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Mount’s Jamion Christian stuck to schedule in quest to be a head coach

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EMMITSBURG, Md. — Jamion Christian's plan all along was to become a head coach before he turned 30.

He picked the mind of his basketball coaches at Mount St. Mary's a decade ago. He made a few stops as he established himself in the business. He took a shot at the head coaching job at his alma mater a few years ago, only to be turned down.

Then he beat his desired time frame, and managed to do so back at the school where he was a three-year captain.

"These jobs don't open every two years," Christian said recently in his office at the Mount as he mused on his two attempts to return to the school just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. "Obviously, I knew this was my best chance to be a head coach before the age of 30. It's funny. A lot of people thought I'd be a little bitter about it. But that's just not how I live my life."

Instead, Christian is filled with boundless optimism as he takes over a program that went 8-21 a year ago. The Mountaineers failed to qualify for the Northeast Conference tournament, and coach Robert Burke was placed on administrative leave in mid-February before resigning after the season.

It doesn't sound like an optimal scenario to inherit. Yet it possesses one thing that matters plenty to Christian: It is home, the place he played for both the legendary Jim Phelan and Milan Brown.

"I feel like I've known this place for a long time, working with him," said Mount assistant Ben Wilkins, who worked with Christian at William and Mary for three seasons. "For how many times I heard a Mount story — Mount this, Mount that. If I had a dollar for that, I'd be a rich man. He talked about it a lot. It's a special place for him."

It already was when Christian wrapped up his college career eight years ago. By the middle of his junior season, his body started to break down, and he was realistic enough to know an overseas career was unlikely. So he asked a Mount assistant "How do you guys know all this stuff on film?"

Soon, he was a mainstay in pre-practice video sessions, savoring the opportunity to know precisely what opponents would attempt. It also provided a launching pad for a career with stops at Emory and Henry, Bucknell, William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth, with Christian leaving an impression at each stop.

"He's an easy guy to root for and wish success for," former Bucknell coach Pat Flannery said. "I don't know a better compliment than that. He's a class guy."

When Brown left for Holy Cross, it presented a chance for Christian to try to return home. He was inexperienced, and there were questions whether he could effectively recruit the D.C. area. The Mount went with Burke, a veteran assistant who spent time at Georgetown and American.

The next morning, Christian called 25 recruits — including Marcus Thornton, who starred at Bishop McNamara in Prince George's County, eventually signed with William and Mary and was one of the CAA's top freshmen last season.

"It was one of those things that more than anything, it just added more fuel to the fire in a positive way that he knew he was getting closer to his goal," Wilkins said. "To be able to get an interview at a place he loves at that age, he knew he was close."

With the opportunity at hand, Christian isn't holding back. He can easily relate to players thanks in part to a narrow age gap, but savvy enough to know not compromising on standards is crucial to his success.

So is reinvigorating a roster coming off its first losing season in NEC play since 2005-06.

"He just oozes with energy," said Mount assistant Tony Bethel, a holdover from Burke's staff. "Our guys feed off that. That is so huge. I do [sense a turnaround] with our guys and how much they enjoying playing the game and how much they're enjoying being on the court every day."

Christian has prioritized communication as he gets to know his team. The program has instituted a breakfast club, with a staff member spending time with players in the morning for a half-hour before their first class.

"When you choose a school, you want to choose a place that's going to really spend time with you and your personal development," Christian said. "A lot of times, people choose a school with a great name or who had a great season. That stuff's great, but the thing about your own experience is that it's yours. It's hard to base your experience on someone else's."

Still, Christian's appreciation of his playing days at the Mount (which has made three NCAA tournament appearances since moving to Division I nearly a quarter-century ago, the most recent in 2008) undoubtedly will influence how he sells his alma mater to recruits.

Not much has changed since he graduated. The department now has a full-time strength coach, but the Mountaineers still play in cozy Knott Arena. Phelan, who won 830 games over 49 seasons, still stops by the office a few times a week.

Christian experienced one notable development since he returned. He turned 30 a few weeks after his hire.

"Now, I'm apparently an acceptable coaching age," Christian said wryly.

Consider it one more thing going according to plan.

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