ruiser Flint says he knew years ago that to some fans in Massachusetts, whatever he did would not be enough.
"In my first year as head coach (1996-97), we came back from a bad start and made the NCAA tournament," says Flint, the embattled University of Massachusetts coach whose job security has dominated almost all discussion of a team that takes an 8-7 record (2-1 in the Atlantic 10) into Thursday night's home game against Dayton. "And some people were still not happy. That's when I knew that some of them would never be pleased."
Based on sheer numbers, what Flint has done at UMass looks more than adequate, considering that not only did he follow the incredible John Calipari act in Amherst, but did so under a giant recruiting handicap. The Minutemen reached the Final Four in 1996, Calipari's last season, then worried for months about getting thrown on NCAA probation after star center Marcus Camby's premature dealings with agents -- which caused the official Final Four recognition to be stricken from the books - were uncovered months before Flint had coached his first game.
In the end, the penalties were mostly found in the forfeiture of NCAA tournament revenue, but the program had been tarnished, and it's never been the same. Even so, Flint reached the NCAA tournament in both 1997 and 1998 before UMass slipped to 14-16 last year, missing the NCAA field for the first time eight years failing to reach any postseason play of any kind for the first time in 10.
Known for a brutal non-conference schedule, UMass toned it down a bit this year, but was still lurching along at 6-7 until impressive wins over Fordham (82-52) and on the road at St. Joseph's (73-69) partly quieted the regional outcry over the demise of the program. But Flint, still only 34 years old, knows he cannot be sure his fourth season as UMass coach won't also be his last.
"You can't worry about that sort of thing, or you'll go crazy," he said. "But it's the climate of the 90s, too. The minute people aren't happy, they want change."
Critics of Flint say it goes beyond the most common defense of his program -- that Calipari lifted UMass so high and so fast that it created ridiculously high expectations for a program that showcased Julius Erving 30 years ago, but went 91-212 from 1978-89. Flint was Calipari's assistant for seven years before being hired when the New York Nets wooed Calipari away in June of 1996 with a five-year, $15 million contract.
Since February of 1998, UMass is 23-27, even including the modest two-game winning streak. The recruiting successes that had occurred under Calipari haven't materialized, either, with freshman center Micah Brand potentially the best of what has been an admittedly mediocre recent crop.
The fans have responded by staying away in droves, a crucial economic matter to a school that does not play Division I-A football and relies on men's basketball to make money for the athletic department. UMass sold out nearly 50 home games in a row during the mid-1990s, but this year's average attendance has been 5,680 in a 9,493-seat building. The 5,092 for the Jan. 8 Fordham game was just 14 more than the seven-year arena's all-time low.
The university says alumni donations, perhaps surprisingly, have remained fairly steady, but the same amount of revenue has come from fewer sources. The unmistakeable feeling is that Flint will definitely be gone if UMass misses postseason play altogether, and may be dismissed even if UMass makes the NIT, which right now is the more realistic goal.
Athletic director Bob Marcum, however, publicly says that Flint has time to solidify his status, though Marcum does not say that the coach is safe.
"This is a program of high expectations," Marcum said last week. "There's a preseason, a regular season and a postseason. That gives plenty of opportunities, and these are our coaches and players, and I'm here to support them."
The best publicity for Flint, ironically, came when he made one of his most glaring mistakes. After a 65-55 home loss to Marshall Nov. 29, he was so upset that he uttered a one-word profanity on his live, postgame radio show -- then suspended himself for one game as punishment, an unprecedented move that attracted national interest and praise for a man who believed there was still a place for accountability and civility in sports.
"If one of my players had done it, I'd have punished him the same way," Flint said. "I'm not a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do type of guy. And I have a young daughter at home who is just starting to repeat what she hears. I didn't want to send the type of message I was afraid I was sending."
Flint was not docked any pay for suspending himself for the 70-51 UMass win over Boston University. But his sincerity on the issue was unquestioned, and spotlighted his sense of personal integrity that even his critics do not deny, even as they demand more victories.
