Commentary

Ford's meteoric rise in coaching ranks ends at OK State

Originally Published: June 30, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Mentally clicking through the basketball rolodex built into his head, Rick Pitino summoned the perfect game analogy to define Travis Ford.

The year was 1993; the setting, New Orleans; the game, a national semifinal against Michigan.

Knocked out in practice two days earlier after colliding with Tony Delk and ceding eight inches to the Wolverines' Jimmy King, Ford went without a bucket in the first half.

Maybe right now he doesn't have the résumé of some other coaches in the Big East, ACC or Big 12, but in three years you don't think he's going to be one of the top young coaches in the country? It's like judging an athlete. You're not looking for right away but down the road.

--Rick Pitino on Travis Ford

Yet when both the game and Ford were on the line, Pitino didn't even watch.

"Travis needed to hit the free throws to send the game into overtime," Pitino remembered. "I looked at my assistant and said, 'Get ready for overtime. He's not missing.' Pressure doesn't mean anything to Travis. It doesn't affect him."

A whirling dervish with a three-Red-Bulls-a-day habit, Ford will need all of that game-on-the-line calm now. He has landed in the soup, moving into Stillwater, Okla., where the university's attitude belies its serene-sounding location.

Oklahoma State, Ford's new employer, has been more "churning cyclone" than "still water."

In April, the university gave the hook to Sean Sutton despite a $2.2 million buyout, a 39-29 record in two seasons and a last name that once was revered in north-central Oklahoma.

Before the press conference to announce Sutton's dismissal had ended, the school, with billionaire alum T. Boone Pickens' bottomless wallet serving as the come-on, started winking and smiling at Bill Self.

OSU's crush went unrequited when Self re-upped at Kansas.

Two weeks later, the Cowboys hired Ford.

The general consensus? The university swung for the fences with a guy who just won a national championship before settling on a guy who just finished as runner-up in the NIT.

"Hey, if I was an A.D., I'd go after Bill Self, too," Ford said.

Not too long ago, Bill Self wasn't Bill Self. Heck, until Jason Richards missed a 3-pointer to deny Davidson's upset in the Elite Eight, Self was the guy who couldn't get to the Final Four.

In 1996, Florida A.D. Jeremy Foley took a chance on a young guy from Marshall who had never coached a game in the NCAA tournament.

Four years later Florida played for a national title, and in 2006, Billy Donovan won his first of back-to-back national championships.

The point being, if Oklahoma State can return the stillness to its waters, it might just find satisfaction with the young Ford.

"They have no idea what they're getting," Pitino said. "He's not a household name, so they don't understand what they're getting. Maybe right now he doesn't have the résumé of some other coaches in the Big East, ACC or Big 12, but in three years you don't think he's going to be one of the top young coaches in the country? It's like judging an athlete. You're not looking for right away but down the road."

The road Ford has been traveling is basketball's autobahn: He's been speed-racing up the game's hierarchical ladder, bypassing the traditional steps. A decade ago, the man now in charge of a team in one of the most well-greased athletic departments in the country (Pickens has donated $165 million to the Cowboys) was more likely to be handling Pickens' money than his basketball passion.

Adored for his pint-sized chutzpah and assassin's aim on 3-pointers, Ford was a Kentucky darling who parlayed his hoops fame into his pick of lucrative job offers. Figuring the juice on Wall Street would mimic the adrenaline rush of a game, he took the Series 7 exam to become a stockbroker.

[+] EnlargeTravis Ford
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesTravis Ford's gritty play made quite an impression on then-coach Rick Pitino.

His father, Eddie, a basketball lifer who once coached Murray State, was thrilled. He raised Travis in the game, putting him on planes for cross-country tournaments and feeding their mutual passion. They gleefully wore basketball blinders, bonding over roundball and forgetting some of the other traditional father-son teachings. To this day Eddie swears Travis can't change a tire or car battery.

But as proud as he was to raise a Wildcat, Eddie knew well the stress and pressure that basketball could generate. And as much as Travis never seemed troubled by such stuff -- "I actually kind of thrive off stress," he said -- his father thought it wouldn't be a bad thing for his son to choose a different route.

"Once he got to work at a firm, he realized he was sitting behind a desk," Eddie Ford laughed. "I knew he could never sit behind a desk."

Ford's beloved stature, coupled with Pitino's endorsement -- which in Kentucky basketball is akin to the laying of hands -- was enough for tiny Campbellsville University to hire Ford without a lick of coaching experience. Ford was 26 years old and Campbellsville was just a combined 31-26 its previous two years.

By the time he left three years later, the Tigers were 23-11 and in the NAIA tournament.

"I liked the experience he had in his first job; he started at rock bottom," said Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder. "That really impressed me."

From Campbellsville, Ford's career is a perfectly choreographed climb up the coaching ladder. He parlayed his NAIA success into a mid-major reclamation project at Eastern Kentucky. After taking EKU to the peak -- its first NCAA tournament game in 25 years -- he jetted to UMass, where the glory days under John Calipari were a distant memory.

Ford fixed the Minutemen, just like he resurrected Campbellsville and Eastern Kentucky. UMass won the Atlantic 10 regular-season title in 2007 and followed that up with an NIT title-game appearance in 2008.

No matter how perfectly the stepping stones seem to have aligned, Ford insists there was no calculated grand plan. If there was, he wouldn't have turned down Providence, like he did in April. Providence was the logical next step, from Atlantic 10 to Big East, but it also was too close to Amherst, too awkward.

"I'm not a long-range goal guy," he said. "I'm a guy who believes if you start looking ahead and not taking care of today, you're in trouble. Even with my team, I don't do that. People set goals of making the NCAA tournament, the Final Four. Well, sure, we all want to do that, but I set goals for games. A lot of people think I'm crazy, but that to me is what you can manage."

Managing Oklahoma State will be a tougher animal: better conference, bigger school, higher stakes. The Cowboys might like to say they have reasonable expectations, but when Sutton was dismissed, Holder said at the time, "He knew what the expectations were when he took the job. He thought he would be successful, as did I."

Sutton went 17-16 in his final season -- not great, but not exactly an abject failure.

So where does that leave Ford? He has a fan base still feeling rebuked by Self, a wealthy alum looking for a return on his investment and his own $9.1 million premium on winning (Ford's salary over seven years).

"Pressure is a fact of life," Holder said. "Not only in coaching, but in any profession in this country. Our country is competitive by nature."

Ford said he met Pickens and swears the millionaire is just a richer version of your typical fan. "You hear about him running the place," Ford said. "That's not true. He just loves this place."

Ford also talked to Sutton. The ex-coach called his replacement on the day of Ford's press conference. Ford didn't ask what happened or why (saying it wasn't his place to get in the middle of it), but that Sutton merely called to offer help.

It all sounds cordial and polite, but this isn't Campbellsville, Eastern Kentucky or UMass. People don't want building blocks. They want results, and they want a man with the stomach to shoulder their expectations.

Back inside Pitino's mental library, the Louisville coach conjures up another perfect analogy to prove that Ford is that man.

The year was 2006; the setting, Louisville; the game, an ordinary regular-season matchup pitting pupil against mentor.

"He came into Freedom Hall and you know, Travis always gives me more credit than I probably deserve," Pitino said. "It was all, 'No sir, yes sir, thank you Coach.' Then he stepped between the lines and forget all that.

"He kicked my ass. He just kicked my ass."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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