The following story is true, some names have been omitted, but the time line is accurate, as is the sequence of events which began with University of Massachusetts athletic director Ryan Bamford firing men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg on March 9 and ended on Tuesday March 21 with the announcement that Winthrop basketball coach Pat Kelsey had been hired as the Minutemen’s new coach. And then was topped a few days later by Kelsey’s decision to resign.
In talking to several sources familiar with the process, here is TMG’s account of how it unfolded.
There was no question that Kellogg’s performance was being evaluated by Bamford and the UMass administration all season. The former UMass star was told at the beginning of the season that an upgrade was necessary. After a string of three twenty plus win seasons, the Minutemen stumbled last season.
Kellogg made adjustments, increased the talent level on the roster and pleaded patience after last season’s drop to a 14-18 record.
The Minutemen appeared to have more talent and came into the Atlantic 10 season with an 11-4 record. It was their high water mark of the season. UMass won only four A-10 games and as the conference tournament began in Pittsburgh in the first week in March, the signs for Kellogg were ominous, with at least a championship game appearance the only likely escape hatch.
UMass’s season officially ended on Thursday March 9 with a 73-60 loss to St. Bonaventure, leaving the Minutemen with a 15-18 record and Bamford with a decision to make.
Firing Kellogg would have more than a ripple effect. Buying out his contract would cost UMass more than $1 million. Paying off the assitants would cost more. And then you had to factor in a new coach’s contract, would be in the $800,000 to $900,000 a year range.
Bamford also knew he would have to deal with negative feedback. Kellogg was a home grown star from Springfield. He was one of Coach Cal’s (John Calipari’s) boys. His argument was that, given another season, the Minutemen would again turn in the right direction.
Most firings are done in the quiet of a campus office a few days after the season is over. But UMass was going on spring break in the second week in March. Many of the players were going to their homes from Pittsburgh.
Bamford did not want to have the UMass players hear about the dismissal of Kellogg from outsiders. He wanted to tell them personally, as unpleasant a chore as that might be. So he talked to them after the game. “”Not fun,” conceded Bamford afterwards, as he tried to tell the players recruited by Kellogg that a new coach would guide their basketball future.””But it is part of the job.”
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The key to success for most basketball programs is a linkage of purpose from the administration of the school, to the athletic administration, to the coaching staff, to the players. If there is a breakdown in one area, the entire system can be clogged and break down.
Since his arrival at UMass in the spring of 2015, Bamford has worked hard to put UMass athletics back on the main track, especially in the revenue producing sports of football and men’s basketball.
Working in his favor in basketball were the on campus facilities, which included a new indoor practice facility, which was a nice bookend to the new multi-million dollar football complex which had just opened. Playing in a competitive multi-bid league such as the A-10 was another benefit, as was the compensation package which he could offer a new coach.
Bamford, who came to UMass from Georgia Tech, knew he also had to move quickly. Other openings would soon occur and UMass might be competing with several schools for the same coach (which was true in one instance).
But he also knew the kind of coach he wanted, which included more than winning press conferences, and selling the program. He also wanted someone who wanted to come to UMass and fit into the culture of a state school in the Northeast, where college basketball is not a religion.
Many ADs, unsure of their ability to find talent in coaches, hire search firms. Bamford hired a search firm run by a former college basketball coach Eddie Fogler, but not to find names. He already had that list. As a state school, anything that Fogler did officially could be subject to open record laws from media members. Bamford understood that many coaches wanted to keep their names OUT of the news if they weren’t chosen. Using Fogler would provide some privacy protection.
Bamford gave Fogler a list of between 16 and 20 names to contact, to check the interest level. Any positive response, would generate more extensive vetting by Fogler and Bamford and his staff.
Not surprisingly, Bamford and his staff were bombarded with inquiries, coaches, former players, friends, all had candidates. Some coaches, not contacted on the original list, called themselves or had friends call.
Much like the NCAA selection committee puts together a 68 team field each season, Bamford and his staff created a war room, where they had a few dozen names of who they felt were serious candidates. They were divided into several tier groups.