As for the record, Flint's success or failure so far depends somewhat on how his first two years were interpreted. In 1996-97, his first team got off to a 6-9 start and struggled to replace the entire front line of the Final Four team (Camby, Donta Bright and Dana Dingle). The Minutemen rebounded later in the season with an 11-1 tear and finished 19-14, losing to Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
His second year was better, but left a worse taste at the end. UMass was 20-7 at one point and finished 21-11, but lost an ugly 51-46 first-round NCAA tournament game to Saint Louis. That outcome created grumbling that not only were the Minutemen unreliable in big games but were hurting themselves with a hideous offense that was hard to watch.
But the real fallout came last year, when UMass slipped below .500 for the first time in a decade and also showed cracks from within. Forward Ajmal Basit, at one time a highly-recruited big man, was kicked off the team in February -- causing Basit's high school coach, Bob Hurley of St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J., to say that Flint was too young to provide proper guidance for teenage kids.
Center Lari Ketner was a huge disappointment, and the offense was again plodding and predictable. There were losses to Marshall by 22, Iona at home by 19, and Davidson at home in overtime after UMass had led by 15 at halftime. The worst may have been a home loss to Fordham -- the Rams' only road victory in 32 Atlantic 10 games during their first four years in the league. And a costly technical foul with 40 seconds left to Flint, who had been ejected from two games during his first season, sealed the outcome.
But even last season, the Minutemen found the old magic at times with wins over Xavier, Kansas and Temple. With lowered expectations this season, the Minutemen planned a more crowd-pleasing, up-tempo offense and pressing defense, but only recently have they begun to reap dividends from it.
Flint says comparing this year's team to last year's is unfair to the current group.
"The wheels aren't coming off," he insisted after a 70-60 home loss to St. Bonaventure Jan. 6. "Last year's group wasn't a team. These guys are a team, and it's a crew I enjoy being around. They won't quit, and I'll tell you, we'll be fine."
Since then, UMass has won both games it's played, and Flint received a not-so-surprising endorsement Sunday from Calipari, who some UMass fans hope will return to Amherst, though the current Philadelphia 76ers assistant is being heavily courted by Memphis and has never shown interest in a second tour at UMass.
"UMass fans are spoiled," Calipari said. "They have a great nucleus there that could improve with time. And in Bruiser Flint, they have a terrific person who is also a terrific coach."
Even that endorsement won't quiet the critics, who not only think Flint mishandles the current players, but aren't confident he can bring in the quality talent required to play a Top 25 schedule that fans came to expect in the mid-1990s. Next year's signed recruits include 6-7 Raheim Lamb of Boston and 6-4 Jameel Pugh of Sacramento, Calif.. Pugh is considered a terrific leaper and dunker with a high upside.
A Syracuse transfer, 6-8 Eric Williams, will also become eligible and give UMass a true power forward the Minutemen currently lack, although 6-6, 228-pound Chris Kirkland has grown into the role. But Flint has yet to sign a shooter or a point guard, which his legion of critics use as another indication that all the momentum of the Calipari years has been squandered. The detractors maintain that staying with Flint risks a return to the depressing losing years of the 1980s.
In December of 1998, Marcum extended Flint's original four-year contract another two years, which means that Flint is signed through 2002. As a state employee, he earns approximately $140,000 in base salary, which is hardly sensational for a program that aspires to reside in the upper levels of the sport. However, his perks and benefits boost his total earnings to an estimated $400,00 a year.
Flint enters the Dayton game with a career record of 62-48, two NCAA Tournament appearances (but no victories) in three seasons and a chance reach the NIT this season. A third NCAA berth in four years would seem to make it hard to let him go with two years remaining on his contract, though the economics of falling ticket sales and a weakening alumni donation base do not work on his behalf.
On the plus side, UMass basketball has been spotlessly clean under Flint, who even offered to help Basit find a new school after he kicked the 6-9 junior off the team in a disciplinary move. Basit wound up at Delaware, but Flint has been acclaimed as a coach who truly cares about graduation rates and personal development of his players, not only during their careers but also afterward.
Those qualities, however, no longer seem enough to save him. Only a hot second-half run might do that.
"I don't have any gray hairs yet," he says with a wry smile, "and if I don't have them by now, I never will." The coach who came after an impossible act to follow is determined to remain standing at the end -- knowing that to more than a few UMass fans, his best will never be considered good enough.