MHERST -- The cover of this season's UMass basketball media guide reads: “Refuse to Lose, the Tradition Continues.”
That's stretching the truth.
John Calipari's copyrighted motto fit while he coached UMass to the NCAA Final Four four years ago, but these days the Minutemen are losing games, fans, respect and money.
After suffering through the program's first losing season (14-16) in a decade last year, the Minutemen are struggling to stay above .500 again this season. A three-game win streak has boosted their record to 11-8, but their next two games will be difficult home assignments against two nationally ranked teams, Temple on Tuesday and Texas on Saturday.
Prior to the 1997-98 season, UMass had sold out 46 consecutive games at the 9,493-seat Mullins Center. Over its last four home games, UMass has drawn four of the five smallest crowds in the arena's seven-year history. Despite a two-game win streak, UMass drew an all-time low 4,835 fans for its home loss to first-place Dayton 10 days ago.
“The thing that upsets me,” UMass coach Bruiser Flint said after the team's last home game against Rhode Island, “is that after one tough season we lose all the fans. If that's the case, what type of fans do you really have?”
UMass athletic director Bob Marcum knows the answer. “I've said it several times,” Marcum said, “people don't come to watch you play, they come to watch you win.”
Season-ticket sales are down at least 1,200 from a year ago and athletic fund membership has fallen off by 1,000, according to Marcum. Donations to the athletic department by season-ticket holders are no longer necessary to secure good seats.
Television money and exposure have dropped markedly, as well. When Flint replaced Calipari as coach for the 1996-97 season, every UMass game was televised, 19 of them nationally. This year, only 17 of their 29 games were scheduled to be televised, just seven nationally.
Boston's WBZ-AM (1030), one of the most powerful radio stations in the East, no longer carries UMass games and WBZ-TV has dropped Flint's television show. The UMass radio network had 20 stations entering Flint's first season. Five broadcast the Rhode Island game last weekend.
So it should come as no surprise that earlier this month Sports Illustrated claimed, “no coach is on a hotter seat than Bruiser Flint.”
Sophomore guard Shannon Crooks said the team feels it must finish strongly to protect Flint's job. The three-game win streak is a step in the right direction.
“The pressure is there,” Crooks said after UMass beat Rhode Island last Sunday. “We're hearing things. We try to block them out, but you do hear them and they stay with us. We're trying our hardest not to put him in that position. There's only so much he can do. He can't play the games for us. I think people might be a little hard on him. We're the ones who have to step up and make it happen.”
When asked recently if Flint was, in fact, on the hot seat, Marcum replied, “I don't comment on things like that in regards to coaches during the season.”
When asked what kind of job he thought Flint was doing, Marcum answered: “You really don't have to ask that question. Just look at our record. The coaches aren't pleased with it, the players aren't pleased with it, and the fans aren't pleased with it. How could anyone say that they like what's going on?”
Flint said he has felt the heat ever since he replaced Calipari, but insists he doesn't worry about his future. He has 2.5 years left on his contract, which Marcum extended prior to last season.
“Bob has always been good to me,” Flint said. “I can't complain about that. He's the reason I'm here. He hired me. He's been supportive.”
“I think he's dealing with it well,” Crooks said of Flint. “He goes into every game prepared. He doesn't get down after one loss. He just keeps going, keeps smiling. He doesn't let it show that it's bothering him. He's just trying to do his job until the end.”
“All of us have a lot of confidence in Bruiser,” Marcum said, “and we've demonstrated that confidence over the years.”
Flint, however, admits he feels added pressure to fill seats because the athletic department counts upon the men's basketball program to subsidize many of the school's athletic programs. The football team won the Division 1-AA national championship in 1998, but it continues to lose money.
“There's no doubt the men's basketball program is our premier producer,” Marcum said. “We'll have to have some help financially if the revenues are down.”
Sellouts are also needed because the university pays $11,000 in rent for every home game and $600 each practice at the Mullins Center, which is owned by the school university but run by an outside company.
“Everybody says we're losing money and things like that,” Flint said. “So what you're saying is you've got to win 25 games a year to keep it going. That's ridiculous.”
Flint coached the Minutemen into the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons, but UMass lost 25 games in those years, one fewer than the previous five seasons combined under Calipari. They also lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in each of those years. Calipari was 5-0 in first-round NCAA Tournament games.
Then the roof caved in last year when Lari Ketner had one of the most disappointing seasons ever by a preseason All-American. Flint admits some of his players quit on him. Forward Ajmal Basit was thrown off the team.
Better chemistry and more victories were expected this season. While the team has improved its record, the schedule isn't as tough as it used to be. There is no North Carolina, Kansas or Maryland. UMass lost to the only ranked team it faced, UConn.
