On this day nine years ago, Jim Les was named the 23rd head coach in UC Davis men’s basketball history.
On May 5, 2011, UC Davis brought in the recently-released Bradley head coach to take over its program.
Les had been the head coach at Bradley, his alma mater, from 2002 to 2011, compiling a 154-140 overall record and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2006 during his nine seasons in the position. After a 12-20 (4-14) campaign in 2010-11, the Braves called it quits.
Approximately two months later, his unemployment was over, and the next chapter started in California.
It wasn’t a normal situation that Jim Les was walking in to. Unlike most coaches who enter new programs as a completely fresh face, one member of the Aggies team knew the coach very well. Tyler Les, Jim’s son, was already playing on the team before his father became the coach. He was a rising sophomore in the summer of 2011 when Jim Les was hired, and it played a role in the father’s decision to come to Davis.
“The fact that as a parent I sent Tyler here a year ago should tell you what I think of the UC Davis college experience,” Les said in a Q&A with UC Davis Athletics shortly after he was hired. “The Aggies provide an academic excellence and comprehensive educational component that is first rate. The environment that surrounds the campus and the city of Davis is truly unique in its friendly feel. The people – from the Chancellor to the administration to the faculty – are committed to making sure our students have a first-class college experience.”
When Jim Les entered the program, the Aggies were coming off a 10-20 (4-12) year of their own and were yet to complete a winning season since making the jump to Division I in 2004 or finish better than .500 in the Big West since joining the conference in 2007. The new coach was tasked with building the program virtually from scratch.
In the Q&A, UC Davis asked Jim Les what his vision for the future of the Aggies was.
“A ‘Championship’ experience that encompasses a first-class education, winning basketball and national recognition for our wins in the classroom and on the floor,” he said.
It took a few years to get the program on track, but under his guise, UC Davis made its first-ever NIT in 2015 after a 25-7 (14-2) season and Big West regular season championship, the first in its history. Two years later, Jim Les had the Aggies in their inaugural dance, defeating UC Irvine, 50-47, in the Big West Championship for the league’s auto bid. He led the team to its first NCAA Tournament win – a 67-63 victory over No. 16 seed North Carolina Central – in the First Four before falling to No. 1 seed Kansas in the Round of 64. The coach had the Aggies back in the NIT in 2018 after winning the Big West regular season crown for the second time in his tenure.
As for the wins in the classroom, the team’s APR rating has been higher in each of Jim Les’ seasons than it was before he arrived.
The Spin on Jim Les
Before becoming a coach, Jim Les had a long playing career. He started his college days at Cleveland State in 1981 but transferred to Bradley during the winter break of his sophomore season. He was an important part of two Bradley squads that went to the NIT and NCAA Tournament in 1985 and 1986, respectively, and the program was 60-27 while he played for it. In fact, the 1985-86 Bradley team was one of the best in school and Missouri Valley history, amassing a perfect 16-0 league record en route to a regular season crown, the last team to complete an undefeated slate in Valley play.
The team would get an at-large bid to the 1986 NCAA Tournament and make it to the second round, winning Bradley’s first tournament game since 1955 in the process. Les averaged 14.2 points and 7.9 assists per game that season and was named MVC Player of the Year, plus he won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Hall of Fame Award as the country’s top player under 6-feet tall.
Les was selected No. 70 overall in the third round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. He played seven seasons in the NBA from 1988 to 1995 for the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings and eventually the Hawks, coming full circle in 1994 to complete his final campaign in the league with the team that drafted him nearly a decade prior. His career also featured stints in smaller North American professional leagues and Spain.
After his playing days concluded, Les entered the coaching world. Before coming back to Bradley, he served as an assistant for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs from 1999 to 2001, helping lead the team to the playoffs in all three seasons and the 2001 WNBA Western Conference Finals.