MHERST - Was Bruiser Flint dealt a deck stacked against him, in the form of a schedule that would had made just about any team buckle?
Or has University of Massachusetts men's basketball slipped so much under Flint that almost every good matchup looks too hard?
The issue of scheduling was back in the news after Saturday's 66-59 loss to St. Bonaventure.
UMass athletic director Bob Marcum acknowledged Flint is in trouble, and would not even promise he'd be back if UMass wins this week's Atlantic 10 tournament and the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
"I wouldn't speculate until that happens," Marcum said. But asked if that would help Flint's cause, Marcum said "you'd better believe it."
Anything less is expected to mean the end for Flint, a decision viewed largely as Marcum's unless UMass trustees, or the offices of the chancellor or the president rally on Flint's behalf. If UMass fires Flint with one year left on his contract, it will have to pay him nearly $150,000 for the final year.
But Saturday, Flint and Marcum disagreed on the impact of scheduling on UMass, which lost road games to Marquette, Oregon, Ohio State, Connecticut and North Carolina. Flint thinks that lineup might cause almost any team, and especially one with UMass' resources, to flinch.
"When our schedule came out, it ranked (only) third in strength in the Atlantic 10," Marcum responded. According to the Rating Percentage Index, the UMass schedule now ranks 19th, and was among the nation's 12 toughest for much of the year.
Even after playing Duke twice, Temple's schedule ranks 36th. And while UMass is 13-14, and Flint may be fired, Temple is 18-12 with a good chance of going back to the NCAA tournament.
Flint said if he does return, he must be more assertive in avoiding what he considers unrealistic scheduling.
"I haven't done that in the past, and that's my fault," he said. "But I've learned. If I come back, some things have to change."
That's not likely. Marcum insists the coaches have been consulted on all scheduling, and while that may be technically true, dwindling revenues and a .500 team have left Flint with little real bargaining power.
Men's basketball is expected to serve as the financial backbone of an athletic department that anticipates a $1.6 million shortfall in scholarship funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Football alone is operating at a deficit of more than $2 million.
Men's basketball revenues, meanwhile, are plummeting. So when the TV people have come knocking, often with challenging nonconference games, UMass has acted as if it's almost impossible to say no.
"In a conference like ours, you have to work very hard for your TV appearances," said Marcum of the Atlantic 10, whose No. 7 ranking in conference RPI reduces its opportunities. "You can bypass a lot of games if you don't want to play on TV, but I don't know how many programs would concede that (revenue)."
UMass hasn't. The game at Marquette brought in $35,000. Playing North Carolina and Richmond in a two-day tournament in Charlotte, N.C., was worth $85,000.
Marcum could not recall how much UMass received for playing at Oregon, a game made available to outlets only on ESPN Plus, and not on ESPN or ESPN2. That helped fuel perceptions that UMass would jump at almost any offer, but UMass officials thought the deal was beneficial to maintain a strong relationship with ESPN.
But Marcum also said it wasn't his idea to build UMass basketball around the "any time, any place, any team" scheduling premise in the first place.
"I don't sit around and say, 'This is a good day to go out and schedule Oregon,'" he said. "And our department didn't come up with that motto."
He inferred that John Calipari made the commitment that Flint is now unable to keep. Even Flint acknowledged that Calipari's legacy still warps the perceptions surrounding UMass basketball.
"I told Cal he ruined it for the entire Atlantic 10," Flint said, managing a grin. "He made the Final Four, and now everybody's expected to do it."
t's all about the money
Of all the simmering issues between Bruiser Flint and his boss, UMass athletic director Bob Marcum, the one that refuses to go away concerns Marcum's eagerness to ship the Minutemen anywhere - anywhere that involves guaranteed money.
The fact that Flint's Minutemen have played approximately 60 percent of their games away from the Mullin Center over the last five seasons is a severe handicap. Marcum's defense? Flint didn't object.
``I didn't hear any complaints last August,'' said Marcum.
The AD, however, did force a schedule change upon his coach. Flint had scheduled a home game against Hartford that would have paid UMass' Connecticut neighbors school $20,000, though a date had yet to be established and the paper work was never drawn up.
The early season game would have been a nice tune-up against a local team that didn't require any travel. Marcum's insistence on making the late addition of a road trip to Marquette - which involved a guaranteed $35,000 for the second game of the season - left the Minutemen with one game too many.
Flint, who considers it important for UMass to play at least one game in Boston each year, kept his date with Boston University but had to eliminate Hartford.
