ames O. "Bruiser" Flint, still young by college coaching standards at 35, begins his fifth season in charge of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team. His career record is 71-57 with two NCAA tournaments and one NIT appearance, and he harbors optimism the Minutemen will return to the NCAA field this season after a two-year lapse.
You have said last year's 17-16 team was your favorite since becoming coach. Why?
Because it was a team in the right sense of the word. We had nice kids who worked hard every day, and I think they enjoyed being around each other. When you have that, it's easier to be a coach.
Because of that, you seemed reasonably satisfied with the season, although the dream of reaching the NCAA tournament eluded you.
Well, we weren't the most talented cats. But to me, a test of a team is whether the guys feel the same way about each other in March as they did in December. That wasn't the case the year before (when UMass went 14-16), and in my first three years, I think that killed us. That wasn't a problem with last year's team.
It's no secret the weight of expectations with this program has put pretty intense pressure on you.
It disturbs me when people think we haven't accomplished anything. Anybody who thinks this program isn't on solid ground is out of their mind. We've been to three postseasons in four years. You don't do that without winning.
Are you a coach who takes the pressures of the job home with you?
No, because I can look in the mirror. I know I've done a good job.
The legacy of John Calipari still dogs you, though, justifiably or not.
I know what John did in his eight years here. But my first four years were comparable to his, maybe even a little better, even though I know the situations were different.
Two years ago, we had a bad year. But we bounced back. In the time since I've been coach, only one coach in the Atlantic 10 has had more success, and that's (Temple coach) John Chaney.
And not only have we won, we've continued to play a tough schedule. We haven't backed down from anybody.
You have three new players in addition to a transfer, Eric Williams, who becomes eligible. What can the fans expect? Well, Jackie Rogers (a 6-foot-8 junior forward who arrives from junior college) has played in college (at West Virginia), so he has the one-up on the others on what to expect. Willie Jenkins (a 6-6 freshman) can shoot, and he has an unbelievable work ethic.
And (6-5 freshman) Jameel Pugh the guy's had so much media play because of his dunking that it's ridiculous. The Internet is his domain.
But he's a good player. He makes some spectacular plays, but I've told him that type of play will only be one out of 100 in a game. He has to play a total game, but he could turn into a good defensive player, and if he keeps working, he'll just get better.
When you recruit players, do you put a premium on character, or do you look for talent and figure you'll blend the personalities into the system once they get here?
The way recruiting is now, you always think the kid will fit in. These kids we've got are all pretty nice. But you never know what will happen when a kid faces adversity, until it happens.
What can fans expect of Williams, who practiced with the team last year after transferring from Syracuse, but was ineligible to play?
He gives us another big body (6-8), and he can shoot the ball and stretch the defense out. He's got to get better on defense, but he has a great knack for rebounding.
You seem to feel better about your team's rebounding, which had been a UMass strength for the last decade until last year.
The teams that hammered us were the teams that were bigger than we were, but I think our big guys this year are as good as anybody's in the league. Now we can go up against a team like Temple, size-wise. Last year, we had (6-6) Chris Kirkland covering their big guys, and Chris gave a great effort, but he also gave up a lot of size.
With all the attention to the newcomers, what about Winston Smith, a fifth-year senior and a starter in your first game as coach in 1996. Where does he fit in?
Every coach has a guy with whom he feels safe, and Winston is that guy for me. I have faith in him. He gives energy and continuity. The thing is, we'll need that from him every night.
Winston and Ronell Blizzard, another returnee, could help your overall depth, correct?
We've got a lot of guys. I would hope that means nobody will have to play 30 or 35 minutes in every game. Because if they do, that means some guys aren't playing up to their potential.
One disappointment came when Anthony Anderson, a freshman point guard from Lynn, was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse. How does he make use of his first year at UMass, so that he'll be ready to step in as a sophomore?
He just has to make sure he stays in shape, lifts weights and doesn't waste the year. And the key to success is to get off to a good start academically.
Another, perhaps bigger disappointment came when Monty Mack was arrested for shoplifting. You said that surprised you.
I was very disappointed in the kid. I know Monty is a good kid. It's hurt him a lot, because people will look at him differently. But I've told him he has to learn from this and move on.
Mack is suspended for both preseason games and the Nov. 18 opener against Iona. But he will practice with the team. Does that pose a problem at practice, knowing your top scorer is going through the drills but will not be available for the first game?
Well, we played without him last year (in a win at Fordham, when Mack was sidelined by the flu), and we have more weapons now than we did last year. Shannon Crooks and Jonathan DePina work well together, and we do have two preseason games to get used to being without Monty. But when you lose Monty, you lose not only scoring but defense, too.
When Mack returns, you've mentioned using him at point guard in spots. You've shied away from this in the past.
Well, I hope Jonathan plays well, so I don't have to worry about it. But Monty might be able to do a little bit of both (guard spots), and I think playing point will help him in the long run (as a pro prospect).
I'm also more prepared to do something like this at the beginning of the season, rather than sticking him at the point in the middle of the year.
DePina is a senior who has done well at times and struggled at others. How do you see his role?
I really want the kid to do well. He's a great kid, and what a lot of people don't realize is that Jonathan is a team leader. When things get cuckoo, he's a voice of reason and the other players listen to him. He doesn't say much, but he's unselfish and keeps a level head. I'd love to see him succeed.
Other than UMass, what about the Atlantic 10 Conference? The league looks wide open.
Xavier will be good. A lot of people are picking them to win it, and I can see why. Temple lost some guys, but Temple will be Temple. And people seem to be counting George Washington out, but they have everybody coming back, and I think they'll be one of the better teams.
Dayton has some guys returning, too, though they lost (center) Mark Ashman, which is a big loss. Fordham is young, but they've got some good players coming in.
Attendance at the Mullins Center has been down. What is your sense about the region's support of UMass basketball?
We've been doing some things on campus to make it easier for students to attend. We had a great Midnight Madness, like we've had in the past. And if the public can't get excited about this team, well, I just don't know.
Even though you like your incoming players, you've sometimes expressed concern about younger players in general. You graduated from St. Joseph's University in 1987. Have things really changed that much?
I just think that for some odd reason, we competed more. We had an A team and a B team, and you didn't want to be on the B team. I don't think kids do that anymore.
I think you should teach that competition is good, but nowadays, when things don't go their way, kids make excuses too often. That's what's wrong with society today.
But you think the UMass group of younger players is a good one.
I think the older players have done a good job, letting them know how it's going to be. And they work pretty hard.
You have said a return to the NCAA tournament is realistic. For all the pressure of high expectations, is it safe to say you're optimistic about this season?
We added size in the off-season, and we added depth, which makes it easier in practice when it comes to things like individual work. I think we addressed our needs. I said before Midnight Madness that I couldn't wait to get it going, and that's how I feel.