As I watch my favorite basketball team push through another slightly-above mediocre season, I can’t help but wonder; what the hell happened to UMass basketball?
Anyone who grew up around here (Worcester MA) in the 90’s can tell you about UMass Madness. What wasn’t to love? During a 5 year streak in the early 90’s they made 3 sweet 16’s, including their infamous final 4 run in the 95-96 season. In 1995, led by All-American Lou Roe, they nearly made the Final Four, but ran into Big Country Reeves and Oklahoma State. During the 1995-95 season they were the #1 ranked team for most of the year, earning a #1 seed in the tournament. They were led by National Player of the Year Marcus Camby, who was being paid the entire time. But hey if you want to recruit Connecticut players away from UConn, sometimes you have to look the other way.
UMass in the 90’s was known for 3 things: partying, basketball and babes. You couldn’t ask for a better recruiting pitch. The Final 4 run was a major reason I went to UMass. It was the most entertaining 4 years of my life, and most of it was a blur. Whenever the Yankees lost or won, or the Red Sox or Patriots lost or won, there were guaranteed riots in the Southwest residential area. Hell they’ll even riot for political purposes, like when Osama bin Laden was killed. Usually they were broken up by riot police, but sometimes you’d get a show, like in 2003 when the infamous “DC jumper” broke his legs by jumping off the dining hall to elude the police. The infamous Hobart Hodown is no longer, but apparently it has been replaced by the Townhouses Beer Olympics, which looks more organized, and with less fighting, but still fun.
I grew up assuming that UMass was the same type of program as Duke, Kentucky, or Kansas. Turns out I was way, way off. So what the hell happened? There’s no easy answer to this question, but here’s my major problems with the Minutemen.
They dropped the ball when Calipari left.
- Calipari is by far the greatest thing that ever happened to the University of Massachusetts. I don’t care if they produce five future Presidents and a Nobel Prize Winner. Calipari will still be better. He took one of college basketball’s worst teams of the 1980’s and within 3 years had them in the sweet 16. Despite the fact that he was a shady bastard with no morals he was awesome. You know you’re a good coach when you can get John Chaney to threaten to kill you in a room fool of reporters. You know you’ve really got under someone’s skin when they tell you that they’ll “tell my kid to hit yo kid in the f%&$king mouth.”
- Love him or hate him, Calipari is amongst the best at his job. The man can recruit and he’s got a unique angle that most college coaches are afraid to come out and say: “School is stupid. I’m going to get you to the NBA where you can make real money.” Oh yea, and he follows through on his promises. He’s been the head coach at Kentucky for 3 years. All they’ve done is win a national championship and put 15 players in the NBA. I don’t care; I love this about Calipari. He realizes that these kids have a small window of time to make as much money as they can before their skills dry up or they get hurt. He uses Kentucky or Memphis or UMass as a vehicle for these kids to go pro. They benefit. The school wins. So what’s so wrong about that?
- The Nets offered Calipari the world. After turning down a $25 million offer in 1996 to become their General Manager, he instead took them up on their 5-year $15 million contract to be the head coach of the most disgraceful franchise in the NBA. Could UMass match that? I don’t care what their finances were at the time; you pay the man whatever he wants!!!! The amount of revenue someone like Calipari brings to your programs is well worth it. A high profile coach like Calipari would bring in much more generous donations from alumni. A winning team would pack the Mullins Center for every home game, instead of the 3,000 or so that attend most games. Led of course by UMass’s biggest fans, Brian Long, 98.5’s Marc the Beetle Bertrand, and the “sign guy”.
- So what did they do after Calipari left? What did they do with their high profile but temporary status amongst college basketball’s elite? Did they use this position to go and poach an established winner from another major program? Nope. They just hired the next guy in line who was there the longest: Bruiser Flint. Flint’s record as a head coach before taking the job? 0-0. His experience? Assistant Coach at UMass and Coppin State. THE Coppin State. This was the moment they blew it.
- Within 5 years of Bruiser taking over at UMass, they were a .500 team. Sixty percent of their starting 5 my freshmen year at UMass played for South Boston High School or Everett High. Once you start recruiting this heavily in a state not known for producing basketball players you know you’re not going anywhere.
- Bruiser obviously had to go. But UMass could have survived this. After all the Patriots made the Super Bowl the same year UMass made the Final 4, lost their big name coach (Bill Parcells), hired a huge clown (Pete Carroll), fired him and went and got the greatest coach of the modern era (Bill Belicek). Maybe UMass could do the same?
- So they fired Flint, and replaced him with…….Steve Lappas? WTF?? There is no bigger loser in college basketball than Steve Lappas. Some guys may suck and don’t last long, but Lappas had excellent longevity at sucking. His experience? Head coach at Manhattan College with a 56-62 record. No NCAA tournaments. Somehow he used this to get a coaching job at Villanova, which he kept for 9 years despite a 174-110 record, and no sweet 16’s. I remember thinking; this is what the legendary UMass program has come to? Villanova’s trash? As a sophomore at UMass I could pretty much give up on the idea that I’d ever get to be a part of big time college basketball after they signed Lappas. In 4 years the lone highlight of the Lappas era was their upset defeat of UCONN.
