On June 8, 1996, James "Bruiser" Flint received the word that all assistant coaches crave to hear: He had been named head basketball coach. That was the good news. The bad news was that the rookie coach and his University of Massachusetts team would face a daunting schedule.
Virginia, California, Georgetown, Fresno State, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Connecticut, Boston College and Maryland were the high-caliber foes on the regular-season schedule. Was this any way for Flint, then, at 31, the second-youngest head coach in the country, to launch his new career?
For another dose of "welcome to the big time, son," Flint inherited a program from magnetic coach John Calipari. Calipari, months earlier, had brought UMass to its first-ever Final Four. And now the fans, with a taste of success, expected a winner.
Despite the challenges, Flint was undaunted by the task ahead. While the skeptics questioned his ability to coach a team that had risen to haughty levels under Calipari, Flint never questioned his own aptitude to mold a team that would soon play a new brand of hoops known as "Bruiser Ball."
For sure, Bruiser Flint's first year at the helm wasn't easy -- far from it. With the departure of Marcus Camby, Donta Bright and Dana Dingle, the dominating Minutemen frontcourt that had won four straight Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament championships and played in four straight NCAA tournaments, was ripe for exploitation.
Flint knew that opponents would be salivating at the chance for payback time. It was imminent. And the Minutemen did struggle with a youthful and inexperienced frontcourt and an oft-injured backcourt. UMass took its lumps -- albeit competitively -- in November and December, and on Jan. 14, 1997 owned a 6-9 record. The media showed little mercy and labeled the squad "just an average New England basketball team now that Calipari is off coaching the NBA's New Jersey Nets."
But on Jan. 14, Flint would put the naysayers to rest. He made a seemingly simple roster adjustment, inserting sophomore Charlton Clarke into the starting lineup with seniors Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso. With better precision -- not to mention better care of the basketball -- the Minutemen defeated a tough St. Bonaventure team 63-59 on the road with that three-prong guard lineup.
A rejuvenated Flint team then won 11 of its next 12 games and 13 of the final 18 contests to earn what seemed impossible on Jan. 14: An NCAA tournament bid. Along the way, the Minutemen had disposed of 10th-ranked Maryland, 19th-ranked Boston College and pulled off sweeps over Atlantic 10 rivals Temple and Rhode Island.
Finishing with a 19-14 record after the loss to Louisville in the NCAA tournament, Flint had become the winningest first-year coach in school history. So much for the skeptics.
From a scheduling standpoint, nothing changed for Flint in year two. His still-youthful team would continue the credo, "any team, any time, any place," and played only 10 of 32 games inside the friendly confines of the Mullins Center. Fresno State, Purdue, Marshall, Kansas, Boston College, Colorado, Connecticut, Cincinnati and UNC Charlotte dotted the UMass landscape.
Once again Flint navigated the roads with precision turns. That's not to say the trip didn't have its dips and peaks, but Flint orchestrated another torrid early winter that resulted in 10 straight wins, The streak virtually secured a second-straight NCAA tournament appearance for the young coach.
In early March, Flint and the team got official word that their 21-10 record was indeed good enough for the NCAA's. After the season, Flint was named District I Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). The honor was considerable, especially when you consider Rhode Island's Jim Harrick and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun (two coaches that were one win from the Final Four) are in Flint's district.
In typical Bruiser fashion, he was low-key about an award that took his predecessor eight years to earn.
You can trace his easy-going, friendly manner to his youth. Although he was born and raised in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood, Flint kept at bay everything that was bad and wrong around him. And while he saw those close to him trapped in city hazards, he maintained a clear and straight path, one that would lead him to star as a guard at both Episcopal Academy and then at St. Joseph's University.
He concluded his prep career second on the Inter-Academic Conference's all-time scoring and assist list. At St. Joe's, Flint finished his career fifth on the all-time assist list and was a second-team All-Atlantic 10 selection.
He played in a pair of NIT tournaments and NCAA tournaments as a collegian. This past April he was inducted into his alma mater's Hall of Fame.
As a coach, Flint certainly paid his dues. He served as an assistant coach at Coppin State in Baltimore for two years before joining Calipari's staff for the 1989-90 campaign. He had been an assistant and then associate coach for seven glorious Minutemen seasons (two NITs, five NCAAs) and was ripe for a head coaching job. In fact, in 1995 Eastern Basketball magazine had tabbed him as a "can't-miss" head coach candidate. And by no coincidence that same year, he was a finalist for the head job at St. Joseph's and at Boston-based Northeastern University.
Now beginning his third season in Amherst, Flint has firmly placed his imprint on the program. The attacking, high-energy -- and constantly thinking -- player at St. Joe's has incorporated the same style into UMass basketball.
And the passion he has for the game hasn't subsided. It's swelled as time moves on. The House that Cal Built has now become the Home of Bruiser Ball. And as that catch phrase continues to travel through the country, they won't be words that opponents are anxious to hear.