IRVINE — Rod Baker, a Seton Hall assistant coach and former head coach at Tufts University, has accepted an offer to become UC Irvine's next men's basketball coach, sources said Monday. Arrangements were made for Baker to fly to Southern California on Monday evening, but no press conference had been announced.
Baker, 39, has been an assistant to Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo since 1988. During Baker's three seasons at the school, the Pirates made the NCAA tournament twice, reaching the 1989 Final Four before losing to Michigan in the NCAA title game, and advancing to the West Regional final this season before losing to Nevada Las Vegas.
"He can coach, I can tell you that," said Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, who met Baker more than 15 years ago when Baker was an assistant at Brown University. "If you look at where Seton Hall was when he got there, and where they are now, I think P.J. would be the first one to tell you Rod's been an important part of that."
Baker was head coach at Tufts University for five seasons, compiling a 72-52 record, before joining Carlesimo's staff. After guiding his team to a .500 record in his first season at Tufts, a Division III school in Medford, Mass., Baker posted four consecutive winning seasons. Tufts was 16-9 in 1987-88 before Baker resigned to accept the Seton Hall job.
"He turned our program right back around," said Tufts Athletic Director Rocco J. Carzo. "He's obviously a very bright young man, a good communicator, very articulate. Also technically, he's exceptionally well-qualified and competent. If I had to point out his outstanding ability, it's how he relates to players. Kids seem to gravitate toward him."
Irvine chose Baker from a group of at least 12 candidates the school met with, including Arizona assistant Jessie Evans, Princeton assistant Jan van Breda Kolff, Notre Dame assistant Matt Kilcullen and former UCLA coach Walt Hazzard.
Baker replaces Bill Mulligan, who retired at the end of the season after 11 years at Irvine. The Anteaters finished with an 11-19 record, their third consecutive losing season. In 1989-90, Irvine finished with the worst record in school history, going 5-23 and losing a school-record 15 consecutive games.
Baker will become the fifth coach in the program's 25-year history. Mulligan was preceded by Tim Tift, Dick Davis and Danny Rogers.
Carlesimo declined comment until a formal announcement is made by the school.
Baker's associates and colleagues describe him as a personable, well-qualified coach and able recruiter who will be able to combine his own experience as a head coach with the knowledge he gained as an assistant in the Big East Conference.
"I know if he were to go to Cal-Irvine, it's a different level (than Tufts), but he's been around a lot of good basketball coaches," Tranghese said. "He's involved in almost all Seton Hall's recruiting, and with the X's and O's."
Tranghese said Baker left Tufts in order to position himself for a Division I head coaching job.
"I think what Rod discovered was that one of the best ways to do that was not to continue at Tufts, where he had had success, but to get back to a Division I. He suppressed his ego to make that switch."
Duquesne Coach John Carroll, who was an assistant at Seton Hall with Baker for one year, called Baker "very organized, very thorough," and said Baker was involved with the recruitment of such players as Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker, who helped Seton Hall to the Big East tournament title this season.
"If UC Irvine got a fellow like Rod Baker, they would be getting a very classy person who would represent the school on and off the court very well," Carroll said. "Rod's just a people person. People who meet him and spend a little time with him will be very impressed. He's not a very loud, boisterous-type person."
Carroll said that quality is evident in Baker's coaching demeanor as well.
"Rod's one of those guys who can get his point across," Carroll said. "He's not like a yeller or screamer. He can get his point across in an emphatic way, but more in a quiet, reserved-type manner."
A native of Philadelphia, Baker played basketball at Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High School. He went on to Holy Cross College, located in Worcester, Mass., where he graduated with a degree in English in 1974. He also has been an assistant at St. Joseph's, Columbia, Brown and Holy Cross.
Baker was a finalist for the coaching job this year at St. Mary's, which recently hired Stanford assistant Ernie Kent. Baker also reportedly was the first choice for the head coaching job at Columbia University last year, but turned down the school's offer.