Travis Ford Is Just What SLU Basketball Needs: A Proven Recruiter of Talent

Saint Louis University has a new men’s basketball coach, and I like the hiring of former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford for several reasons, including these five:

1. SLU desperately needs better players. Ford’s strength is recruiting. Unless SLU fans have been sleeping and snoring at home games the last two seasons — and really, who could blame them? — they presumably noticed a problem: the Billikens lack talent. Their offense was dull, ranking last in the 14-team Atlantic 10 Conference in points per game over the last two seasons.

According to Kenpom.com, SLU was 317th in the nation in offensive efficiency in 2014-2015, and 314th this season. Awful. The entertainment factor at Chaifetz Arena: abysmal. SLU needs a lot of work in rebuilding a program that’s collapsed to a 22-42 record (8-28 conference) over the last two seasons. The project begins by adding a higher level of talent, and Ford can do that. He’s done it at every coaching stop.  Which brings us to …

2. Ford has always been able to find talented players. I’ve seen people make silly comments that go something like this … It’s easy to get players to go to Oklahoma State to play in the Big 12 Conference, but this is SLU and the A-10 and Ford won’t be able to get good recruits here … Oh, really? This is a guy who once brought a Top 35 recruiting class into EASTERN KENTUCKY. Back in his days at UMass — which plays in the A-10 — Ford landed a couple of four-star recruits including Gary Forbes. Other highly regarded UMass recruits included Ricky Harris and Stephane Lasme. Forbes and Lasme each won an A-10 Conference Player of the Year Award. In fact, Ford coached the Conference Player of the Year four times in eight seasons during one stretch at UMass and Oklahoma State. His two Conference Players of the Year at OSU were James Anderson and Marcus Smart. Anderson and Smart were All-America choices as well.

Oklahoma State had 20 All-Big 12 selections and three Big 12 Freshmen of the Year during Ford’s eight seasons. Four of Ford’s players have been drafted into the NBA: Lasme, Smart, Anderson and Markel Brown. And two other Ford-recruited players played in the NBA: Forbes (UMass) and Terrel Harris (OSU.) At OSU Ford coached four McDonald’s (high school) All-Americans; SLU has had one McDonald’s All-American (Larry Hughes) in its entire program history.

3. Ford has demonstrated a clear ability to turn programs around. In his first coaching job, at Campbellsville (NAIA), Ford went 7-26 in his first year and then 51-14 over the next two years … in 2005, Ford led Eastern Kentucky to its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1979 … during the eight seasons that preceded Ford’s arrival for the 2005-2006 campaign, UMass had a .461 winning percentage overall, including a .477 winning percentage in conference play. In Ford’s three seasons, UMass had a .639 overall winning percentage and went 31-17 (.645) in the conference … Before Ford took over at Oklahoma State in 2008 the Cowboys had missed the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive seasons; Ford got the Cowboys into the tournament in each of his first two seasons — and five times in eight seasons overall.

4. Ford will energize a nondescript program, and give it some needed personality. Ford likes to go with an up-tempo offense, and that’s not only fun to watch, but it’s a style that attracts talent-flowing recruits that are wary of getting stuck in a plodding offense. Ford is good with the media and fans, highly visible, has the gift of gab, and never seems to run out of energy. He’ll bring a freshness to the SLU appeal. This is important in a number of ways. The SLU program needs to maximize revenue opportunities. Filling up the Chaifetz is a way to start. Enhanced marketing will add to it.

There’s also a bigger picture here. SLU is in a unique position. The NFL St. Louis Rams left for Los Angeles. On the local college-basketball scene, Mizzou is down and in a rather depressed state. There is no NBA team here. SLU has a chance to become — for lack of a better term — our town’s third “professional” sports franchise to go with the Cardinals and the Blues. SLU’s president, Dr. Fred Pestello, seems to recognize this (based on his comments.)

The time is right for SLU basketball to greatly enhance its presence in the market. There’s no downside to that. There’s no risk to that. You can have a great basketball team while maintaining high academic and ethical standards. Ford is essential to this reset; Saint Louis U now has a “face” for the program. He’ll be out there selling and preaching SLU basketball. That passion fills another major need at SLU. Get out there and pitch  … convince fans and alums and recruits and their parents that SLU can be special. Ford showed that side of his persona during Thursday’s introductory news conference. He was revved up. It’s bizarre to me that so many SLU fans are mewling over this hire.

If you want to find Ford’s flaws, they’re easy to spot: which include: only three winning records in Big 12 play in his eight seasons at OSU, an overall conference record of 63-75 (.457), failing to advance beyond the first round in OSU’s last four trips to the NCAA Tournament, a pattern of not getting the most out of his talented recruiting classes.

5. Ford needs SLU as much as SLU needs Ford. By the end of his term at OSU, the Cowboys were 3-15 in the Big 12 (in large part because of injuries) and the crowds had dwindled at home games. The early momentum of Ford’s time at Oklahoma State had crashed; understandably the OSU administration thought it was a good time to go in a new direction. That happens. And it can happen to good coaches. Programs stall out. But Ford is still only 46 years old. This is a good match.

The coach needs a new challenge, new scenery, and a chance to bring his recruiting skills to a struggling and underachieving A-10 program that needs an infusion of talent. The coach needs to jump-start his own career, so he’s signed on with a university that needs to jump-start its men’s basketball program. It’s an ideal time for Ford and SLU to enter into a partnership that should benefit both sides.

And if you’re one of the folks that think it’s somehow beneath SLU to hire a new coach that’s just been run off at another place … well, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s pretty funny, actually. Was Ford’s coaching stock on the wane? Evidently so. But I didn’t realize that SLU basketball was a colossus that plays in the NCAA Tournament every year and contends for national championship. I didn’t realize that SLU is in a position to be so haughty. I didn’t realize that AD Chris May was supposed to lure Bill Self from Kansas or maybe talk Billy Donovan into coming back to college basketball. I didn’t realize that SLU had such a coveted, gem of a job that had all of the big-name coaches lining up to apply for it. I’m sorry; when did SLU become Duke? I must have missed that.

The idea that some SLU whiners are looking down on a coach that took his OSU team to the NCAA Tournament five times in eight seasons is absolutely hysterical. We’re talking about a SLU program that’s appeared in only seven NCAA Tournaments since 1957 … seven NCAA tournaments during my lifetime, and I’m 57 years old. As for Ford’s stock being down — damn, how soon we forget about the late great Rick Majerus. When the big man was hired by SLU in 2007, he didn’t have much going on. After accepting the USC job — only to walk away from it a few days later — Majerus was radioactive to athletic directors and university of presidents. Rick’s phone had stopped ringing. No one was offering him a decent coaching job. But SLU wisely took a chance, and gave Majerus a chance. No other university was willing to do that.

The program put together by Majerus ultimately put the Billikens in three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, with the Billikens winning three tournament games. Three seasons of special basketball and an 81-22 overall record. It fell apart; promoted from within, Jim Crews couldn’t sustain the Majerus-led success. But SLU is a good place to be for a coach that’s determined to show that he still has what it takes to be successful. A coach that wants to prove himself all over again. A coach that’s hungry to win. Travis Ford qualifies.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie