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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, April 7, 2017

UTC goes to Paris for new head hoops coach




Lamont Paris

As is always the case, after only a couple of days the local daily Times Free Press whipped out a ready-made speculation list for candidates to replace the abruptly departing Matt McCall as UT-Chattanooga’s head basketball coach.

And ring up a hit for the paper’s Gene Henley. One of the 10 candidates speculated upon wound up being athletic director David Blackburn’s brilliant choice. Wisconsin associate head coach Lamont Paris came on board just three days after McCall met the New England media as the replacement for the replacement coach at the University of Massachusetts.

McCall was unexpectedly tabbed after UMass’ first choice, Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, did an about-face and declined the job less than an hour before his introductory news conference. The media event was cancelled, and Kelsey returned to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to resume coaching the Eagles.

Paris was a finalist for the UTC job in 2015, when McCall was tabbed to replace Will Wade. The 43-year-old Ohio native is a 20-year veteran of the coaching ranks, but is stepping into his first head coaching position after six seasons on the Wisconsin bench.

One published report indicated that Paris will receive a six-year deal. Terms have yet to be announced, but it is expected that he will receive a bump upward from McCall’s annual salary package of $232,000.

I wonder today how many Chattanooga fans will have this thought: Gee, if it had been UT-Knoxville who’d lost a coach that way, then they’d hire a search committee, spend thousands of dollars and waste weeks of prime recruiting time, then hire some former UT lackey whose return would be unwelcome and puzzling.

But the wise powers that be that reside in Knoxville did not hire David Blackburn to be their new AD, so he was still in place at UTC to snare a man who had been on the Wisconsin sidelines since 2010, and was only this past year promoted to associate head coach, the heir apparent to Greg Gard.

But Gard, who was handed the Badgers job in mid-season two years ago when Bo Ryan abruptly retired, is only 46. He was the true heir apparent in Madison; Ryan extended his tenure for half a season while Gard was spending time with his terminally ill father.

Both Gard and Paris related theirs was a close friendship, Gard saying Sunday night, “I’m so happy and proud for him. He’s more than paid his dues and climbed the professional ladder the right way.”

Wisconsin was Paris’ fifth port-of-call as a coach, including his alma mater, Wooster College, for whom he began working as an assistant in 1997. From there, he spent one season at DePauw, three seasons at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a strong six seasons as the top assistant at mid-major Akron before arriving in Madison. At Akron, he was chief recruiter for a program that won 20 games each of his final five years, earned one NCAA tournament appearance as MAC champion and also went to a pair of NITs.

His Wisconsin resume will more than placate any anxious UTC fan. During his time there, the Badgers averaged 27 wins per season, each of those six seasons culminating in a date for March Madness. Five of those years found Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, along with back-to-back Final Fours in 2014 and 2015, making it to the finals in ’15 – the first time for Wisconsin since 1941. The latter team also broke the school record for wins in a season with 36.

“We were fortunate to get an elite-level person and coach in Lamont,” Blackburn told the Chattanooga media Sunday. “It was a fast, thorough process. It was important to get someone before the national signing period begins April 12.

“This was not a hasty decision. Rather, it was a decisive one,” Blackburn added, implying perhaps that Paris was the runner-up for the job two years before.

“I’m excited. But, it’s bittersweet,” Paris told Wisconsin State Journal reporter Jim Polzin when contacted while returning from the road. “Man, it’s a hard program to walk away from. It was a really, really special situation here.”

Unlike McCall’s departure, where there was no controversy to be had. But he, like Paris, was called off the road as both UMass and Chattanooga have scholarships to allocate; the Mocs, in particular, are needing to fill a number of holes.

McCall was hired by UMass last week, shortly after newly named head coach Pat Kelsey, who backed out of his job commitment after meeting with his team a week ago, 35 minutes before his scheduled introductory news conference. There were no delays for McCall’s hiring, as the entire team was present and sat on the front row for it.

McCall won 48 games in two seasons with the Mocs, setting the school record with 29 wins in the 2015-16 campaign.

But in an unintentionally humorous side note, UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford insisted to the media that McCall “wasn’t second choice” to replace the fired Derek Kellogg. In fact, McCall was nowhere to be found on the school’s radar the first time around.

“We moved pretty quickly,” Bamford said. “We were thorough, but we moved pretty quickly (in hiring Kelsey) and didn’t get a chance to talk to (McCall). It wasn’t that he was the second choice, because we didn’t talk to him the first time around. It was just a timing thing. We found a candidate we liked and wanted to go down the road with.”

So much for first impressions. Bamford is no doubt offering a prayer of thanks before tucking himself in these nights.

“I have to tell you, I’m extremely happy with where we ended up now a week later,” Bamford admitted. “This is, for us, a great, great hire. Matt brings a lot to the table and was on our radar from the very beginning.”

That little white lie aside, the UMass athletic director quickly took accurate measure of his newest hire.

“Every place he’s been, he’s won,” he told the media. “You can’t say that about every coach in this country. I think he’ll bring that winning here.”

And with Paris in place in Chattanooga, there’s little reason for local fans to care much beyond the fact that our city was singled out for praise by one of the coaches involved in the process. But it’s still fun to speculate what the hell happened between lunchtime and 3:30, less than an hour before the scheduled announcement for Kelsey.

The timeline is that the once-and-again Winthrop coach had dinner with his players and discussed the future, then had lunch with Bamford with no apparent snags in the process. Kelsey then phoned Bamford at 3:25 to report he was declining the position, citing personal reasons.

It was then reported by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman that Kelsey no longer wanted the job with the Minutemen. A source close to Goodman told him that Kelsey “just didn’t feel like it was the right place for him.”

Winthrop then announced it would be willing to allow Kelsey to return. The about-face reportedly will cost Kelsey a million-dollar penalty for leaving the program before two years have passed. Kellogg was head coach for eight seasons and was reportedly about to enjoy his best recruiting class at the time he was fired.

For his part, Kelsey had never submitted a letter of recognition, so the terms of his existing contract remained in effect.

Kelsey said Friday he never signed an actual contract with UMass, but did sign a Memorandum of Understanding. He signed it before visiting the school’s Amherst campus.

Paris will be the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s 20th men’s head basketball coach, the ninth to be part of the program since the step up to Division I in 1977. He will be its second African-American head coach, following Henry Dickerson (1997-2002).