When asked this past weekend whether Flint had been denied local games such as the Hartford matchup, Marcum responded: ``I don't know of any Hartford game.''
Just another piece that has trouble fitting into a fractured UMass puzzle.
or the University of Massachusetts and coach Bruiser Flint, the task seems clear. Win or it's all over.
Wins in Thursday's Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals against St. Bonaventure and the next night in the semifinals are essential.
That would get the Minutemen a game above .500, and even if they were to lose in the finals Saturday night, a National Invitation Tournament berth should be forthcoming since the unwritten policy of that selection committee is that any major conference team with at least a .500 record and an RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) of under 100 gets one. UMass's latest RPI was 73.
For Flint, the future is a bit cloudier. After Saturday's 66-59 loss to St. Bonaventure, Flint acknowledged he very well could be gone by early next week.
''We'll see,'' said Flint, when the talk about his future was broached. ''If it [getting fired] is, it is.''
Winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and getting an automatic NCAA berth would apply pressure on the faction at UMass that wants Flint gone. But an NIT berth probably would only slow the process.
But there are signs that a change is imminent. Athletic director Bob Marcum reiterated his statement that when the Minutemen were done playing, the entire season would be reviewed.
The question is, if Flint goes, who comes next? And more and more there is the feeling that UMass will at least examine the possibility of bringing in former Indiana coach Bob Knight.
Marcum was emphatic in denying that he had had contact with Knight or his representatives. Nor would he speculate on any interest in Knight until the season is over. ''We have a coach,'' he said.
Yet the Knight rumors persist.
From a marketing standpoint, especially in terms of television, hiring Knight would bring the networks back to Amherst in a heartbeat. Knight, with three national championships, 11 Big Ten titles in 29 seasons, and a track record of not cheating and graduating his players, would bring some positives.
But Knight's history of alleged physical and verbal abuse of those he has coached and worked with would cause a firestorm of controversy at UMass.
Either way, one could count on the Mullins Center to be sold out next season if Knight is on the bench.
If it's not Knight, would UMass opt for a coach from a mid-major conference, or a rising assistant from some major conference power? How much better would that be than Flint, who has grown on the job in his five years as the coach at UMass?
Those are tough questions for Marcum and the administration.
What is clear is that interest in UMass basketball has fallen since John Calipari left five years ago. But Calipari, like him or not, was a comet, not a star that rises each night in Amherst.
If one can eliminate the comet from the memory bank, eliminate the false sense that UMass was like a Duke, a North Carolina, or a Kentucky, where basketball is a religion, then Flint's record of 84-71 isn't that bad. If the Minutemen get to the NIT, they would have two NIT and two NCAA appearances in five seasons, which probably would get a lot of coaches raises and/or contract extensions.
Whatever happens, it will not linger much past the Ides of March.
For now, the focus still will be on the games that still can be won, as it should be.
It will be on players such as seniors Monty Mack, Winston Smith, Kitwana Rhymer, and Jonathan DePina, who have bridged the gap in the post-Calipari, post-Marcus Camby era.
UMass is in its own mini single-elimination tournament, starting Thursday.
Much of the script is done, but the final chapter has yet to be written.
he rumors began last season when the Massachusetts men's basketball team struggled to a 17-16 record and a first round exit from the NIT.
Since then, it has become a genuine possibility. James "Bruiser" Flint may not be the head coach of the Minutemen next year, depending on how his team does in the Atlantic 10 tournament this week in his hometown of Philadelphia.
It seems that of late, many people have been calling for Flint's head on the top of a pole, and have entertained the thought of just about any other person jumping to the helm of the UMass ship.
And none of it really makes any sense.
"I'm proud of what I have done here," Flint said. "I've won games, I've graduated my players and whether I coach here or not next season I'm going to hold my head up high. My record speaks for itself; I've done better than most."
Flint should be proud of what he has done here. In the five years he has been in Amherst, he has totaled an 84-71 record, while consistently playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. His conference record (52-28) has been even better, and his .650 winning percentage ranks him below only Temple's John Chaney and Xavier's Skip Prosser as far as success goes in the A-10.
His teams qualified for the postseason three out of four years (with this season yet to be determined), and he continued the UMass tradition of playing anyone, anywhere. In the 2000-01 campaign, the Maroon and White totaled the 12th hardest schedule in the nation, with most of those tough games coming on the road.
