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Chasing Ghosts: John Calipari left, and UMass basketball died

Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures along the way.

This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series continues with the UMass Minutemen, a perennial top-25 team in the ’90s that faded from the scene soon after John Calipari led the program to the Final Four.

History | Roundtable: Will UMass ever matter again?

UMass Minutemen

Icon: John Calipari

Seasons coached: 1989-96
Key accomplishments: 193-71 record (.731), 1996 Final Four (later vacated), 5 NCAA tournament appearances, 5 Atlantic 10 championships

“It’s always tough when you follow a guy who takes you to the Final Four. . . . I’m not crazy. I knew that when I took the job. . . . Hey, they’ve had basketball here for 90 years, and how many times have they made it to the Final Four? Once.” — Then-UMass coach Bruiser Flint, during 2000-01 season

“When I talk about Massachusetts, [my players] have no idea what I’m talking about. Their families do, but they don’t. I have families that say when I walk in that it was [their] favorite team of all time. That was a great team.” — John Calipari, in 2011

“Fans sometimes ask me, ‘When are you guys going to get it back to the ’90s?’ I’d say that would be pretty difficult. But our goal is to get to that level.” — Then-UMass coach Derek Kellogg, in 2013

Ranking the Calipari chasers

5. Matt McCall (2017-Present), 24-41 (.369) — McCall was hired six days after Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey backed out of the UMass job 35 minutes before what was to be Kelsey’s introductory press conference. It’s still early in the McCall regime, but the initial returns have not been especially positive. The former Chattanooga coach has won just nine Atlantic 10 games in two seasons — and this past season’s 4-14 league mark is especially jarring given how poor the A-10 was in 2018-19. McCall fired his entire staff at the conclusion of the campaign.

4. Steve Lappas (2002-05), 50-65 (.435) — Just three days after resigning under pressure at Villanova, Lappas took on the task of succeeding Bruiser Flint in Amherst — he beat out Fran McCaffery (then at UNC Greensboro) and Jim Larranaga (then at George Mason) for the job. But Lappas was never a fit in Amherst — the 16-12 record in 2004-05 was the high-water mark of his tenure, and home attendance averaged just 3,869 per game in his final year there.

3. Bruiser Flint (1997-01), 86-72 (.544), 2 NCAA tournaments — Flint was 30 years old when he was hired to succeed Calipari, who left for the New Jersey Nets two days after it was revealed UMass was under NCAA investigation for ex-star Marcus Camby’s acceptance of gifts from agents (the school vacated what remains the Atlantic 10’s lone Final Four appearance, but UMass did not incur a postseason ban). In the short term, Flint handled the transition well, guiding the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons. But the bottom fell out thereafter — Flint went 46-47 over his final three seasons and was dismissed. He would serve as Drexel’s head coach for the next 15 seasons (2002-16) and is now a member of Archie Miller’s staff at Indiana.

2. Derek Kellogg (2009-17), 155-137 (.531), 1 NCAA tournament — Kellogg, who played point guard on four NCAA tournament teams under Calipari at UMass (1992-95), returned to his alma mater after serving as an assistant under Calipari at Memphis for eight seasons. Kellogg seemed to get the program on track with three straight 20-win seasons from 2012-14 — the 2013-14 team went 24-9 and was a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament — but the Minutemen went 46-51 over his final three seasons, and Kellogg was fired. He resurfaced as the coach at LIU Brooklyn and immediately led the Blackbirds to the NCAA tournament in 2018.

1. Travis Ford (2006-08), 62-35 (.639) — Ford owns the best winning percentage of the post-Calipari era, owing to the fact that he had three pretty good (albeit NCAA tournament-less) seasons before bolting to Oklahoma State in April 2008. The highlight of the Ford era was the team’s 2008 march to the NIT final, where they lost to Ohio State. Ford has since returned to the Atlantic 10, coaching Saint Louis to a conference tournament title and NCAA berth this past season.

Roundtable: Will UMass ever matter again?

True or false: UMass basketball was only ever as big as John Calipari, and the days of this program being a perennial NCAA tournament team are never to return.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: True. Just look at the Minutemen’s success under Calipari, and the success under every other coach they’ve ever had. Calipari led them to five NCAA tournaments, five Atlantic 10 titles and one Final Four appearance. In the other 60-plus years of the NCAA tournament era, UMass went to four NCAA tournaments and won nine regular-season championships. All five of the Minutemen’s conference tournament titles came under Calipari. They’ve been to one NCAA tournament in the last 21 years. They weren’t close to an elite program before Calipari, and they haven’t been close to an elite program since Calipari.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: True. That program had an allure under Calipari. I remember when they won 26 in a row during the 1995-96 season. That was a wild year for the game. Kentucky had a stacked team that would win the national title. Allen Iverson averaged 25.0 PPG for John Thompson at Georgetown. Ray Allen and Tim Duncan were dominant that season, too. But I just remember Marcus Camby and UMass being the most important storyline that season, the team I tracked all year. Calipari did that. The stars aligned. But that was a special stretch that will probably not be duplicated.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: True! Fine, there’s an asterisk that leans heavily on the use of “ever.” Any program that can claim Julius Erving (1969-71) has at least one legitimate claim to fame that doesn’t involve Calipari. Still, even Dr. J never got to play in the NCAA tournament (despite averaging a 26-20 double-double over the course of two seasons in Amherst). If you’re looking for an era in which UMass consistently reached the big dance every year, Calipari in the 1990s is the only answer there.