Of those coaches, only a small group were actually interviewed
With the NCAA tournament and other post season tournaments starting, games were monitored. As teams with possible candidates lost, travel arrangements were made to talk to contenders.
The UMass show hit the road to Atlanta during the first week of the NCAA tournament. With many of the candidates located in the southern tier of the country, it would be much easier for candidates to come in and out of Atlanta. More vetting was done.
Allhough everyone involved had a say in the evaluation process, Bamford had the final say. And he did the most traveling and interviewing. Bamford ran on a clock which had a limited sleep cycle for almost two weeks.
In officially announcing the firing of Kellogg a day after the season ended, Bamford said he hoped the process would be completed by the end of March. Bamford did it in 12 days.
By the end of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament on Sunday, Bamford had a finalist list of four names, with Kelsey and Rice Coach Mike Rhoades leading the list. Other names were mentioned in various media reports, some were accurate some were false.
Bamford, usually accessible to the media, went dark for several days, as did several members of his staff. Both Kelsey and Rhoades were vetted and vetted again. Their interviews were evaluated. Debates often at night over Atlanta barbecue, was constant.
But as post season games were played and teams lost and more coaches became available for interviews, more jobs opened. Rhoades, who had a pedigree at VCU as a member of former coach Shaka Smart’s staff, had done a solid job at Rice and seemed to have the most positives.
On Monday, LSU made a decision to hire Will Wade, who had replaced Smart at VCU. In a matter of hours, Rhoades went off the UMass board. VCU was a better A-10 job than UMass.
That put Kelsey, who had turned Winthrop into a mid major power just as Greg Marshall had done a decade earlier, as the last coach standing at the top of the leaderboard, although the debate between Kelsey and Rhoades remains unanswered.
Kelsey wanted to move upward. UMass offered that chance. Kelsey was young (he will be 42 in May). He is driven. The only item missing was a connection to the Northeast. Kelsey had grown up and gone to school in the midwest (Xavier) and had worked in the South (Wake Forest).
Bamford considered that, but decided it wasn’t a deal-breaking negative and one that could be corrected by adding staff members familiar with the Northeast if necessary
By Tuesday morning, the deal–5 years, $800,000 per year–was all but done.
By Tuesday afternoon, Kelsey’s name hit the twitter world. By later Tuesday afternoon, UMass made it official.
Bamford and UMass know that there are no guarantees that the Minutemen will be better next season with a a new coach. There are no guarantees that Kelsey will continue being a rising star.
No one can guarantee that. But what Bamford and UMass did in the last two weeks should be used as a model for other schools who are still looking and other schools who might have openings in the future.
For the most part, they did everything the right way. They identified a problem, they gathered the resources and support necessary to correct the problem and they then made a quick and decisive hire to fix it, but then UMass hit a pot hole
The UMASS U-TURN
It was all going well. The announcement was made. The selling of Pat Kelsey had begun. A press conference, officially announcing Kelsey was set for Thursday afternoon.
And then…A stunning statement. No press conference. Kelsey was pulling out–for personal reasons. Damage Control 401 went into motion. UMass issued a statement. Kelsey issued a statement. Bamford, up front as usual, held a press conference and tried to conceal his disappointment.
Since Kelsey had signed a contract, with a buyout clause which said that if he left UMass during his first two years, the cost would be $1 million.
Kelsey has now told people that he will be back at Winthrop next season. It is more than likely that Kelsey’s reps and UMass officials are working on a way to reduce the buyout if Kelsey does return to Winthrop, rather than take another higher paying job at a Power 5 conference or A-10 school such as Kelsey’s alma mater Xavier, it that does open. There has been speculation that Xavier Coach Chris Mack could be on Indiana’s short list.
As for UMass, the search now continues. The Minutemen have the same list of potential coaches they had a week ago, but this time they may have to do some recruiting, perhaps adding an extra year on a contract.
There will be suitors. But if you look at the landscape now and fit the candidates for what UMass needs and fits into the culture, Vermont coach John Becker might be the choice. Or they could go in another direction.