Thursday, April 03
NEW YORK

Take a good look at the head coach in the dark grey suit on television tonight. In six months, Travis Ford might be doing his job someplace else.

A week or so ago, the thought of the third-year University of Massachusetts head coach moving on from Amherst seemed far-fetched. The jobs open were programs in so-called BCS conferences or mid-majors. Ford's resume seemed thin to coach at a flagship SEC program and he wasn't going to take a step down or sideways.

With Marquette's Tom Crean leaving for Indiana and Oklahoma State pushing Sean Sutton out the door, jobs in Ford's resume class seem to be opening up.

And if the Minutemen beat Ohio State tonight in the NIT to win the first postseason championship in school history, it might make the third-year coach a very attractive off-season candidate.

This is all speculative, right now.

Talk of next year will wait for Ford. The only position he was linked to a month ago was the LSU job — and that seemed to be because former UMass chancellor John Lombardi is the president at LSU. Lombardi was one of the top athletic boosters among the academic players at UMass, and one suspects that he will have a say in the new coach of the Tigers.

Massachusetts athletic director John McCutcheon said he understands that perhaps some day, Ford will leave for another basketball job.


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That's something McCutcheon said he can't really control. But it is something he can be prepared for.

"We cross those bridges when we come to them," McCutcheon said yesterday morning. "You always have things in the back of your mind, you always think about everything — that's part of the job. You'd be not dilligent if you weren't thinking about possibilities.

"We'll enjoy this and take it one step at a time."

Ford is qualified. He took Eastern Kentucky to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 25 years when he led the Colonels to a 22-9 record and the Ohio Valley Conference championship in 2004-05.

The closest UMass has been to an April title was 1996, when the Minutemen lost to Ford's alma mater Kentucky in the Final Four.

The thought of a UMass coach leaving brings up bad memories, such as when John Calipari bolted in 1996 for the New Jersey Nets.

If you are a UMass fan, Ford being considered for a major job has to make you feel good. If the Minutemen stunk, nobody would be knocking on the door.

The University of Massachusetts is not a mid-major program. The Atlantic 10 Conference is, in the eyes of many, one of the top non-football playing basketball leagues. The A-10 flagship team for the past decade or so is Xavier — so UMass fans should understand that if Ford should leave, it wouldn't be a disaster.

The Musketeers have their third coach, Sean Miller, in the last nine years. In his four seasons at Xavier, Miller has averaged 20 wins, and this year took his team to the brink of the Final Four.

Before Miller, tonight's opposing coach, Thad Matta, ran the Musketeers. In three seasons, Matta won two A-10 titles, earned three NCAA tournament appearances and in 2004, took Xavier to the Elite Eight. Preceeding Matta was the late Skip Prosser, who parlayed a successful Xavier tenure into a job at Wake Forest.

A victory tonight would be a major step for Ford and the program he pledged to restore.

"When he was at Eastern Kentucky, they won a championship. Now he's on the verge at UMass to win a championship," Minuteman point guard Chris Lowe said yesterday morning. "It's great to bring the tradition back to UMass — finally winning again and the fans are cheering us."

To reach Howard Herman: hherman@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6253.