Can Calipari-Camby-level success return to UMass? Matt McCall is tasked with trying

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NCAA Basketball Year in Review
Monday June 12th, 2017

On March 30, 1996,  the University of Massachusetts lost to Kentucky in the Final Four, concluding a magical season in which the Minutemen won 35 games and spent the bulk of the regular season ranked atop the polls. And when the Minutemen fell that early-spring night to the eventual champions coached by Rick Pitino, himself a UMass graduate, an era in the school’s basketball history also drew to a close.

UMass has not since approached anything like the ‘90s—a period when coach John Calipari took the team to at least the second round of the NCAA tournament five straight years. After the loss in the national semifinals, Calipari left town to take over as the coach of the Nets, and star big man Marcus Camby bounced to the NBA draft, too. As the two men departed Amherst, they left behind an uncertain future and a program bruised by revelations about Camby’s interactions with agents.

Camby graduated from the school last month, 21 years after his final game and 24 years after he started taking classes at UMass. But he received his diploma at a school long removed from its golden era of hoops. The Minutemen suffered their second straight losing season this year under coach Derek Kellogg. Along the way, they averaged a home attendance of 3,297 at the 9,493-seat Mullins Center. Following the disappointing season, the school dismissed Kellogg, a guard on the team during the Calipari era who led the program for the past nine seasons.

Kellogg’s departure leaves UMass at a crossroads two decades since the school dominated college basketball in the northeast. With the shadow of the Calipari era fading into history, the question of whether the Minutemen can return to relevance lingers.

“We’ve had success here as a basketball program before, and so that will tell you that—while the environment’s different—we can do it again,” said Ryan Bamford, the school’s athletic director since 2015. “When we build something, we want to build it to be everlasting and sustainable.”

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The burden of finding a way to return UMass to its former glory falls on the shoulders of 35-year-old Matt McCall, whom the school tapped as Kellogg’s replacement. But before the new head coach in Amherst seeks to awaken the basketball ghosts of Julius Erving and Al Skinner, Camby and Jim McCoy, he’ll have to resettle a program that has had a tumultuous year.

Within two weeks of Kellogg’s ouster, the school announced it had a new coach, Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey. But in a Billy Donovan-style change of heart, Kelsey backed out just before his introductory press conference, forcing the school to reopen its search. It eventually settled on McCall.

McCall, who left Chattanooga after winning 48 games and making one trip to March Madness in two seasons, spoke in his late-March introductory press conference about building on the legacy already that has already been established at UMass. His charge, more than anything, is to restore the legacy.

The turbulence didn’t completely subside after McCall’s hiring. Since Kellogg’s firing, seven members of the Minutemen roster have left the program, and three of their top five scorers have transferred. While McCall has had to restock much of his roster, and has already added four transfers, he said he’s not overly concerned about personnel turnover. He acknowledged the coaching merry-go-round created by Kelsey’s change of heart might have broken down some trust with players, but he said he doesn’t “look at it that way."

“We’ve had some turnover, and that’s O.K.,” McCall said. “We’re trying to accomplish something here that’s bigger than any one individual. And in order for that to happen, you’ve got to be about what’s on the front. You’ve got to be about UMass.”

McCall, who attended Florida and spent the better part of a decade cutting his teeth as a member of Donovan’s coaching staff, said that he plans to model his new program on the Gators’ of the mid-2000s. That means, he said, keeping the focus team-oriented.

Though McCall stems from the Donovan coaching tree, itself an offshoot of the Pitino coaching tree (Donovan served as an assistant under Pitino at Kentucky), parallels can be drawn between the new coach and Calipari. In his mid-30s, McCall is only a few years older than Calipari was when he took over at UMass. And Calipari, like McCall, stepped in at a time when the program was mired in a losing stretch. McCall said he remembers watching Calipari’s Minutemen teams in the ‘90s as the school built a New England basketball powerhouse.

“Even though I was in a small town in the state of Florida during those times,” McCall said, “the excitement level that was created through the media just about that team, even at 13, 14 years old, you could feel it. As a fan of the game of basketball, you knew exactly what was going on.”

It took Calipari just a few years to put the program on the map after his hiring in 1988. By 1992, UMass won 30 games and appeared in the Sweet 16.

Columnist Pat Forde, then writing for ESPN, later opined that the undersized, undermanned squad led by guard Jim McCoy was a “collection of marginal talent.” But UMass was rocking into its golden age, as the Minutemen continued to dominate over the next four seasons, finishing each year ranked in the top 15. Kellogg, who graduated after the 1995 season, said he recalled “a packed Mullins Center and people waiting in line for tickets” amid the team’s wave of success.

Winslow Townson, AP

The Minutemen finally charged into the Final Four as a top seed in the 1996 tournament. Calipari said that squad represented the best “collective team” he’s ever coached at the college level.

Camby led the squad, a soon-to-be No. 2 pick in the NBA draft who had developed from a slight, out-of-shape freshman—a “skinny, long drink of water” in Calipari’s words—into a dominant two-way stud and AP Player of the Year. Calipari had only played Camby 21.9 minutes per game as a freshman in 1994 because, he said, the 6'11'' center was so out of shape. Calipari said he would use his timeouts to rest Camby, and pretend not to see the big man when he asked for a breather. But as a junior, Camby logged more than 30 minutes per game, and averaged more than 20 points per outing.

