Situation has air of emptiness
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 1/24/2000

Just for a moment, let's play a hypothetical game.

Let's say the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team qualifies by finishing .500 or better and is chosen for the NIT. At 9-8, this is the most realistic goal right now, if not the loftiest.

That would give Bruiser Flint two NCAA tournaments and one NIT in four years. For most programs, that's not only not bad, it's quite good.

But UMass is not like most programs, and last week exposed what may be Flint's biggest obstacle at the moment. It's not basketball, which is at least somewhat in his control, but economics, which is not.

Against Dayton, UMass drew 4,835 fans, a Mullins Center record low. The Rhode Island game drew 5,050, a slight rise due mostly to the fact that Rhody brought a few fans, as well as a terrible team.

UMass beat Rhode Island by 39, and if not for 11 horrible second-half minutes against Dayton, we'd be talking about a four-game winning streak now. So here's the question: if UMass makes the NIT, but not the NCAA field, is that enough to save Flint?

Before the season, I'd have said yes. Now, I'm not so sure.

The concept of a college coach losing his job on revenue issues bothers me deeply, even in Division I. I know this is an antiquated attitude that ignores economic reality, but ideally, these people are coaches of young athletes, not entertainment shills or fund-raisers.

If Flint, who has the integrity often lacking in big-time sports, is doomed by cash register considerations, I'd understand it. But it would still bother me, assuming the team was playing well enough to defend his coaching.

Lately, though, the debate has shifted somewhat from basketball to finance. Flint's contract has two years left, and UMass would hate to eat it.

But 4,500 empty seats, with tickets $20 each, represent a theoretical loss (affected by student tickets and other variables) of $90,000 per game. Season ticket sales also dropped by a reported 1,200 customers this year.

For a school without Division I-A football for revenue, that's a killer. If donors and fans want Flint out, it may be economically difficult to keep him, even if there is a late winning streak.

There are five home games left. Temple and Texas should draw well, and George Washington normally does, too. But unless UMass gets very, very hot, there's not much time to reverse the perception that this team is not worth watching, even if it is.

Unreliable basketball is the main reason crowds have plummeted, a fact made clear by UMass associate athletic director Bill Strickland, who refused to accept intersession or bad weather as excuses. Strickland was only repeating what athletic director Bob Marcum has said, which is that in order to remain popular, a team must win.

Those words, uttered at this time, seemed almost more chilling than the weather. The message sounded clear: no more excuses.

There are other reasons the crowds have dwindled. One is that the woods are filled with longtime season ticket-holders who still resent feeling shunted aside and moved to worse seats when UMass owned the market.

But basketball is the main issue, and Marcum says Flint will be judged on the full season. It's seemed obvious that if UMass didn't win, he was in trouble.

The crowd figures suggest he's in trouble anyway, even if UMass wins enough to make the NIT, but not the NCAA. Marcum hasn't tipped his hand, but he may face a hard economic decision even if Flint's final record is decent.

The doubters are legion, but other than the second half against Dayton, the last four games imply that Flint still has time to win. The next question may be whether winning will be enough, if nobody shows up to watch.

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