Let’s consider an alternate universe in which John Calipari aspires to be Mark Few and stays at UMass in 1996 instead of looking for new challenges elsewhere. What are we saying about UMass’ place in college basketball today?

Borzello: Well, we would have to consider an alternate universe in which he never leaves. And if that’s the case, UMass is probably the East Coast Gonzaga, the Gonzaga of the Atlantic 10, consistently winning the league and staying near the top of the rankings. That said, Calipari and Mark Few have very different personalities, and it’s unlikely that alternate universe could ever have been remotely possible. But if it happened, I think the Minutemen are still a major factor on the national scene and competing for high-level recruits. Calipari has been successful at each of his college stops, and he’s followed a similar formula in terms of recruiting — it makes sense that he would have kept it rolling at UMass.

Gasaway: This should be the part where I say the only Gonzaga is Gonzaga, and that you can’t expect every program to chart the sport’s most spectacular and unexpected ascendance in the last 25 years. But here’s the thing about Calipari. He took UMass to the Final Four. He took Memphis to the Final Four, and by the time he left that job, he was landing talent like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and, let’s not forget, DeMarcus Cousins (who was set to be a Tiger until Calipari left for Kentucky). The best information we have for Calipari when he was outside the major conferences is that, given sufficient time, he was capable of achieving Gonzaga-type results wherever he went.

Medcalf: With that beautiful campus? UMass would be — and I’m not sure anyone else has mentioned this yet — kind of like Gonzaga. I was really impressed when I visited the UMass campus for the first time during the Derek Kellogg years. Then, an assistant coach told me, “All we have to do is get them on campus, and then we have them.” That wasn’t completely true, but I do believe Calipari would have sold his vision, the program and that school to the same five-star prospects he’s attracted throughout his run in college basketball.

Fill in the blanks: __________ could have been the answer at UMass if only __________ .

Borzello: Travis Ford if he didn’t leave for Oklahoma State. It’s almost process of elimination. Bruiser Flint really struggled his final three years in charge; Steve Lappas never got it going during his four seasons; Derek Kellogg had the most consistent success since Calipari, but it didn’t last; and Matt McCall hasn’t been able to turn things around yet. Ford didn’t make the NCAA tournament during his three seasons, but he went to the NIT final in 2008 and won 49 games his final two seasons in Amherst. Ford had his team playing an entertaining brand of basketball in 2007 and 2008; he’s since recruited successfully at Oklahoma State and Saint Louis, and it’s logical that the next step for him at UMass would have been the NCAA tournament.

Gasaway: What Borzello said. Ford gave the program the best two-season run it’s had this century, even if an NCAA tournament berth didn’t happen in either 2007 or 2008. When Ford left for Oklahoma State, he was only 38, and his teams in Amherst were known for playing the kind of crowd-pleasing, fast-paced style that every new coach says he’ll implement. The trend line was very clearly going in the right direction for the Minutemen. Ford could have been the answer if only he didn’t jump to Stillwater.

Medcalf: Borzello and Gasaway are both right: The answer is Travis Ford. But I also think Derek Kellogg has a case here. He won 70 games in three years before he lost the momentum. Chaz Williams was a breakout star for the program, although his high usage seemed to frustrate teammates who complained about leadership issues within the program. The season after Williams graduated, however, UMass was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country and transitioned from a top-50 defense to a squad that failed to crack the top 100. I guess I just wonder what might have been had Kellogg enjoyed more success that year and led his team to another NCAA tournament appearance. He certainly had an opportunity to succeed there.

What is the practical ceiling for this program, and what’s the formula for getting there?

Medcalf: Well, the Minutemen have had four consecutive losing seasons, they haven’t won a conference title in more than a decade and they’ve been to one NCAA tournament in 21 years. They’ve had some positive stretches and 20-win seasons, but I feel their practical ceiling is this: Every 5 to 10 years, they might compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament. No guarantees of that. But it’s possible. Molding this program into a perennial tourney team seems like a pipe dream based on recent results. Even with Ford, this team didn’t go to the NCAA tournament.

Borzello: Well, what’s the practical ceiling for the best programs in the Atlantic 10? VCU has been to the NCAA tournament in eight of the last nine seasons (six out of seven as a member of the A-10). Outside of the Rams, much of the recent success in the league has been coach-specific. Dayton went to four NCAA tournaments in a row under Archie Miller but hasn’t returned in two seasons under Anthony Grant. Dan Hurley brought Rhode Island to two consecutive NCAA tournaments, but it had been 18 years since that program’s previous appearance. But why can’t UMass be more consistently successful than, say, St. Bonaventure?

The Minutemen need to do it by winning recruiting wars for New England prep school kids and dipping into New York for prospects. Much has been made about St. John’s not keeping kids home; can UMass go and take advantage? I don’t know if any Atlantic 10 team outside of VCU — and perhaps Bob McKillop’s Davidson — is going to be an every-year NCAA tournament contender, but UMass shouldn’t be this far behind the next tier.

Gasaway: I do think VCU is the model here, and the best part about using the Rams as an exemplar is the “practical” part of the “practical ceiling.” The program in Richmond has been really, really good since joining the Atlantic 10 (and before), but it’s not like Virginia Commonwealth has dominated the league annually over that time. Nevertheless, the Rams have been to eight of the last nine NCAA tournaments. Most importantly, VCU has achieved its success while cycling through coaches the whole time, from Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant to Shaka Smart and Will Wade. Make good, smart hires, and a VCU-level of success can follow.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: UNLV

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