The Minutemen went 28-1 during the regular season despite a schedule that included just 10 games at the Mullins Center.  “We were a team,” Calipari said. “Really efficient, defensively didn’t make a whole of mistakes. We didn’t win every game, but we almost did.”

There hasn’t been a team at UMass quite like it since. In fact, there hasn’t been a team from the Atlantic 10 quite like that one. The intervening years since Calipari and Camby left have been littered with disappointment for the Minutemen, and the two left a dust cloud as they moved on to the pros. The spring after the ‘96 season, the Hartford Courant reported Camby received gifts from agents while a student-athlete.

A year later, the NCAA punished the school for Camby’s improprieties, wiping its Final Four appearance from the record book and ordering it to repay its $151,617 share of the ‘96 tournament purse (Camby paid UMass back for the money it lost to the NCAA). Camby, who could not be reached for this story, went on to play for seven teams over a 17-year NBA career.

In September of 1997, Phil Taylor wrote in Sports Illustrated that the reputation of the UMass program had been “severely tarnished,” and predicted that the Minutemen would likely struggle to “attract the kind of recruits who will get them back anytime soon to the Final Four.” Coach Bruiser Flint, previously an assistant under Calipari, faced the task of attempting to do just that.

Flint’s tenure lasted five years. Though his first two teams made the NCAA tournament, winning 40 games over two seasons, the program quickly lost steam. UMass slipped to a 14-16 mark in 1999 and the school fired Flint after a 15-15 finish in 2001, the third consecutive season the team missed the NCAA tournament. The Camby fiasco loomed over Flint’s five years, and Flint said it did hurt in recruiting.

“My first year and a half of being the head coach, every time we went into somebody’s home, somebody talked about us being put on probation,” Flint said. “That was the big thing: ‘You guys are going on probation, you guys are going on probation.’ It took a little while for us to get past that, to really let people know that we weren’t going on probation.”

Flint said that, by the time he felt those whisperings had finally faded, he got fired. The school replaced him with Steve Lappas, who suffered through four losing seasons before meeting the same fate as Flint. The next coach in Amherst, Travis Ford, restored some basketball success in 2007 by taking UMass to the NIT. It was the school’s first visit to the postseason since 2000. But after the Minutemen appeared in their second straight NIT in 2008, Ford darted to Oklahoma State.

Finally, in came Kellogg. With his playing-day pedigree and slicked back hair reminiscent of Calipari’s, Kellogg’s tenure probably showed the most promise of any since the turn of the millennium. Led by 5’9” guard Chaz Williams, the Minutemen won 20 games for three straight years starting in 2012, capping the stretch with a long-awaited tourney appearance in 2014.

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But then the wheels fell off as UMass lost 51 games over the past three years, and Kellogg was let go. (After Kellogg's firing, it was reported that a 2016 lawsuit named Kellogg as a defendant and alleged intimidation of a woman by members of Kellogg’s coaching staff. Bamford said the suit had nothing to do with Kellogg’s firing. Kellogg declined to comment on the suit for this story.)

Kellogg’s firing in March did not meet universal approval. Flint, for example, said he “didn’t like what they did with Derek.” Boston Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan wrote at the time of Kellogg’s dismissal, “I’m not sure that’s the right way to go.”

But there’s no denying that the team took its lumps over the past few seasons on the court. With Kellogg pushed out—he’s now the coach at LIU Brooklyn—McCall takes the reins of a program facing unmistakable challenges. Sustaining a winning program at a school like UMass is easier to envision than to accomplish.

Life has seemingly gotten harder for mid-majors in recent times, save the occasional Gonzaga, and the Atlantic 10 has slipped a bit the past few years. Moreover, the Minutemen basketball brand simply lacks the luster it once had. Under athletic director John McCutcheon, who served from 2004 to 2015, UMass had more losing seasons (three) than NCAA tournament visits (one). McCutcheon declined to comment for this story through a spokesman.

Filling the Mullins Center presents a significant challenge for the school; just 2,434 fans showed for the team’s final home game this winter, as the Minutemen lost for their ninth time in 11 games.

Calipari said one reason for optimism about the program is the presence of UMass chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who has spent time at basketball powers Kentucky, where he served as provost, and Indiana, where he filled the role of dean of arts and sciences. Subbaswamy said his time at basketball bluebloods left him without “any question” that strong academics and athletic achievement are compatible. And he said he knows that basketball can build school spirit and connect a school with the local community.

It’s a challenging, if commendable goal. To invoke the most memorable line of one of the most visible UMass alums, neither Camby nor Dr. J are walking through that door. Which leaves McCall left with a rebuild at a school that has reached fantastic heights and endured stigma and losing seasons. But McCall said he thinks his new home at the flagship state school is “special.”

“It’s the one show in town, as far as basketball goes,” McCall said. “So people want this place to be good. They want it to be really, really good.” 

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