By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
KENT, Ohio (AP) - Kent State decided it was time to put an end to all the surprises.
Less than two weeks after its improbable March tournament run concluded and just four days after coach Stan Heath left unexpectedly, Kent State found his replacement sitting right on its bench.
Jim Christian, an assistant under Heath this season when the Golden Flashes advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of eight, on Tuesday was named the school's 21st coach -- and third in three years.
"It happened very fast," Christian said. "We want to continue what's been started here."
Christian (pictured, above) takes over for Heath, who in his first season led the Golden Flashes to a 30-6 record, the Mid-American Conference title and victories over Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh in this year's NCAA tourney, before taking the job at Arkansas.
The 37-year-old Christian received a five-year contract from athletic director Laing Kennedy, whose priority in finding Heath's successor was to bring stability and continuity to the program.
"Jim is the person we need to continue at the championship level," Kennedy said. "If we were conducting a national search, we would look at Elite Eight-type programs, and we have one right here. Jim is the right man at the right time for Kent State.
"He is part of the family."
Christian's deal is similar to the one Heath got a year ago when he replaced Gary Waters, who left for Rutgers. Kennedy said Christian will make $120,000 per season with incentives.
But unlike Heath, Christian won't have the luxury of inheriting a group of seniors like Trevor Huffman, Andrew Mitchell or Demetric Shaw, who led Kent State to 100 wins and three NCAA tournament appearances the past four years.
"Guess we'll have to find some guys just like them then," Christian joked. "But they were a very special group and they have laid a foundation here that we want to build upon. We have to continue the standard and work ethic that they set."
Kent State's returning players were thrilled with the decision to hire Christian, who has more than a decade of experience as an assistant.
"I just couldn't see a new coach coming in here now and not knowing the players," said junior forward Antonio Gates, who along with his teammates attended the news conference to announce Christian's hiring. "I thought coach Christian was the best person."
Gates knows that because of the magical tourney run, the days of Kent State -- or any other MAC school -- sneaking up on anyone are over.
"Now we've got to try and stay at the top," Gates said. "That might be the hardest thing to do."
Christian believes the Golden Flashes can remain among the nation's elite programs by keeping realistic expectations. He knows the newfound national respect and heightened profile Kent State is enjoying can vanish quickly.
"We've got some work to do," he said. "But I think we have a nice group to start with."
Christian was an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, Western Kentucky, Miami of Ohio and St. Francis (Pa.) but dropped out of coaching for two years (1999-00) to work at a sports marketing firm before joining Heath's staff.
He played at Boston University for two years before transferring to Rhode Island, and played for the Rams in 1988 when they advanced to the Sweet 16.
Although he believes he was "born to coach", Christian said an epiphany came his freshman year -- while trying to stop Michael Jordan on an alley-oop.
"He jumped, and I jumped, and I was at his knee level when he dunked," Christian said. "I figured my career as a player was going to be short-lived. I knew I'd better find something else to do with the rest of my life."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)