Sunday, Jan. 31

BOSTON

It was like taking a trip in the Way-Back Machine, except without Peabody and Sherman.

I was in the 100-year old Matthews Arena on the Northeastern University campus. You remember the old Boston Arena, the first home of the Boston Bruins? But the Way-Back Machine didn't take me to an old building. It took me to watch an old friend.

James "Bruiser" Flint was part of the John Calipari era at the University of Massachusetts, and was unfortunately chosen to replace his mentor. Flint is now the coach at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

And if you didn't know better, you might think that Flint was still coaching the Minutemen. It's hard to believe that it's been almost a decade since he was let go as the Minutemen's coach -- and it's like he hasn't aged a day. He's still all over the sidelines, cajoling his charges, talking to assistants and getting on officials. It's like he's got a "Portrait of Dorian Gray" thing going in his house. The painting ages and he doesn't.

"I don't know about that," Flint laughed. "I think it's genetics from my parents. I don't know about that. Listen, I've got to get a chair. I'm feeling old.

"I used to be able to bend down the whole game," he added. "I can't do that any more. I've got to get the stool. My legs are on fire sometimes."

Flint's Dragons were 12-10 and 7-3 in the Colonial Athletic Conference through Friday, and right in the thick of competing for a possible NCAA Tournament berth.

Flint replaced Calipari after Coach Cal took the Minutemen to the Final Four in 1996. And Bruiser's resume was still pretty good.

He was 86-72 at UMass, led three different teams to postseason play, was the NABC District I coach of the year in 1998 and was the fastest coach in UMass history to reach 30 victories.

While it isn't a college basketball law, it is an unwritten axiom that a coach never wants to be the guy who replaced "the guy." It's better to be the guy who replaced the guy who replaced the first guy. Just ask Bill Guthridge, who replaced Dean Smith, or Gary Cunningham, who replaced the legendary John Wooden. Even ask Mike Davis, who had a pretty good run at Indiana, but was replacing Bobby Knight.

Flint was in an untenable position, replacing a coach who took his team to the Final Four and then bolted for the NBA.

Now, he is in a good spot. A Philly guy coaching in Philly -- coaching in a tough league.

"You're playing for everything every night, and then it comes down to the weekend in the tournament," he said. "You're sort of playing for seeding in the tournament because you don't want to have to play too many games. The league is too tough and if you play too many games, you can't win it."

The CAA is one of those one or possibly two-bid conferences. It's not the Atlantic Coast or Big East Conferences, where six or seven teams qualify for the tournament. The CAA is more like the Metro Atlantic, where your tournament champion gets in, with a second team if its RPI is good enough.

"A lot of teams are even in this league. Every night's a battle," Flint continued. "The road is tough in this league. I wouldn't say there's a superior team in the league."

Watching the Dragons was kind of like watching his Minutemen. Sometimes UMass was a little offensively challenged under Flint, and Drexel seems to be too. However, the Dragons play defense with the same ferocity Calipari brought to the table and Flint expanded on.

There were also some familiar faces on the Drexel bench. Associate head coach Mike Connors has been with Flint since his UMass days, as has director of basketball operations Winston Smith.

Smith was recruited by Calipari and played his four years for Flint. Since then, he's coached with former UMass assistant John Robic at Youngstown State, at St. Francis (Pa.) and now he's working with Flint.

"He's the same," Smith said, when asked if Flint was any different now than he was in the late 1990s. "Nothing has changed. Bruiser's a great guy."

It's always nice when great guys end up on their feet.