- After 13-16, 11-18, 16-12 and 10-19 seasons, the disgraced Lappas was terminated. His successor? Campbellsville and Eastern Kentucky’s finest Travis Ford!!! Granted, unlike Lappas at least Ford wasn’t a proven loser. He just wasn’t proven at all. In 3 seasons he had built the program into at least a respectable bubble team. Then he left to go to the Institution of Higher Learning commonly known as Oklahoma State. I don’t know anything about their academic standards but I see what comes out of that school and I assume they’ll let any idiot in there. Joey Graham? John Lucas? Bryant “Big Country” Reeves? John Starks? Robin Ventura? Darrent Williams? Dez Bryant? The list goes on and on. Can’t say I blame Ford for leaving. If I were in his shoes my priority would be to play for a school that has the lowest academic standards and the biggest desire to sell their souls to win.
- The jury is out on Derek Kellogg. I was really hoping that this would be the year that they established themselves as a top 25-team after returning almost the entire roster from last year’s NIT semi-finalist team. So far this year it looks like more of the same; sitting on the bubble and whining when we don’t get in in March.
My beef with the players
It’s not the player’s fault that they suck. These aren’t blue-chip prospects. These are guys from South Boston and Baltimore that don’t have better offers.
Why can’t UMass get guys like, I don’t know…Jimmer Freddette?? Jimmer was the NCAA Player of the Year, so he must have been heavily recruited right? Nope. Jimmer got offers from UMass, Marshall, Utah, Sacramento State and BYU. And he chose the school where an honor code prevents players from drinking alcohol, having sex with their girlfriends or drinking coffee. Oh yea, and he grew up in upstate New York, only an hour away from Amherst!!!
So UMass can’t compete with BYU for players? Seriously? BYU has an honor code that doesn’t let you drink coffee or have any fun. UMass’s only code is “smoke if you’ve got em”.
Even here in Worcester we had better players than UMass has had. Michael Bradley scored 37 points a game for Burncoat and led them to the State Championship game. Rick Pitino came to Worcester 3 times to watch him play. Apparently Bruiser Flint was happy with Micah Brand because he never showed up once. All Bradley did was go on to win a National Championship for Pitino at Kentucky, then transfer to Villanova (where he played for Lappas), win Big East player of the year and get drafted by the Raptors with the 17th overall pick in the NBA draft.
As a UMass student my only interaction with the players was in the Berkshire Dining Hall and in Theater 100 class. These clowns acted like idiots and were obviously placed in Theater 100 because it’s the only class they could pass. Now I don’t have a problem with dumb jocks, as long as they win.
And what’s with the T-shirts? This to me is something I just cannot get over. FSR (for some reason) it has become a UMass thing to wear a t-shirt under your jersey. There is nothing less intimidating than a player who wears a t-shirt under their jersey. The anorexic ones like Raphael Putney I kind of understand, but Gary Forbes? If I was a 6’ 8” jacked African-American man the last thing I would wanna do is hide the guns!!! Come on MAN!!!! At least if we’re going to disappoint every year let’s try to look like winners!!
There have been so many disappointing players at UMass in the last 15 years that I don’t know where to begin. Here are the biggest undershirt-wearing clowns I remember though:
- Shannon Crooks. Never heard of him? No worries, he was only a 3-year starter!!! And his freshmen year? He “played” for St. John’s averaging less than 2 points a game. So of course UMass had to go out and get him. Everybody knows undersized point guards who aren’t fast and can’t shoot are the building blocks of championships.
- Jackie Rogers. Unless you are a fan of Barton County Community College in Kansas, you probably never heard of him either. Once again, only a 3-year starter!!
- Raheim Lamb. I saw him play at the Worcester Centrum in 2000 when he was a senior at Boston English in the State Championship game against St. John’s (Shrewsbury). Central Mass teams just aren’t supposed to win these games. Instead, led by Orlando General Manager Robbie Hennigan, Boston English got upset. I knew from that moment on that Raheim was a loser. At least he wasn’t wearing a t-shirt under his jersey then. Then he shows up and was a starter at UMass, complete with the t-shirt. Oh yea, and he was terrible too.
- Kyle Wilson. Steve Nash is an undersized white guard from Canada. That must have been the logic when Lappas brought in this clown. After establishing himself as the best high school player in British Columbia, Lappas decided that he was the next Carmelo Travieso. He was terrible for 2 years before he transferred to San Jose State where he continued to be terrible. FSR he was also married with children during his freshmen year. If you were married with kids why on earth would you go to UMass?
- Jeff Viggiano. Viggiano was the finest player Suffield CT had to offer. He was a classic post-Camby player; undersized and unathletic. I’ll give him a break since he at least cut the sleeves off of his undershirt.
- Matt Glass. New rule: no more recruiting players from Vermont. Another new rule: if you are competing with Ivy League schools for a player then it’s time to start doing shadier things to recruit players. Glass had 2 lasting memories at UMass. 1) Of his 129 career shots, 111 of them were form 3-point range. 2) He set a really good screen once against URI. Now that was a legendary screen right there!!!
- Anthony Gurley. I really liked Gurley and wanted him to do well. And he did. After transferring from Wake Forest after his freshmen year he had a pretty solid career at UMass. The problem? He was our leading scorer by his senior year. As much as I was rooting for him, the fact that he was our leading scorer wasn’t a good thing. Would he be the leading scorer for a top-25 school? Nope. I also couldn’t stand that despite not wearing an undershirt at Newton North High School, he felt the need to wear it at UMass.
I could go on and on about all the UMass players who have disappointed me. I hope we get back to the tournament and start recruiting real Division 1 players. It all starts with the t-shirts though.
Feel free to share your thoughts about any players that have disappointed you. (t-shirt guys preferable)