Jim Les reflects on the good times only long enough to enjoy a beer, get a good night’s sleep, finish his breakfast. Most of his energy is devoted to coaching the next game, landing the next recruit, plotting the next step for a UC Davis basketball program that made its inaugural NCAA Tournament appearance last year.
Les simply wants a lot more. Another Big West tournament title. Another trip to the Big Dance. That first NCAA Tournament victory. And who knows? Maybe that first five-star recruit.
In his seven seasons in Davis, life on the farm has changed dramatically. The Aggies have morphed from conference cellar dweller to annual contender to a program that has won 17 consecutive home games and counts actor Rob Lowe among its fans. You never know who might be in the stands (as Lowe was for the matchup against Kansas) at that next NCAA opener.
If it seems like a lifetime ago that the Aggies were struggling in their jump from Division II to D-I, it should. Just do the math. They went 5-26 in Les’ first year and endured two more losing seasons before streaking to a 25-7 record in 2014-15. On Thursday, the former Kings guard and Monarchs assistant will attempt to claim his 100th victory with the Aggies – and notably against a Cal State Northridge team coached by one-time Kings player and head coach Reggie Theus.
Les, of course, prefers not to talk about himself or his achievements. During his NBA days, he was known for his feistiness, tenacity and superb 3-point shooting, not a massive ego or insatiable thirst for attention. His suggestion would be to applaud the efforts of returning starters Chima Moneke and Siler Schneider, cite T.J. Shorts’ smooth transition from junior college transfer to starting point guard, and feature a 12-7 team that has superior talent to last year’s squad but is still seeking comparable “connectivity.”
Nice try, but not a chance. Les will just have to take one for the team. That 100th victory is imminent, and he can deflect all he wants, but he deserves to take a bow. He is thriving in an environment that intimidates many of his colleagues. For all of the attributes – lovely campus, college town, great location for biking and hiking – the university’s academic demands substantially reduces the pool of potential recruits and forces the Aggies to search far and wide.
“We want to get more involved internationally,” Les said, “places like Australia, Serbia, all over Europe. The world has shrunk and the administration has been great about recognizing that. They said, ‘We will give you the resources to compete against the Ivy League, Stanford, the top academic schools in the country.’ And because of last year’s success, we are in some places that we weren’t sure we would be in. Now it’s your ability to close, for a young man to look at this as a unique opportunity. We just have to look a little harder, that’s all.”
But here is what Les won’t do and why he is so highly regarded by the UCD administration: He won’t cheat. He not only won’t cheat, he hopes the ongoing FBI investigation that last September resulted in bribery and corruption charges against 11 individuals, including four prominent assistant coaches, expands into a clean sweep within major college basketball.
“I want the game cleaned up,” Les said forcefully after practice Monday. “For the guys that try to do it the right way, it’s been very frustrating because we all know it’s been going on for a very long time. You see guys (analysts) on TV, and they say, ‘Oh, he’s a great recruiter.’ Yeah, well, with a shoebox full of hundreds, it would be easy to be a great recruiter. But I just think it’s wrong. Many of us realize the NCAA doesn’t have the resources to solve the problem, but just the fact they’re trying to clean up the game is encouraging. I don’t care what steps they have to take. Clean it up. Just the perception that it’s out there I think has scaled it (corruption) back.”
Les, who returned to Sacramento after his NBA career to become a stockbroker only to discover a love of coaching during his part-time position with the Monarchs, revived his alma mater, Bradley, for eight years prior to taking the job at UC Davis. He swears he has changed, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He patrols the sidelines with ferocity, forever ready to pounce. He stands erect, his broad shoulders squared, his hands clenched behind his back, not a gray hair out of place.
The difference is his approach away from the court. The warm and fuzzies have been incorporated into the program. Les, 54, spends considerably more time fostering relationships with his players than earlier in his career. During the summers he accompanies the Aggies on a river-rafting trip, schedules barbecues, arranges movie nights and supervises team-bonding experiences, among them swimming relay races in the two campus pools.
“I want the the guys to be able to come to me about anything, life, school, girlfriends,” said Les, who agreed to a multiyear contract extension at the end of last season. “When I get on them about something, it’s easier to take because they know I care about them. And I want them to enjoy the college experience. I tell them all the time: I played seven years in the NBA, but my best experiences and most of my friendships are from college.”
Asked whether he feels a need to scratch the seven-year itch, perhaps might be getting restless and eager for the challenge of a major program, he laughed.
“I’m not one of those guys who uses these types of jobs as a (launch) to something else. We put a lot of work into this. I want to reap the benefits of what we’ve built. And when you get to a situation like this, where everybody is pulling together, you feel like, ‘Man, we can climb any mountain.’ ”