by Tom Utescher
Jesse Balcer, the first and only men’s basketball coach at Chestnut Hill College, marked his 100th career victory with the Griffins on December 10, when host CHC pulled out an 86-84 victory over Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference rival Caldwell College.
Established in 1924 as a women’s college, Chestnut Hill first admitted male undergraduates in the fall of 2003, and Balcer had been hired that spring as the part-time coach of the nascent men’s basketball team, which would compete in the North East Athletic Conference as part of NCAA Division III.
A former player and assistant coach at Philadelphia University for Naismith Hall of Fame coach Herb Magee, Balcer led his new Chestnut Hill program to the conference finals in his second season (2004-2005), and was named NEAC Coach of the Year. One of his original recruits, Cardinal Dougherty grad Isaac Greer, became the Griffins’ first 1000-point scorer, and ended his career with 2065 points.
Four more 1000-point scorers have followed, including two current seniors who joined the exclusive club earlier this season.
In 2006 Balcer accepted a full-time position at Chestnut Hill as coach and Assistant Director of Athletics. He began building his team all over again when CHC moved up to NCAA Division II the following year. The squad made the CACC tournament in 2008-2009, and last winter the Griffins reached the conference semifinals. In 2010-2011 Balcer won out over his mentor, Magee, in two of three meetings in the regular season and playoffs. Going into the holiday break this season, the Griffins are 10-4 overall and 3-0 in conference play.
“We’re proud of what Jesse had accomplished on and off the basketball court,” said Director of Athletics Lynn Tubman. “He sees beyond the details of basketball and he gets the big picture. He understands the greater mission of the college, and he’s an important part of the community here.”
Aside from seeking success for his program and players, Balcer said he never looked very far ahead in terms of his own career.
“I never thought of the job as a stepping stone,” he noted. “I always thought about how great it would be to build a program. I didn’t really know about the 100th win until somebody said it to me when I was three or four away. When Lynn was speaking after that game, she said how it was the 100th win for me and for the program. I liked that because it really is an accomplishment for the program, everybody together.”
Julian McFadden, a 2006 Chestnut Hill Academy grad who played for Balcer and is now an assistant coach with the Griffins, recalled, “I know how excited he was when his old coach, Herb Magee, got his 900th win (in 2010), and to see him get his 100th was special, since I remember when there were some rough patches when we weren’t winning as much. It was very exciting for me because I’ve known him so long and he’s been like a father figure.
“He was always down to earth with me – he was like that coach you always wanted,” McFadden continued. “He was hard on you trying to get you to be your best, but he was also like a friend. He always had an open door and it was something you could trust; he was a guy you could go to about anything, basketball, school work, or home life.”
A 1992 graduate of Abington Friends School, Balcer played basketball for the Kangaroos, but was actually recruited for baseball by Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia U.). He started at shortstop for four years for the Rams and he also tried out for basketball, eventually becoming the first walk-on to serve as a team captain under Coach Magee.
After graduating with a degree in Psychology, he was an assistant coach at Abington Friends and Lower Moreland High School, then he returned to his old college team to join Magee’s staff. He was also working as a juvenile probation officer with the City of Philadelphia, and he was finding little time to spend with his wife and young children.
“I was thinking about looking for a head coaching job in high school,” just something to give me a little more control over my schedule,” he recalled. “I got a call from Brian Morris, who was the women’s [basketball] coach at Chestnut Hill at the time. He told me they were starting a men’s program and said I should apply.”
He followed up on the tip from Morris (who later coached at Springside School), and in March of 2003 he was interviewed by longtime CHC athletic director Janice Kuklick and college administrator Rosemary Scheirer SSJ.
He related, “The day that I interviewed, I went off-campus to get something to eat, and on my way back I could see the top of the school when I was coming over the hill on Germantown Avenue. I remember thinking how great it looked, and thinking this is going to be a place that will really take off someday.”
Not long after he was hired, he received a phone call from Dan Williams, founding coach of the men’s basketball team at Holy Family University, another former women’s college.
“He called me out of the blue, and gave me some great advice that I remember to this day,” Balcer said. “He told me to build the program with high-character kids, and not try to get it all in one bite. I could’ve won more games sooner if I’d brought in kids only for their playing ability, but I don’t think I’d be as proud of the program as I am today. I think we’ve built a reputation for playing good basketball and for having our kids get a good education and graduate. I don’t want people to come to our games and see a lot of guys with bad attitudes; I want them to see kids who play hard and play together.”
Asked if his training as a probation officer helped him as a basketball coach, he responded, “The kids I had in probation are nothing like the kids I have in school. That being said, in both cases you’re trying to make sure they go in the right direction and trying to teach them to do the right things for their future. That background does help if you see a kid who might be tending the wrong way, and you catch that before it becomes a real problem for him.”
In 2006, when Balcer came on board full-time at the college and was also studying there for a master’s degree in Administration of Human Services, his wife Amy was also making changes in her career. She enrolled in a five-year bachelor’s/master’s program at Chestnut Hill, and just as she finished her course of study, a position as a guidance counselor became available down the street from the college at Mount St. Joseph Academy.
She is now in her second year at the school, and the couple’s oldest child, eighth-grader Isabella, has been admitted to the Mount, which, like the college, is affiliated with the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Balcers also have a 10-year-old son, Jesse Jr., and a six-year-old daughter, Angelina.
The CHC basketball program entered a new phase with the step up to Division II status, which meant that the college could now offer financial assistance specifically for athletes.
“The scholarships are an added incentive, and they allow us to look at a more skilled group of players, but they didn’t really change our way of recruiting,” Balcer stated. “It’s always been about what Chestnut Hill offers; a really good education in a nice small-school setting, a chance to find yourself and be yourself. Being an athlete here involves service, developing relationships, and a holistic education, the same things that hold true for the entire school.”
Even before he became an assistant A.D., the Griffins’ basketball skipper could often be seen watching other CHC teams in action.
“One of the things I like about our athletic department,” he said, “is the way Lynn [Tubman] has brought in coaches that are involved in the athletic program as a whole. You see our tennis coach and our lacrosse coach working around the scoring table at our basketball games. There’s nobody coaching here that thinks that everything is just about their team. We all try to support each other.”
If he could go back and give a younger Jesse Balcer some advice in his early days at CHC, he might tell him “to have a little more patience. I’m an optimistic person and I always knew that we would be winners, eventually. But early on when we were losing I took it very hard; I would ask myself if I was cut out for this. Looking back I think I could’ve been a little easier on myself and enjoyed the ride a little more.”
Former player McFadden said that now that he’s coaching alongside Balcer, “I see he has a playful side. When I was a player, I saw him as a lot more serious.”
Playful he may be on occasion, but Balcer admits, “I have an unbelievable hunger to get our program into the NCAA Tournament. We almost got there in the fourth year in Division III. I want to do it now in Division II.”
Given the Griffins’ rise over the past few seasons, a tournament appearance seems likely before too long.
Still, as McFadden asserted, “His ultimate goal is to have his players graduate and be prepared for life, and for the fact that it’s not just going to give you an easy ride. He loves his family and he wants his team to be like family. He wants his players to care about each other outside of basketball, and I believe that will make them better men, because I know it’s made me a better man.”