Flint maintains cool under fire
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 12/7/2000

Bruiser Flint can't say that the view is unfamiliar.

His fifth UMass team is 1-3 heading into tonight's game against Providence in The Mullins Center - another bad start, however you look at it.

``It's early,'' he keeps saying, which it is. ``I think we'll be fine,'' he said this week, after returning from a trip to Portland, Ore., where the Minutemen were trundled by Oregon - a result that re-ignited the UMass message boards and the rather vocal public that called for Flint's head last year.

Sure, it's early, but that hasn't squelched the debate as to whether Flint has what it takes to save his job by making the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. This time, the standard may even require that UMass win an NCAA game, something a Flint-coached team has never accomplished.

Flint's first 1-3 start came in his first year, during the 1996-97 season. That team reached the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round to Louisville.

His worst start, a 1-3 mark that grew to 1-4 in 1998-99, ultimately resulted in the first UMass men's basketball team to stay home for the postseason in 10 years.

A loss tonight against Providence will tie Flint's worst-ever start.

But Flint's teams are impossible to read at this time of year. His five-year record, based on the first four games of each season, is now 7-13.

``I'm not sitting here thinking, `Oh my God, we're 1-3,' '' he said.

That said, he's also just as puzzled as the next guy.

``If I had the solution, we wouldn't be 1-3 right now,'' he said. ``But one thing is pretty obvious. We play too many road games at this time of year and then we (expletive deleted). I've only got 11 home games this year and one of those is in Springfield.''

This dilemma pours that much more desperation into tonight's game.

Providence, a middling 3-3 team, has suddenly become a crucial game, especially with a game against Ohio State, in Columbus, on tap for UMass on Sunday followed by a Dec. 12 game against No. 15 UConn in Hartford.

Student bodies needed

Eyes won't only be focused on the floor tonight. For those in charge of UMass' sagging athletic revenues, the issue of tickets - and empty seats - is a growing concern.

Most of the responsibility for declining attendance was hoisted onto Flint's shoulders last spring, before UMass athletic director Bob Marcum's bid to fire the popular coach was vetoed by Chancellor David Scott.

The university's African-American faculty, under the leadership of professors John Bracey and Ricardo Townes, and with the aid of calls from noted alumni Bill Cosby and Julius Erving, persuaded Scott to reverse his position in favor of Flint, who lives in Amherst with his wife, Rene, and 5-year-old daughter, Jada.

Since then, a rather stifling student ticket policy has been loosened to give the on-campus crowd more access, as well as better awareness of when the team is playing at home.

The department's puzzling season ticket policy, which charges the same amount whether fans buy each ticket individually or as a season ticket package, has not been changed.

This year's season-opening win over Iona drew an underwhelming crowd of 6,147. Three losses later, including the worst loss of Flint's career on Nov. 25 to Holy Cross, the public's level of interest in UMass is anyone's guess. But all of the support in the world won't help Flint this time if his team doesn't perform or if revenues continue to drop.

Flint is proud that men's basketball stood alone among its fellow UMass programs by actually turning a profit in the 2000 fiscal year, at $18,218. The football team, a perpetual money pit because of its Div. 1-AA status, lost $2,687,375 in the same period. Ice hockey lost $898,677 and women's basketball lost $678,693.

That said, the $18,218 figure is a far cry from what the men's basketball program generated in the 1999 fiscal year, when profits were listed in the annual report at $738,070.

The cause for the drop has been pinned on a radical slide in season ticket sales and fewer high-paying road games, issues that naturally distress Marcum.

The athletic director, beyond his occasional words of support to Flint this season, has remained quietly in the background.

``One thing that Bob has been consistent about, all these years, is that he has never judged a season by the first four games and he's not about to do that now,'' said a university source.

Marcum, over the course of his 26-plus years as an athletic director at UMass, South Carolina, Kansas and Iowa State, has never fired a coach. After this season, Flint has one season left on a two-year extension he signed last year.

Only John Calipari, the coach Flint replaced, won more games and led UMass basketball to more postseason play in his first four seasons. Flint, a 35-year-old Philadelphia native, is a 1987 graduate of St. Joseph's University and holds a bachelor's degree in financial management. His basketball coaching career began in 1987, when he assisted at Coppin State College in Baltimore. By 1989, Flint was an assistant to Calipari, a position he held until he took over for Calipari as head coach in 1996.

As head coach, Flint has made two NCAA tournament appearances. He is the winningest first-year coach in UMass history (19 wins) and is the fastest coach in UMass history to reach 40 wins (63 games.)

If Marcum were to pull the trigger on Flint, it would mark a significant first for the 64-year-old athletic director.

``I know a lot of people are trying to paint this picture of the administration against the coaching staff, but think about it,'' said the source. ``(Marcum) hired Bruiser. Of course he wants to see him do well. He needs him to do well.''

Troubled water deepens

Flint has the Holy Cross loss hanging over his head. It was a moment that only got worse when Boston College beat the Crusaders by almost 30 points on Monday.

For a UMass team that was expected to rebound and score with impunity this season, the results are stunned disappointment and renewed doubt about Flint's ability to draw the most from his material.

``That was a tough loss to Holy Cross,'' Flint said. ``Now we have to beat some people no one expects us to beat.''

Flint said he saw ``improvements'' while watching tapes of the loss to Oregon. Told that his jaded public would probably view that same tape as merely another loss, the coach grunted.

``I don't worry about that stuff, man,'' Flint said. ``The worst thing you can do is worry about what people say.''


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