In addition, he has done a fantastic job of motivating this year's squad. The Minutemen were a lowly 2-9 at one point after a demoralizing loss at the hands of Richmond, and could have easily rolled over and given up on the year. Instead of doing that, though, Massachusetts exploded out of the A-10 gates, going 11-5 in the conference to propel itself back into respectability.
If Flint is going to take the blame for the 2-9 start, which is one of the main arguments against him, than you have to also give him credit for team's 11-5 finish. And that should be reason enough for him to keep his place of employment.
"If you go 11-5 in conference play, that's pretty good," Flint said. "But when you are 13-14, people are going to talk about your job."
In only five years, Flint has also commanded the respect of almost every peer that has happened to get the chance to know him. Oregon's Ernie Kent, UConn's Jim Calhoun, St. Joseph's Phil Martelli, Fordham's Bob Hill, St. Bonaventure's Jim Baron, Iona's Jeff Ruland, Rhode Island's Jerry DeGregorio and others have all showed their support for Flint in press conferences after games, and have delivered some inspiring speeches in the process.
"I think all of this talk about him not being here next year is nonsense," DeGregorio said about Flint. "He is about as good of a coach as we have in the conference and he is as class an act as there is. He does an outstanding job and more importantly, he is an outstanding person."
Baron and Martelli both agreed wholeheartedly with the URI coach. "Bruiser has done a hell of a job, especially with the tough start they had," Baron said. "The last two months, they have been as good a team as any in the country."
"I think you should be embarrassed to go to UMass if it's a place where a guy like that has to fight for his job," Martelli added. "Just look at what he's done, turning around a 2-9 team like he has. You aren't going to find a better coach than him."
But it is not just his fellow coaches that Flint has had such an effect on. His players also realize that they are lucky to have him on the bench, and they have delivered some inspiring speeches as well.
"I think Bruiser is a good coach," forward Winston Smith said. "He came at the helm when coach [John Calipari] was here and the team had just gone to the Final Four, but I think that if people give him a chance, he can also take UMass to the Final Four."
Kitwana Rhymer took a different approach when asked about his coach's job security.
"Let's get over [all the rumors and talk]," the senior center stated while pointing toward Flint. "That is my coach."
Relating to his players, on the court and in the classroom, has been another mark of Flint's tenure at UMass. Nine of eleven players have graduated under the fifth-year coach, and Anthony Oates is in the process of getting his degree this semester, making it an impressive 91 percent graduation rate.
Flint's former players have also had a habit of staying connected to the program, and they have recently expressed their concern about the well being of their former mentor.
"All of my players in the last couple of weeks have called me to make sure I was alright," Flint said.
On a different note, one thing a lot of people around here don't seem to understand is the fact that UMass is not historically a basketball powerhouse. Because the Minutemen had a nice streak of tournament appearances in the 1990's, people automatically want to compare Massachusetts to places like UCLA and North Carolina. However, in 100 years of Maroon and White competition, exactly two players have moved from Amherst to NBA success, Marcus Camby and Julius Erving. That is a far cry from the aforementioned schools, which have had enough NBA players to form about five all-star teams each.
In addition, UMass has had more losing seasons than most people realize. From 1978 to 1989, the Minutemen did not even record a single winning season, and if not for one seven-year run, then the Maroon and White would have exactly one NCAA tournament appearance to its credit.
All of this does not necessarily excuse Flint, of course, but it does show that UMass does not have the resources most people think it does. Recruiting in the Atlantic 10 is not easy, and with the possible exception of Temple, every school has had its ups and downs over the last 15 years. A two or three year absence from the tourney is far from catastrophic, and more successful teams than the Minutemen have gone through similar droughts.
Also, plenty of quality programs are struggling more than UMass right now, and that does not mean that their coaches should take the entirety of the blame, either. Louisville, Rhode Island, Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico - just to name a few - all made quality runs through the NCAA tournament over the last few years, and are now wallowing in mediocrity.
Every NCAA team goes through its ups and downs, and as long as the Minutemen continue playing in the upper echelon of their conference, there should be no reason for Flint to worry about where he will be next season.
While he has been in Amherst, Flint has run a clean program, graduated his players, won more games than just about any other A-10 coach, commanded the respect of his peers and players and has quietly gone about his business despite all of the rumors about his job security. If that does not constitute a good coach, then what does?
"I've had a lot of fun here," Flint said. "I've enjoyed myself and I still think we can win the A-10."
Here is to hoping that Flint continues to enjoy his head coaching position next year.