New Saint Louis coach Travis Ford discusses his transition from Oklahoma State, recruiting and his long-term plan for the Billikens.
With the 2016 college basketball coaching carousel nearing its conclusion, SI.com is checking in with all the major hires about their new gigs. These Q&As will be posted periodically throughout April, May and June. Next up is Travis Ford, who spent eight seasons as Oklahoma State’s head coach before parting ways with the program and then accepting the same position at Saint Louis. Ford, 46, led the Cowboys to a 155-111 record, a winning percentage of 58.3% and five trips to the NCAA tournament.
Sports Illustrated: There were about two weeks between your split with Oklahoma State and your announcement as Saint Louis’s new head coach. What was that time period like for you?
Travis Ford: I was talking to a couple different schools and seeing about a couple different opportunities, and obviously I was talking to Saint Louis as well.
SI: Were you ever considering options outside of coaching?
TF: I didn’t have time to think about much else. I had been contacted by a couple schools. I didn’t put thought at that point in time about what else I might do outside of that. I was just looking for the right opportunity if I were to get back in that quickly into coaching. If that right opportunity wouldn’t have come up, then I wouldn’t have coached this upcoming season. I would have looked into something else, like possibly TV, but it never really got to that point. I saw Saint Louis as an incredible opportunity for me and my family.
SI: What things were on your checklist for the right job?
TF: It was probably the first time that I had a really significant checklist of priorities that I wanted. Because I wanted—I’ve coached at a lot of different schools and a lot of different levels. First up, I wanted it to be somewhere my family enjoyed living, plain and simple. They’d followed me around everywhere with every job, and I wanted it to be a place that they were excited about going to, first and foremost.
I wanted to go to a place where we could be a difference-maker. I wanted to go somewhere that we could make a difference and it would be appreciated. And those were at the top of my list as far as what was important for me.
SI: This job brings you to within a couple hours of where your college career began at Missouri. Was that a factor in the decision?
TF: A factor certainly was what a great community St. Louis is and that I did have some familiarity with it. I grew up about three hours from here. My parents and sister live 2 ½ hours from here as well. I have a lot friends in this area. Obviously, that excited me.
SI: You made the NCAA tournament five times in your time there, and had made it three seasons in a row before last year. Did you feel like your tenure at Oklahoma State was a success?
TF: Well, I thought we accomplished a lot. I took over a program that had not been to the NCAA tournament in the three previous seasons. And we get there and we go to two straights. We did a lot in our eight years.
Obviously, last year was one of our craziest in terms of injuries and illnesses with a basketball team or we would have probably went to the fourth straight NCAA tournament.
But we obviously went to a lot of NCAA tournaments. I wish we would have went further in them. But we played a lot of great games, we beat a lot of great teams we had some great moments. We graduated a lot of players and got players in the NBA. I created a lot of great relationships there that will last a long time. I enjoyed my time in Stillwater, and I feel very good about it.
SI: A lot of times in the last few seasons you were on the “Hot Seat” list. Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff at all? Does it bother you at all?
SI: Never indulge in a moment of Googling yourself?
TF: Absolutely not. (Laughs.) When you’re in our business, it’s common sense— you don’t get caught up in those things or you don’t need to be in our business. Every coach knows that. If you live the life we live, you get up every morning, do the best job you can but know that there are going to be people who agree with you and people who will disagree with you. I don’t know any coaches who [read criticism of themselves], or you probably need to get in a different business.
SI: You’re back in the Atlantic 10 now for the first time since you were UMass’ coach. How has the conference changed since your departure almost a decade ago?
TF: Well obviously first and foremost, there are of course some teams that left and some teams that are new since the last time I was a part of the league. VCU is new. Davidson is new. I’m not sure who else—I don’t have all the teams in front of me right now. But it’s still no different than when I was coaching way back when at UMass. It’s still one of the top leagues in America, and it has an incredible amount of history to it. It’s a league that is very, very competitive with a lot of great coaches. I enjoyed it the first go-around. I enjoyed the history of the Atlantic-10 and the competition. And none of that changed.
SI: Was familiarity with the conference part of the decision making process?
TF: It really wasn’t. I wanted to find the right place for my family, a place that we’d enjoy living, a place that we’d make a difference, a place that we’d be happy. I didn’t have a checklist as far as conferences. I’ve coached in NAIA to Oklahoma State—I’ve experienced a lot. I just want a place where my family could enjoy living. I’ve got three kids. And a place where we could go in and make a difference, and the fans appreciate it. I wanted a place that loved their basketball. And this place has fan support and it has unbelievable facilities.
This had everything I was looking for, or I wouldn’t have done it.
SI: You’ve had a couple of guys transfer, which is pretty typical during a coaching change. You now have a couple scholarships available. What’s the state of the roster, in your opinion?TF:
I’ve been very patient as far as recruiting. I talked about it in the press conference, but this is the fifth program I’ve taken over at the college level. You always learn lessons. I’ve made some mistakes early on before trying to just use scholarships because they were there and signing players because you felt like you had to.
I’ve been very patient as far as evaluating the guys we have now. And we’re only going to recruit and bring in guys that we feel like are going to be difference-makers and help us get better rather than just fill a scholarship. So I’ve just been patient with that—trying to learn my team and the needs we do have.
It just takes time, especially when you haven’t had much time already.
SI: What will it take to get Saint Louis back to the NCAA tournament after a couple seasons on the outside?
TF: We gotta get better. We gotta use this summer and the upcoming season to get better. And we’ll have to continue to develop the players we have in our system and in our program right now. Obviously, recruiting is the lifeline of any basketball program. We have to recruit hard, recruit smart and get guys in here who can help us compete and get to the top of the Atlantic-10 and can hopefully lead us to NCAA tournament berths.
SI: There are some good recruits in Saint Louis. Jayson Tatum even had your university in his final four. How do you ensure that guys like him stay close to home?
TF: You hopefully try to get on players early and develop relationships with ‘em. And hopefully the players surrounding the St. Louis area, the great ones, want to stay home. It takes time. It’s a process. We’ve got to build relationships with the players, with the coaches, with AAU coaches and everybody. St. Louis does have a great reputation for developing some really talented players in the high school ranks.