A consistent Top 25 program under Calipari and ranked No. 1 for much of the 1995-96 season, UMass hasn't been ranked under Flint since the 1998-99 preseason poll.
Expectations of returning to the Final Four may have been unrealistic, but UMass hasn't even reached the final four of the Atlantic 10 Tournament under Flint after winning the event the previous five years under Calipari.
“I don't think the coaches or anyone else associated with our program thought we would drop off this far,” Marcum said.
Marcum said the beauty of college basketball is that every team gets a second chance in its conference tournament. “There is still plenty of opportunity left,” he said.
“There are a lot of expectations because of the past,” Crooks said. “Sometimes people get caught up in that and we come out wanting to be something we're not. We're not the Final Four team. We're our own team. Everybody has to realize that.”
Few people know UMass basketball as well as Jack Leaman. He's the winningest coach in UMass basketball history and in his sixth season as the team's radio analyst. Leaman has his own opinion on whether Flint deserves to be on the hot seat.
“It all depends what you put him on the hot seat for,” Leaman said. “If you put him on for recruiting, that might be OK, but he's doing a good job coaching. They're in every game.”
UMass plays terrific defense and rebounds well, but it struggles to score. Leaman thinks the Minutemen simply don't have enough good players.
“They need a good recruiting class, maybe two, to get back in the running,” Leaman said. “It's a tough place to recruit. That's why I'm out of coaching.”
There's no question that in recruiting, UMass failed to take advantage of reaching the Final Four, but that may not have been all Flint's fault.
Due to Marcus Camby's improper contact with an agent, UMass was forced to vacate its Final Four appearance and forfeit its Final Four money, but the school was not placed on probation.
“Instead of us riding the wave of the Final Four, I'm answering questions about whether or not we're going on probation,” Flint said. “For two years I answered those questions. That hurt us a little bit and because of those two years, you pay the price now.”
Flint has signed what he believes are two prized recruits in Raheim Lamb, a 6-foot-5 small forward from Boston English, and Jameel Pugh, a 6-4 swingman from Sacramento, Calif., who has been compared to ex-Minuteman leaper Will Herndon. Eric Williams, a 6-8 transfer from Syracuse, also will be eligible next year.
Micah Brand, a 6-11 center, is a promising freshman. Crooks, a transfer from St. John's, is developing in the backcourt. Leading scorer Monty Mack, who sat out his freshman year due to insufficient grades, has been granted another year, so the Minutemen will lose only two seniors, Chris Kirkland and Mike Babul.
“The nucleus of this team is pretty good,” Flint said.
Flint warns UMass fans not to expect another Camby anytime soon, however.
“You're not getting those every year here,” he said. “We never have.”
Leaman insists UMass lucked out in getting Camby, the current New York Knick who was named national Player of the Year in '95-96. He committed to UMass before he blossomed as a senior and big-time programs became interested.
“Calipari, for the most part,” Leaman said, “got average players and made them great players.”
That's one of the knocks against Flint -- not enough of his players improve. The underachievers mentioned most often last year were Ketner, Basit and Charlton Clarke. This year, it's Babul and Jonathan DePina. Flint disagrees with that criticism, pointing to Kirkland being named the A-10's most improved player last season and the progress shown by Mack and Kitwana Rhymer.
“I can pick two people from any team in the country,” Flint said, “and say, 'You know what? That guy didn't get any better.' Everybody is going to pick Mike Babul because he's a local kid (North Attleboro) who came in with a big reputation, but it doesn't always work out.
“His niche is defense. He's done a great job doing what we need him to help us try to win games. Do I want him to be a better offensive player? I'd be the first person to say yes.”
UMass also faces difficulties scheduling non-league games against soft opponents that could help the Minutemen improve their record. Because of the relatively small size of its arena, UMass can't attract overmatched visiting teams with a big guaranteed payday. Schools with bigger arenas can do so without having to agree to play at the opponent's home court in a subsequent season. Instead, the Minutemen must sign home-and-home deals, playing a team in Amherst one season and on the road the next.
“So I have to go to tough places to play,” Flint said. “I have to go to Iona, I got to go to Detroit, I got to go to Marshall. You're going to lose to those teams unless you've got Marcus Cambys. We don't have the money to do certain things here. That's the reality of UMass basketball.”
Flint realizes the fans don't care about that, or the fact that he's running a clean program, or that he's one of the most likable people on campus.
“The bottom line is they want you to win,” he said.
Although Calipari has urged patience for Flint, Marcum hears fan complaints after every loss.
“Anytime you lose,” Marcum said, “you get a few letters, you get a few e-mails, you get a few comments, but that's normal. If you didn't, you'd be in an environment that says no one cares. That's even worse.”
The Minutemen may no longer refuse to lose, but Flint refuses to give up.
“I know I can get it done here,” Flint insisted.