Mark Story: Travis Ford has chance to step into spotlight

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 20, 2009 

DAYTON, Ohio — The "Kentucky Three" are having their own derby.

John Pelphrey had the eye-opening wins over Oklahoma and Texas; then his Hogs went to slaughter 15 times in their final 17 games.

Darrin Horn beat Kentucky twice; then his Gamecocks were roasted in four of their final five tilts.

So as the 2009 edition of the race between the rising, young college hoops coaches from Kentucky hits the homestretch (aka the NCAA Tournament), only Travis Ford is running.

In his initial season as Oklahoma State head man, the Madisonville product has the Cowboys making their first NCAA appearance since 2005.

A victory over Tennessee here in Friday's East Regional first round would give Ford — the point guard who helped Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four and the head man who in 2005 took Eastern Kentucky to its first NCAA tourney in 26 years — his initial NCAA victory as a coach.

As befits a team coached by a guy from Kentucky, Oklahoma State got to college basketball's biggest stage with a potent closing kick.

After absorbing a 99-74 drubbing at Texas on Feb. 10, OSU stood at 3-6 in the Big 12. Yet it is what happened on Feb. 11 that the Oklahoma State players refer to as "hell."

The practice lasted four hours. It involved a lot of running to the top of the Gallagher-Iba Arena steps; and repeating defensive drills over and over and over; and working on rebounding until the soles of one's feet were on fire.

"Tough, real, real tough," OSU star James Anderson said Thursday of that practice. "He got us in the gym, and it was like he was going to make us do every defensive drill he could think of."

Yet the four hours of hell changed everything. "Turned our season around," Anderson said.

After the hard practice, Oklahoma State (22-11) won six of its final seven regular-season games, then upset archrival Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament.

"We got to the point where our season could go either way," Ford said. "I thought I could see in some of our guys' eyes sort of an acceptance. 'This is who we are, we're an NIT team.' That just wasn't acceptable to me."

After last season, Ford left Massachusetts for Oklahoma State. The job became open when OSU ousted Sean Sutton, another former Kentucky point guard, after only two years as head coach.

Given that Eddie Sutton, the ex-UK coach and Sean's father, is a genuine OSU basketball legend, the move had immense potential for leaving a rancorous division in the Oklahoma State fan base.

Winning being the salve to all major college sports ailments, OSU's late-season run was exactly what Ford needed to gain acceptance in Stillwater.

The Cowboys' life seems to agree with the 39-year-old Ford. He speaks glowingly of T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil man who is an OSU sports uber-booster.

"One of the smartest people I've ever been around," says Ford. "It's been a lot of fun to get to know him — very interesting to spend time with him."

Ford's parents, Eddie and Pat, have discovered it takes about nine hours to drive from Madisonville to Stillwater.

A prominent summer basketball coach in Kentucky, Eddie has long been a big part of Travis' basketball life.

One suspects Pat's motivation for those nine-hour car trips runs a bit more toward seeing the grandkids. Travis and his wife, Heather, have three children between 5 and 9.

"Travis is really happy there," Eddie Ford says of Stillwater. "It's a great college town. And the people in Oklahoma are very much like rural Kentucky people, the people (Travis) grew up around. It's just a good fit for him."

In Kentucky, it's become a running parlor game for basketball fans to compare and contrast the coaching successes of ex-UK players Ford and Pelphrey (Arkansas) and Horn (South Carolina), the former Lexington high school standout who both played and coached at Western Kentucky.

The next time the UK job opens, whenever that would be, there probably will be a powerful hankering among the populace to see a " Kentucky guy" coach Kentucky.

Thing is, even a " Kentucky guy" needs to have the qualifications to deserve the job.

If Oklahoma State beats the Rocky Toppers, a second-round matchup with top-seeded Pittsburgh almost certainly looms next.

Upsetting a No. 1 seed is one way to build the coaching credibility needed to be deemed worthy of an elite job.

Who knows? For Travis Ford, this could be a most opportune year to be the only one among the "Kentucky Three" to make the stretch run.

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