The Last Minute
The Lowered Expectations of UMass Basketball; How the Media Was Sold a Bill of Goods.
By Bill Strickland, Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs, The Maroon & White, 5/2/2001
The Maroon & White is a publication of UMass Athletics

If the articles that appeared in the newspapers over the course of this basketball season were a series, they could be called: "The Lowered Expectations of UMass Basketball; How the Media Was Sold a Bill of Goods."

Give the spin doctors credit. They have managed to convince the people who control the ink, the airwaves and at least a part of cyberspace that UMass really is not that good a basketball program, that the `90s were a fluke, and we should be satisfied battling for an NIT bid or, in a really good year, a first round NCAA loss. UMass is really a bad basketball job and we will have to count our blessings if we can even get Ron Gerlufsen back to fill our coaching vacancy.

The spin has certainly been effective. The take on our athletic director is particularly amusing, in a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me sort of way. If you read the papers or the internet, you would never know that Bob Marcum is the most influential and successful athletic director in the school's history, a guy a Division I-AA program could only dream of getting because of his wrongful firing at South Carolina (for which he was later vindicated in the courts; the person who fired him wound up in prison). So what if the guy was the 1999 Northeast Region Athletic Director of the Year, a finalist for National Athletic Director of the Year, and is so respected by his peers that he sits on some of the most important NCAA committees. According to the spin, he is really a buffoon who sabotaged the basketball program with inept marketing and by scheduling games that a program this mediocre could not possibly be expected to win. C'mon Marcum! We're only UMass. We can not be expected to beat Davidson and Iona and Marshall, let alone North Carolina or Ohio State. And if we could have had those Southern Illinois Salukis in the Mullins Center instead of in Puerto Rico, do you think we would have lost to them?

Any team, any time, any place? Hey, you need "any team, any time, any place" players to do that. We have been told we do not have those. We did have a guy who is playing in the NBA now, and we had the number two scorer in school history, but the Camby thing killed the recruiting and ... well, how are you supposed to recruit to a place like this anyway? Our building is eight years old and the basketball coach has to change in the same room as Marcum and the hockey coach. Who can possibly win under these conditions? One game under .500 for the last three years is the best a UMass can hope for until we start playing teams like New Hampshire again.

That is the spin. Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn't it?

The Bruiser Flint era has come to an end at UMass and the lesson I take from this is that people want to paint a black and white picture no matter how obvious that the situation is grey. Most of the members of the media who cover UMass basketball genuinely like Bruiser Flint, and why wouldn't they? Bruiser is universally recognized as a good guy and someone people like to be around, myself included. The flip side to that is that everybody who believes UMass could and should be achieving more with its basketball program think Marcum is a bad guy with delusions of grandeur. If you read Andy Katz of ESPN.com, Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald or Ron Chimelis of the Springfield Union-News, you would swear that the Mullins Center is inhabited by Darth Marcum and the Evil Empire, hell bent on thwarting the heroic efforts of the dashing Bru Skywalker. You would swear that John Calipari was the King of Sleaze and that Bruiser came in and cleaned everything up and is just waiting around for John Paul II to give him the nod when the next round of saints are announced. Black and white. Not even a touch of grey.

People will make their own judgements (regardless of how much information they have), but as someone who spent nearly every day with the players and coaches, the UMass basketball program under John Calipari was anything but sleazy. I can't begin to tell you how far off that perception is from reality. The simple fact is that Marcus Camby did some things that were against the rules and the program paid a penalty. The NCAA said the UMass staff "did not know, nor should have known" about Camby's activities. Had we found out about Marcus's dealings with agents before his eligiblity was over, it would have been Marcus and Marcus alone who was penalized, not the program. And let me remind you that John Calipari was not the only person on that staff. So why is he portrayed as sleazy, while the rest of the staff is not?

The amount of b.s. that has been put out there in the attempt to portray Marcum, the administration and Calipari as reprehensible scum is unconscionable, fed by poor journalism and that scary phenomenon called the internet message board, where misinformation combines with opinion and lack of accountability to produce a bubbling cauldron of negativity.

There is a John F. Kennedy quote that Marcum often refers to: "The enemy of truth is often not the lie, but the myth." Here are a few myths that you can stick in the dumpster. I refer only to those that I have first-hand knowledge of.

Myth: Bob Marcum recommended that Bruiser Flint be fired last year, but was overruled. Truth: Despite reservations as to whether or not Bruiser could get things turned around, Bob made the recommendation to keep Bruiser. The quote from Marcum to his superiors: "If you are leaving it up to me, Bruiser stays." And that was that. Bob's decision was not popular with some of the higher ups, but it was accepted. I was in the room. I know what took place. Anything else you've heard is completely false. There would have been no 2000-01 season for Bruiser Flint without Bob Marcum.

Myth: Bill Cosby and Julius Erving called on Bruiser's behalf last spring and helped save his job. Truth: I have asked Marcum. I have asked the Chancellor and his staff. I have asked the President's Office. None of these people say they ever received a call from either Cosby or Erving regarding Bruiser. This story was planted with Mark Murphy of the Herald, who printed it without substantiation. It took on a life of its own, being picked up by writers and television commentators across the country. It was, and remains, complete fiction, a common thread found in much of Murphy's work on UMass athletics.

Myth: Bob Marcum told the NIT not to pick UMass so he could fire Bruiser right away. Truth: A-10 Commissioner Linda Bruno asked us if we wanted to continue to play. We said yes. Bob and Linda had people from the committee working for a UMass bid, and we also received a push from the television people. In the end, they felt that an 18-win St. Bonaventure team, coming off of an NCAA appearance last year, was a better choice, and that Baylor, as the only eligible Big 12 representative, should also be in. Dayton, with 21 wins and an arena that has been filled for 40 years, was a no-brainer. No team with a .500 record was selected.

Myth: UMass played Marquette and Oregon on the road for money. Truth: UMass played Marquette and Oregon to help out ESPN and ESPN Regional. Marcum's relationship with the TV people has enabled us to get games such as the home-and-home on ABC we had with Texas. UMass receives a return game from Oregon next year, and while we did receive money from Marquette, that was negotiated after the fact and had nothing to do with why the game was played.

As the scenario played out, Bruiser let if be known that he believed the schedule was too difficult. Fine, that is his opinion, but few people around here acknowledge the truth, that Marcum initiated only a few games on the schedule. At the start of the season, the schedule was ranked just the third toughest in the Atlantic 10 behind Temple and Xavier, not one of the top 20 in the country. For his part, Marcum believes that a tough national schedule is the best route to the NCAA Tournament. Mike Tranghese's comments on selection Sunday and the committee's decision to take Georgia at 16-14 while not taking UConn at 18-11, certainly seems to support that argument. An 18-win UMass team would have gotten into the tournament. We were told we were going to be good and we played a schedule that put us in a position to go to the NCAA Tournament.

Bruiser Flint is a good guy. He attended my wedding. We've had a lot of good times over the last eight years. Hardly a day went by that we didn't hang out together and talk. But the fact that Bruiser is a good guy does not mean that Bob Marcum is evil and John Calipari is sleazy. Marcum's intent in making a change is that he honestly believes with new leadership, our basketball program can do better. That hardly makes him a bad person. Sometimes change is best for both sides and I think that will be the case here. In the end, it is hardly ever black and white.


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