. 5 – Win every home game.

When the sign first went up it seemed far-fetched. In the 10 years previous, the Flyers had had one winning season. They couldn’t attract top players to the program, couldn’t draw fans or stir much media interest.

And in Jabir’s first season — at least on paper — things seem to get even worse.

The Flyers finished 3-25. They went 1-15 in A-10 play and lost their final 12 games of the season.

That’s when you might have thought that cyclone was nothing but a lot of blowing wind.

And things got even more worrisome at the start of Jabir’s second season. In late October his heart began pounding out of control, beating 200 times a minute, and he was rushed to the hospital where doctors had to revive him.

He was diagnosed with ARVD (arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia), a hereditary problem that causes sudden death, and he had a pacemaker and defibrillator installed. Then came an allergic reaction to heparin that caused his blood pressure to spike and blood clots to form in his lungs, and he nearly died again.

He ended up missing the first six games of the season.

Through it all, though, he never faltered in his basketball beliefs and never readjusted those program goals.

He believed in what he was doing. He had gotten his first head coaching job at age 23 — he took Division III Buffalo State to the NCAA tournament that year — and had had great success at Siena and Marquette, which he led to two NCAA tournament bids in six years.

Once at Dayton, he sought out successful UD football coach Mike Kelly. So did Brian Gregory, who had been hired at the same time to take over the Flyers men’s basketball program.

“As soon as we got here, both Brian and I lived in Coach Kelly’s office, trying to get advice,” Jabir said. “I was concerned about the culture and wanted to know how you can build one that would carry a program.

“I thought there was potential for great things here. With everything UD had to offer, to me this program was like a sleeping giant.”

Not first choice

Jabir likes to say, “I’m not the smartest guy, so I’m going to have to outwork you.”

No one who knows him agrees with the first half of that premise, just as no one disputes the second part.

The work ethic came from his Lebanese-American mother, Rose, who worked two jobs, 70, sometimes 80 hours a week, when he was growing up in Brooklyn. His dad, who moved to New York from Lebanon as a young man, was in the picture too, but it was his mom who instilled the “keep plugging away” mindset.

Jabir played basketball at Nazareth College, then began his coaching career there. He rose through the ranks until he took over an underfunded program at Providence and struggled. The season before coming to UD he was an assistant at Colorado.

Ted Kissell, then the athletic director at UD, hired him, though he admitted the other day that Jabir wasn’t his first choice:

“Back then we wanted a woman to run the program and I focused on a young coach at Austin Peay, but she thought she should take a bigger leap and went to Arkansas. I can’t remember her name now but she’s not there anymore. Anyway, we got Jim and I’ve got to say it was dumb luck. He was the best choice all along.”

In fact, that’s what legendary Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma told the folks at Dayton back then.

“Just last year I just found out he had recommended me for the job,” Jabir said. “So when we went to play them, I thanked him and he started talking about fit. He said as a coach you have to find your fit. Find a place where what’s important to them is important to you. He thought I’d fit at Dayton.”

Jabir proved that as he began to lay the groundwork to make those program goals happen.

When the most talented players coming out of high school weren’t considering Dayton (“They’d say you seen like a nice guy and I know it would be a good education, but I’ve seen the basketball and I’m not interested”), he said he stocked his team with “character players.”

They built the foundation and then came a breakthrough when the program landed Kendel Ross, the 6-foot-1 forward out of Canada. “She was the first kid we weren’t supposed to get that we did,” Jabir said. “She could have gone to Michigan or any school in the top 25, but she was supremely confident and she took a chance with us.”

Ross, now the Flyers’ strength and conditioning coach, was followed to UD by other highly sought talents like Kristin Daugherty and then Justine Raterman and now a handful of players on this season’s record-breaking team.

The Flyers have won 141 games over the past six seasons. In that span they will have followed up two NIT bids with four straight trips — once next week’s postseason invitation comes — to the NCAA tournament.

A perfect fit

Jabir said he learned a valuable lesson at Marquette.

“We went to two straight NCAA tournaments there and it changed my whole recruiting tactics,” he said. “I went after every McDonald’s All-American there was and I finished second for all of them and, worse, we didn’t have any back-ups.

“You’ve got to know you can’t always change your spot. You are who you are”.

He saw that recently here at UD when he and his staff worked hard to recruit a name talent out of Columbus, only to have her get one phone call from Maryland and promptly sign with the Terrapins.

“So we have to be selective in who we go after and that’s fine,” he said. “We’re not a BCS school and actually we want to flaunt that fact.

“I tell kids, ‘You can come here and be like Robin Hood hanging out in Sherwood Forest. You can be the big girl on campus. You can be in small classes and get a lot of attention, the kind you couldn’t get on a campus with 40,000 students, and you get a great education.

“Yet, I can still tell the kid, ‘Hey, we can still go beat those BCS schools.”

That’s just what happened this season. The Flyers defeated the likes of DePaul (Big East), Vanderbilt (SEC), Arizona State (Pac-12) and Michigan State (Big Ten).

They finished 14-0 in the conference and cleaned up in the postseason A-10 awards with Andrea Hoover (first team), Ally Malott (second), Sam MacKay (third), Olivia Applewhite (sixth man) and Amber Deane (newcomer) joining Jabir (who battled health issues again this season), who was named the A-10 Coach of the Year for the second time in six seasons.

And should the top-seeded Flyers now win three straight games in the A-10 tournament, they will have checked off all five of those program goals — in one season.

Auriemma was right:

Jim Jabir was a perfect fit for Dayton.

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