UMass' decision to let Derek Kellogg grow into the job is paying off now
The UMass administration has been patient while watching Derek Kellogg build its basketball program. The byproduct of that is the success the Minutemen are enjoying now.
Each time I rank college basketball teams -- which is every day now, by the way -- or file one of my Poll Attacks columns designed to highlight silliness among Associated Press voters, there's always somebody, either on Twitter or some message board, anxious to explain to me how and why the "rankings don't matter."
This drives me nuts for two reasons.
Here are those reasons:
- What kind of person takes the time to comment on something he doesn't believe matters? I'll never understand that. Like, in my world, hockey and daytime soap operas don't matter. So I never comment on hockey or daytime soap operas because I can't make sense of spending any time thinking about something that doesn't matter to me.
- The rankings do matter!
I'm not suggesting that rankings decide a national championship or any title of any kind. But that doesn't mean they don't matter. Among other things, they help shape the perceptions of programs, provide a source of pride for fans and, in lots of cases, dictate how many people see your scores and highlights. Take our CBSSports.com iPhone app, for instance. If you're ranked, everybody who visits the main scoreboard page of that app sees your score and record and logo and everything. If not, nobody sees any of that without looking for it, and that kind of stuff matters to coaches who are trying to build a brand.
Which brings me to UMass.
Good luck telling UMass that rankings don't matter.
"It's been great," UMass coach Derek Kellogg told me late Monday, a few hours after the Minutemen officially entered the Associated Press poll for the first time in 15 years. "My phone -- text messages, emails, calls -- has been going all day. It's just been crazy."
So, yeah, the rankings matter.
But I'm not here to hammer that point again, at least not now, because I'd rather spend the rest of this column writing about UMass and Kellogg and how, sometimes, patience pays off.
That's the lesson here, right?
UMass hired Kellogg in 2008 to replace Travis Ford, and, honestly, it was a no-brainer move. Kellogg was a former UMass player who graduated from the school in 1995, and a hotshot assistant who had been working under his former coach, John Calipari, at Memphis. I'm not sure if anybody else was even considered, but, if so, it was a waste of time. Kellogg seemed like the right guy for a variety of reasons. He deserved the job and he got the job.
Then the process of rebuilding UMass began.
It hasn't been simple.
Kellogg went 12-18 in his first season, 12-20 in his second and 15-15 in his third while never finishing better than eighth in the Atlantic 10. UMass went 25-12 in Kellogg's fourth season, but that was mostly a byproduct of playing a non-league schedule ranked 188th nationally, and, either way, it still didn't lead to a trip to the NCAA tournament. UMass then went 21-12 in Kellogg's fifth season, and so the bottom line was this: In five years with Kellogg, UMass had never finished better than tied for fifth in the A-10 nor made the NCAA tournament.
Thus, the school had a dilemma.
Fair or not, the majority of coaches who work at schools that care about basketball don't get a sixth season if they don't make the NCAA tournament in one of their first five seasons. That was the reality on one hand. On the other hand was the idea among most that Kellogg was still undeniably the right guy for the job. He just needed to catch a break or two.
So what did Kellogg's bosses do?
To their credit, they cooled out and stood by their guy -- both publicly and privately.
Then Kellogg caught that break.
In an offseason where lots of coaches lost notable underclassmen for lots of reasons, Kellogg did not. UMass star Chaz Williams rejected a contract offer from a professional team in Turkey that was reportedly worth $150,000, and now look. Williams is averaging 16.0 points and 6.2 assists, UMass is 6-0 with wins over New Mexico and LSU, and Kellogg seems to have turned that proverbial corner, which is something he and I talked about late Monday.
"I think the one good thing for me was that, because I was a player at UMass and have showed a lot of loyalty, people may have been a little more patient with me than they would've been with an outsider coming in," Kellogg said. "So that part's been good, and it's helped me learn a lot as a coach. I think I've improved every year as a coach. ... And what you see now is a much more mature team, coach and program."
To be clear, this doesn't mean it's always wrong to pull a trigger quickly.
Sometimes, you just know, you don't have the right guy.
In that case, it's better to cut losses and move on.
The point here is that firing a coach simply because he hasn't won a league title or made an NCAA tournament or done some of the things you think he ought to be doing isn't smart, mostly because drawing arbitrary lines in the sand is dumb. Sometimes, things just don't break the right way quickly, for whatever reason. But, what I think Kellogg is proving, is that it's good to stand with a coach even if the record isn't what you desire as long as you genuinely believe you have the right guy, and that's precisely what UMass has done.
The payoff for that is now.
The Minutemen are ranked for the first time since 1998.
"Sometimes it might take four or five or even six years," Kellogg said. "But sometimes the reason people eventually succeed is because they're given the right amount of time."
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