When Franklin College assistant women’s basketball coach James Robertson graduated from Columbus North High School 17 years ago, he wanted to go somewhere he could continue playing the game he loves but not have to leave home.
In other words, some place like Ivy Tech Community College.
Unfortunately for Robertson, the Ivy Tech campus in Columbus didn’t have a basketball team until two years ago, so he never had a chance to play there. But now, the 35-year-old will have the opportunity to help grow the program as its second head coach.
Robertson recently was hired at Ivy Tech, becoming the second assistant coach from the Grizzlies’ women’s program in the past three weeks to land a head coaching position at another school.
Former Franklin assistant Rachel Steinbarger recently was hired as the head coach at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
For his part, Robertson embraces the chance to coach in his hometown, even though he never got to play there in college.
“I would have loved to have something like this to play after high school rather than feel like you have to leave town,” Robertson said. “It’s tough to leave town when you’re 18 years old out of high school and go off to college, yet you still want to play sports.”
Basketball is the only varsity sport at Ivy Tech, a two-year college on the city’s north side. The school doesn’t have an athletics director, but director of student life Neil Bagadiong oversees the athletic program.
The Robertson File
Name: James Robertson
High school: Columbus North
Colleges: IU-Southeast, Ball State
Degrees: B.S. in general studies and minor in graphic arts from Ball State,
M.A. in elementary education from
University of Phoenix
Occupation: Men’s basketball
coach at Ivy Tech Community
“We hear a lot of high school students who graduate, and for one reason or another, they’re not ready to go on to a four-year college, but they still want to continue with their basketball career,” Bagadiong said. “There weren’t options years ago; and now we’re here, and they’re excited about it.”
Robertson, who led Columbus North to a sectional title in 1997, the final year of one-class basketball in Indiana, played one year at Indiana University-Southeast before transferring to Ball State. He tried out for the team at BSU, but then-coach Ray McCallum told him he likely wouldn’t see the court.
“Coach let me know I wasn’t going to play,” Robertson said. “I was just going to be a practice player. I figured I would learn more if I was a student assistant.”
Ball State didn’t have a student assistant position open for the men’s team but did for the women’s squad. So Robertson spent two years on the staff of Brenda Freese, who is now the women’s coach at Maryland.
“I learned a lot from her,” Robertson said. “I kind of got the bug early to coach. Whether it’s women’s, men’s, it’s basketball is how I look at it. I love coaching.”
After college, Robertson moved to Arizona and picked up a master’s degree in elementary education from University of Phoenix. He taught elementary physical and health education for five years at D.W. Higgins Institute in Tempe.
Without any basketball connections in Arizona, Robertson had to start out at the elementary level. He eventually moved up to the middle school level.
In 2010, Robertson began working for Western Governors University and mentors more than 100 students in online courses in the College of Information Technology.
“In addition to teaching students the skills of basketball on the court, he actually can help them with life outside the court — everything from time management to motivation to study skills,” Bagadiong said. “So he carries two things that we’re looking for.”
Robertson spent last season as an assistant with the Franklin College women’s team. He said Steinbarger, also a Columbus North graduate, recently offered him a chance to be on her staff when she took the head coaching job at Lancaster Bible College, but he didn’t want to go that far from home.
“When I moved back here, I tried to get into the high school system, but it’s tough to get into any kind of system unless you know the right people,” Robertson said. “I ended up getting a shot at Franklin, and Neil gave me a shot here.”
At Ivy Tech, Robertson will face some challenges. For starters, the team doesn’t have a home court. The Eagles practice in the gyms of local churches and play home games at Foundation For Youth.
Then, there’s the challenge of having players for only a maximum of two years.
“Anytime you can only develop a player for two years, and they kind of move on, it’s tough,” Robertson said. “It’s not like a high-schooler, where they don’t really peak until they’re a senior. For these guys, they’re already at their height, so you know what you’re getting as far as speed and height. You’re just continuing to develop skills and teamwork.”
Ivy Tech returns seven players from a team that went 6-5 last season under Bruce Grimes, who resigned to spend more time with his family.
“I don’t know a ton yet,” Robertson said. “From what I’ve seen from last year, they’re an up-and-down team, which plays right into my style. That’s the type of coaching style I have — up and down, wide-open shot is a good shot.”
Robertson’s main goals are to improve on last year’s record and build interest in his program.
“More importantly, I want to get the word out,” Robertson said. “You think about all the colleges — Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA — they started off with club teams. Ivy Tech is huge, and there are a lot of other Ivy Techs, and it’s just a matter of time until one can break out to JUCO or NAIA.”