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May 23, 2008The last time Travis Ford was at Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena, he was a freshman guard on a Missouri team that was ranked No. 4 in the nation. The Tigers, 15-1 at the time, nearly lost to an unranked Cowboys squad that night, escaping with a 72-71 win Jan. 16, 1990.
When asked about that game, Ford, 38, says he can't remember the score or who came out on top. That's not to say he doesn't have vivid memories of the road trip, though.
"I don't even remember if we won or not, but I do remember the atmosphere," Ford said. "It felt like everybody was on top of you. I never forgot that.
"You could really tell how much they loved basketball here."
That atmosphere, widely considered among the best in college basketball, and the many other resources Oklahoma State provides are a big reason one of the hottest young coaches chose to leave Massachusetts and replace Sean Sutton in mid-April. Ford already had turned down an offer to become the next coach at Providence and had pulled out of the LSU job search.
UMass was so confident Ford was done looking around that the school put out a news release saying he would be the Minutemen's coach next season.
Three days later, Oklahoma State called.
"I was absolutely sure I was staying at UMass," said Ford, who began his head-coaching career at the age of 26 at Campbellsville (Ky.) University, an NAIA school. "I had looked at the Providence situation and was interested and had talked to people at LSU, but when I sat back, I realized I had a better situation at UMass. I loved the players. I loved the people I worked for. I had every intention of staying there.
"Then Oklahoma State calls. That took me back. The more I started looking at, the more I realized it was an incredible situation."
Ford signed a seven-year contract with the Cowboys worth $1.3 million a year ? a hefty raise from the $400,000 he was set to make at UMass ? but not before an emotional goodbye with the UMass players.
"Having to walk into a room and tell them I was leaving was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Ford said. "I loved those guys and still think about them every day. ? I said my goal is to win a national championship, and when I looked at my team, I said, 'I think I can do that at Oklahoma State.' "
It has been 62 years since the school won a national title ? its name was Oklahoma A&M at the time ? but the pieces needed to do it again appear to be in place.
Few programs have more tradition. Hall-of-Fame coach Henry Iba led the Cowboys to back-to-back national titles in 1945-46. The school has made six trips to the Final Four, which is tied for ninth on the all-time list.
Oklahoma State is paying $2.1 million to buy out Sutton's contract. There also were reports of the Cowboys offering outrageous amounts of money to Kansas coach Bill Self, a Cowboys alum who chose to stay put after leading the Jayhawks to the 2008 national title.
Gallgaher-Iba continues to offer the same kind of great home-court advantage that Ford encountered as a visiting player 18 years ago. The Cowboys are 261-36 (.878) at home over the past 20 seasons.
"I read one quote that said this has to be one of the best home-court advantages in basketball," said Ford, a Kentucky native who played his final three seasons at UK for Rick Pitino. "Well, I am here to make it the best college basketball home-court advantage."
Oklahoma State fans would settle for another NCAA Tournament appearance. Since going to the Final Four in 2004 and the Sweet 16 in 2005, the Cowboys have made three consecutive trips to the NIT. The Cowboys had losing records in the Big 12 in each of the past three seasons, including a 7-9 finish last season that led to Sutton's resignation. They ranked next-to-last or last in the Big 12 in three statistical categories: field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage defense and assists.
The good news for Ford is that he inherits some talent and experience. Oklahoma State's top four scorers ? all guards ? are returning. That includes rising star James Anderson, who led the team at 13.3 points per game as a freshman. Seniors-to-be Byron Eaton and Terrel Harris ? the last two members remaining from the Cowboys' top-ranked '05 recruiting class ? set career-highs with 11.5 points per game and 10.5 per game, respectively. Obi Muonelo, a former five-star prospect, was just shy of averaging double figures at 9.8.
One of Ford's first moves was to indefinitely suspend Harris for unspecified reasons. He says he will "monitor" Harris closely this summer.
"It's hard for me to sit back and judge what this team is made of because I haven't been able to get on the court with the players yet," Ford said. "The only things I can rely on are what people tell me, looking at film and stats. It's obvious we have good athleticism and guys that can play our system. We don't have a big guy, but that isn't a necessity."
That system that Ford refers to is among the most offensive-minded in the country. UMass ranked eighth in the nation in scoring offense at 81.5 points per game this past season while advancing to the NIT championship game. The Minutemen reached the 100-point barrier three times.
"I really like guys that can do a lot of different things on the court," Ford said. "I don't want guys who just stand on the block. I want players with different skills and want to give them the freedom to use those skills.
"We also need guys who are willing to work incredibly hard. That's what we had at UMass."
Ford has been busy trying to find players who fit that description. During his first two weeks on the job, Ford made recruiting trips to Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina and Texas. Ford also lured former LSU assistant Butch Pierre, who was the lead recruiter for the Tigers, to Stillwater. Ford retained assistant Chris Ferguson and hired Steve Middleton, who was with Ford at UMass.
The Cowboys recently hosted a visit from former Michigan center Ekpe Udoh, who wants to transfer closer to his home in Oklahoma City. A shot-blocking specialist, the 6-10 Udoh led the Big Ten with 2.8 blocks per game last season. He is considering a number of other Big 12 programs and has two years of eligibility remaining.
As for next season, Ford believes his veteran point guard will be the biggest factor. The 5-11 Eaton is a former-five star recruit, but he has yet to live up to the lofty expectations.
Eaton was terrific during one eight-game stretch in late February and early March, averaging 17.5 points and 5.1 assists as the Cowboys went 6-2. That included a career-high 26-point performance where Eaton went 16 of 18 from the free-throw line in a 61-60 upset of then-No. 4 Kansas at home on Feb. 23.
But Eaton shot a career-low 40.6 percent from the field for the season, and his biggest problem was merely staying on the court. He fouled out of seven games and was whistled for four fouls in 11 other contests.
"There's no question that Byron has created a reputation for himself, but people are wondering how good he is," Ford said. "He's got to get into the best shape of his life. He's got to show commitment to leadership. Next year, Byron will either be one of the best point guards in this league and one of the best in the country, or it will be the toughest year of his life."
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.