Vassar Stories

One Year Out: Jonathan Safir ’15, director of basketball operations

Unlike most Vassar students – or most college students anywhere – Jonathan Safir ’15 arrived on campus his freshman year with a clear career goal: He knew, before he even got to high school, that he wanted to be a basketball coach. “I’ve always loved the game,” he says, “but around the time of my bar mitzvah, I began to realize that playing in the NBA was not in my future. I decided I wanted to coach.”

Jonathan Safir ’15, director of operations for Columbia University’s basketball team

Since he graduated from Vassar last spring, Safir has started on a career path that many current college and professional coaches have followed. Last summer he landed a job as a graduate assistant for the Columbia University basketball team and began his studies in a master’s degree program in sports management. In May, Safir was named Columbia’s director of basketball operations, handling a variety of duties for head coach Jim Engles and his staff while he continues his coursework for his master’s degree. Safir maintains the team’s databases and social media sites, organizes the summer basketball camp, coordinates alumni relations, keeps track of players’ academic standing, arranges food and travel for the team during the season and develops recruiting material for the coaches. 

Safir was recruited by Vassar at the start of his senior year at Williamsville North High School in suburban Buffalo, NY. He considered attending a college with a high-profile basketball program but knew he had a better chance of making the team at a Division III school like Vassar. “I would have been a team manager at a school like Syracuse or Duke or North Carolina,” Safir says, “and I wasn’t ready to give up playing.”

He initially majored in economics but switched to American studies, principally so he could write the senior thesis he had in mind: how big data, analytics, and technology have influenced the game of basketball over the past few decades.

Safir says he believes the team’s contrasting fortunes during his last two years at Vassar, under head coach B.J. Dunne, will be particularly valuable to him when he becomes a coach. At the start of his junior year, the Brewers were picked to finish near the bottom of the Liberty League standings but finished with a 19-8 record, best in the team’s history. The next year, Vassar was picked to win the league title but suffered a rash of injuries and a series of heartbreaking losses, finishing the season with just seven wins and 18 losses. “That first year with Coach Dunne, we surprised everyone, and then my senior year was a total disappointment,” Safir says. “But from a coaching perspective, it was helpful to experience both situations – all that success and all that misfortune.”

While Safir never cracked the starting lineup for the Brewers, Dunne says he was always impressed with his hard work, dedication and understanding of the game. “Jon is a quick learner with a passion for the game that is contagious,” the coach says. “He’s a tireless worker and has a deep understanding of team dynamics. His work ethic, organizational skills, and enthusiasm for the game will take him far in this profession.”

In his first year at Columbia, Safir was part of one of the team’s most successful seasons. The Lions finished with a 25-10 record – the most victories in team history – and won the post-season College Insider Tournament. That success led to the departure of head coach Kyle Smith, who was hired by the University of San Francisco. Safir wasn’t sure what the coaching change might mean for his own budding career, but he was soon promoted to his new position. “I had a great relationship with Coach Smith, and he wanted me to come along to San Francisco, but I was midway through my master’s degree program at Columbia and decided to stay,” Safir says. “After a few meetings with Coach Engles, he promoted me.”

Safir’s next goal is to land an assistant coaching job after he receives his master’s degree next spring. He says he still can’t imagine doing anything else. “My dad was a volunteer assistant coach at my high school, but according to a school policy, he had to quit when I joined the team,” Safir says. “I always shared his love and passion for the game, and I’m looking forward to sharing that passion, working with young people from different backgrounds and maybe changing the direction of their lives. That’s a special opportunity, and not many professions offer that.”

He says his time at Vassar enabled him to gain the proper foundation for his career. “I learned a lot about the game, and the friends I made on the team will be my friends all my life – they’ll all be at my wedding when that happens,” Safir says. “I’m looking forward to another great season at Columbia, and I’m excited to be pursuing my dream.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Tuesday, June 21, 2016