OKLAHOMA CITY —Travis Ford replaced Sean Sutton when the two were still playing college basketball. He’ll do it again in the coaching profession.
Ford agreed Wednesday to leave his job as Massachusetts’ coach to take over Sutton’s old position at Oklahoma State. A news conference was planned in Stillwater on Thursday to formally introduce him.
In a twist of fate, Ford has been in a position to follow Sutton once before. After growing up in Kentucky, Ford ended up leaving the state to start his college career when the coach seemed headed toward playing his son at the point guard position.
Kentucky’s coach at the time? Eddie Sutton. And his point guard? His son, Sean.
So Ford headed to Missouri for his first season, but then ended up transferring back home after Eddie Sutton ran into trouble with NCAA violations and alcoholism and was forced out at Kentucky.
Eddie Sutton ended up returning to his alma mater, Oklahoma State, and Sean transferred to join him before eventually joining his coaching staff. The two combined to take a downtrodden program to 13 NCAA tournaments in the next 16 seasons—including Final Four appearances in 1995 and 2004—before the elder Sutton stepped aside following a drunk-driving accident in 2006.
That set the gears in motion toward Ford’s second chance at following the Suttons.
Sean Sutton, who had been promised the chance to succeed his father, took over the Cowboys’ program late in the 2005-06 and led the team to its first of three straight first-round exits in the NIT.
Upon announcing Sean Sutton’s resignation April 1, athletic director Mike Holder called him a victim of the expectations set by his father.
Now, Ford will assume those expectations. The 38-year-old coach led UMass to a 25-11 record this season and an appearance in the NIT championship game, where it lost to Ohio State. He directed the Minutemen to a 62-35 mark in three seasons, including NIT bids the past two seasons.
“I have greatly enjoyed my three years here at UMass. It was a very difficult decision to leave UMass, one which my family and I struggled with mightily,” Ford said Wednesday in a statement released by the university.
“I wish nothing but the best for the staff and players at UMass. They have been and will always be family to me. I feel the team at UMass has a great nucleus in place and I wish them the best in the future.”
Oklahoma State’s coaching search began with a high-profile bid to lure Bill Self away from Kansas after he led the Jayhawks to the national championship. Rumors of a big payday backed by billionaire booster Boone Pickens never came to fruition, and Self signed an extension to stay at Kansas instead of returning to his alma mater.
The end result was another Oklahoma State hire with a Kentucky connection.
Ford grew up in Madisonville, Ky., and played three seasons for Rick Pitino at Kentucky after transferring from Missouri. He was a key player on the Wildcats’ 1993 Final Four team that featured Jamal Mashburn.
Ford’s first head coaching job was at Campbellsville, Ky., of the NAIA, where he went 67-31 in three seasons. He then took over a losing program at Eastern Kentucky and guided the Colonels to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 26 years. He parlayed that first-round loss to Kentucky in 2005 into the Massachusetts job, and it appeared as recently as last week that he would remain with the Minutemen.
Ford turned down a job offer from Providence, and UMass athletic director John McCutcheon announced that Ford had agreed to a new contract. Six days later, Ford was preparing to move on.
McCutcheon said he never heard directly from Oklahoma State, but Ford had informed him he was contacted.
“We did have some very candid conversations with coach Ford and this situation emerged very quickly,” McCutcheon said. “It’s part of the business we’re in. That’s just something we have to deal with is professionalism. When you have an individual as talented as coach Ford was, that represents an institution like he did, you’d be naive to think you’re not going to have these situations.”