ravis Ford will do well at Massachusetts for a number of reasons, none better than this: He understands. He gets it. He isn't a gift to UMass basketball -- it's the other way around. UMass basketball is the gift. Ford's the lucky guy who gets to open it.
"The people here, they love their basketball," says Ford, 35, who left Eastern Kentucky for UMass on March 25. "It's exciting for somebody like me who lives and breathes basketball to be part of such a tradition. I am absolutely loving it here."
Ford is the Anti-Lappas. Steve Lappas was neither a bad coach nor a bad guy, but at UMass he was a bad fit for a number of reasons, none worse than this: He didn't understand. He didn't get it. He swooped in from Villanova -- that's in the Big East, you know -- and figured the Atlantic 10 would be impressed. The Atlantic 10 was not. By the time Lappas realized his mistake, it was too late.
UMass didn't reach the postseason or sell out a home game in Lappas' four seasons. By the end of his tenure the Minutemen were barely filling one-third of the 9,493-capacity Mullins Center, and being outdrawn by UMass hockey.
That won't happen under Ford, a charismatic cherub who oozes the South but connects with Western Massachusetts because he oozes basketball. It's possible he'll connect better with UMass than his previous two coaching stops, both in his native Kentucky, because UMass shares his passion for basketball. As a hometown hero in Madisonville, Ky., and still a state-wide legend for leading Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four, Ford understands the connection between a community and its basketball program. He didn't have that initial connection at Eastern Kentucky, a dormant program awakened during Ford's tenure.
UMass is already awake, thank you. That 1996 Final Four was no shot in the dark. Before its current seven-year NCAA Tournament drought, UMass went to seven straight NCAA Tournaments from 1992 to '98.
More than 1,500 fans showed up for Ford's introductory press conference, and he's been trying to meet Amherst's other 33,400 residents ever since. He took his team to a local restaurant, The Hangar, on April 4 and spent more time shaking hands than watching North Carolina beat Illinois for the national championship. He was a big draw at the Taste of UMass, the school's annual food fair, and has spoken at places as big as the State House in Boston and as small as a sports management class on campus.
"There isn't enough time in the day," Ford says. "All the invitations I've had to speak -- which is great, which is what I want -- shows the excitement people have. I'm trying to meet as many people as I can, get connected. The support has been overwhelming."
To Lappas, community involvement meant buying a house -- not renting -- and sending his kids to public schools. In some communities it would have been enough, but not Amherst. Let the rest of the state swoon over the Celtics, Patriots and Bruins. Amherst has UMass basketball. The UMass basketball coach had better reciprocate.
Ford is reciprocating his tail off. Within days of being hired, he had bought a house in Amherst. He did so many speaking engagements that word spread and invitations poured in from schools, booster events and even the local sheriff's department -- asking the accessible new UMass coach to speak with its most recent class of new deputies.
Ford also found time to assemble a staff and sign a point guard, Chris Lowe of Mount Vernon, N.Y., who wasn't considering UMass before the hiring of Ford. Two weeks later, Lowe signed with UMass over interest from Maryland, Virginia Tech and UTEP.
"For us to get in there late and get a nationally known point guard of his caliber," Ford says, "I think it made a quick statement for us."
The statement was this: Ford will be able to recruit just fine in the Atlantic 10. To that end he retained three staff members from Eastern Kentucky, all native New Yorkers -- Tim Maloney, Steve Middleton and James Altman -- and filled out his staff by hiring Northeastern assistant Adam Ginsburg.
To recap: In his first 18 days since being hired at UMass, Ford bought a house, hired a staff, signed a point guard and met half of Western Massachusetts.
He has had little time for sleep and even less time for reflection. It wasn't until almost a week after his hiring that Ford realized his most bizarre connection to UMass. After college, Ford was recruited to act in The Sixth Man, a ghastly Hollywood film about a Pac-10 team sparked by a hothead (played by Ford) and a ghost (played by Kadeem Hardison). They reach the national title game, where they beat ... UMass.
"I'd totally forgotten about that," Ford says. "Somebody had to mention it to me. I've been busy."
He'll get busier. UMass has two available scholarships left, and Ford would like to use both. There's individual instruction with his players. And there's more community appearances, including a possible date at Fenway Park, where Ford might soon throw the ceremonial first pitch. On May 25 he plans to sneak in a round of golf. He's been invited by a friend to play Augusta National, home of the Masters.
Fenway and Augusta National are a long way from Madisonville, but he sounds comfortable. Travis Ford sounds comfortable, if you can believe it, in Amherst, Mass.
"I'm definitely putting down roots," he says. "UMass is a place where every day I fall in love with it more and more. It's an incredibly beautiful area, and the people are so nice. And it doesn't hurt that they love their basketball."