Magic's missing for Flint
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News Staff Writer, 12/17/1998

For some time now, people have been encouraging me to rip into Bruiser Flint, whose team took another header Tuesday at Villanova.

But the holidays are a time for both honesty and compassion, so I'll tell you. Knocking Flint is easier said than done, not just because you won't find a finer man than he, but because many people look at this as his third straight disappointing year, and I don't think the other two were all that bad.

This one has been crummy, though, and the University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach, who has alternately called his players awful and urged them to have more fun, has come up short in the most challenging, intangible part of his craft. He hasn't been able to push the right motivational buttons to make them go, which he knows all too well.

What's more dramatic is that we are witnessing an absolute motivational genius across campus in football coach Mark Whipple, who took a 2-9 team, found a quarterback and a couple of other key guys, and said his goal was a national title.

That was treated the way you'd treat a cute remark from a little boy. But Saturday, Whipple's team is playing for the keys to the I-AA kingdom, and Flint's team will play before a skeptical audience that may spend more time talking about how Marcel Shipp did than how Lari Ketner is doing.

Why? Because for all of Whipple's jazzy offensive plays, the key is that he's taken up residence inside his players' heads. They are convinced nothing is impossible. Flint's guys seem convinced nothing good is probable.

I would lambaste Flint on this, except for one thing. I don't know how it's done, either. I don't know how Whipple or John Calipari, two geniuses at it, do it - only that they do, and that it's magical to watch.

I do know it's why hardly anybody thinks Whipple, whose contract allows him to walk away at no buyout cost, will be here beyond 1999. And it's why Flint's two-year contract extension was not universally cheered by the masses.

He's turned it around before with his basketball team, though. Doing it again is not about whether the bench should play more (it should), or whether UMass should remember its promise of up-tempo play (it should), or whether the offense could diversify (it could). Just as the football team's glory is not just the result of a new playbook.

It's about getting into those shaved heads of theirs and making them believers. Flint is only 33 but the younger generation often baffles him, and he no longer has Tyrone Weeks, wise beyond his years, as a valuable conduit linking players to their coaches.

Whipple's team is given no chance Saturday, but believes it can win. Flint's team should win Saturday, but may not.

I don't know how coaches push the right buttons of young guys who are nice (maybe too nice) but also a bit flaky. But I'm not getting about $400,000 a year to do it, either. Flint seems equally bewildered, and that worries me because it's still worth rooting for a man of such principle to succeed.

Whipple, another man of principle, is succeeding so well that you have to think he'll be gone soon. Flint risks being around long enough to endure more criticism as the monarch of a fading empire.

There's plenty of time to turn it around this season, but it's no longer about strategy. It's about changing the thought process, and I don't know how that's done, only that it's been done at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, and that guy is busy right now. But if anybody else knows, there's a coach at Mullins Center who might not mind being let in on the secret.

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