Mark Story

Travis Ford lands on his feet at Saint Louis

Travis Ford, Saint Louis University’s new men’s basketball, spoke during a press conference on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at Chaifetz Arena in Saint Louis. Ford, who parted with Oklahoma State earlier in the month after going 155-111 in eight seasons with five NCAA Tournament appearances, replaced Jim Crews.
Travis Ford, Saint Louis University’s new men’s basketball, spoke during a press conference on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at Chaifetz Arena in Saint Louis. Ford, who parted with Oklahoma State earlier in the month after going 155-111 in eight seasons with five NCAA Tournament appearances, replaced Jim Crews. St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Travis Ford spent eight years in Stillwater, Okla., population 47,186. So navigating the daily traffic in metropolitan St. Louis — with its some 2.8 million residents — is a challenge.

“That’s been my biggest adjustment, getting used to driving in the traffic in a big city,” Ford said. “And I’ve got a 16-year-old son who only knew driving in Stillwater. So I worry about him, too.”

Ford, 46, the former Madisonville High School and Kentucky Wildcats point guard, is making the adjustment to big-city life after landing the Saint Louis University men’s basketball coaching job. After an injury-ravaged 12-20 season at Oklahoma State, Ford and the Cowboys parted ways after eight seasons.

“We made the NCAA Tournament five times in my eight years,” Ford said. “I really believe we would have been a lock to make it this year, too, but we lost our two best players (guards Phil Forte and Jawun Evans) to injuries, and had a lot of other injuries besides that.”

Unlike two other Kentucky-bred coaches who lost “Power Five” conference jobs, John Pelphrey (Arkansas) and Darrin Horn (South Carolina), Ford was able to immediately land another head-coaching position.

He found a job with upside, too.

Saint Louis fell on hard times the past two seasons, going a combined 22-42 and costing Jim Crews his job. In the three seasons prior, however, teams built around players recruited by the late Rick Majerus led the Billikens to 26, 28 and 27 victories and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 all three years.

A Jesuit school with an undergraduate enrollment of some 8,200, Saint Louis has its own on-campus facility — the 10,600-seat Chaifetz Arena — and an adjoining practice facility. In the Atlantic 10, SLU plays in a strong basketball conference.

“When it comes to basketball, the Billikens are what this city has,” Ford said. “(The University of) Missouri is a couple of hours down the road, there’s no NBA team. With the (NFL franchise) Rams leaving (for Los Angeles), I think that opens it up even more for us in terms of media exposure and maybe some sponsorship opportunities. I think this can be a really good situation if we get it going.”

Not everyone has been as enthusiastic about the pairing of Ford and Saint Louis. Mike DeCourcy, college basketball columnist for The Sporting News, recently ranked 13 of 2016’s college hoops hirings from best (1st) to worst (13th).

Ford to Saint Louis was 13th.

“For a guy with a coaching record only a shade above .500 — 278-226, a winning percentage of .552 — Ford does excel at staying employed,” DeCourcy wrote. “ ... SLU’s decision to hire him is supposed to improve the program how, exactly?”

That assessment seems a tad harsh.

When Ford took the Eastern Kentucky job in 2000-01, he inherited a program that had gone 9-44 the prior two years and endured seven straight losing seasons. It took Ford five years to produce a winning team, but he led that 2004-05 squad (22-9) to EKU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1979 (and gave Kentucky a tough game in the NCAA Tournament).

Ford next went to Massachusetts, taking over a program that had gone 50-65 in the preceding four years. In his three seasons (2005-08), Ford produced two years of 24-plus wins and two NIT trips, including reaching the 2008 finals.

Even Oklahoma State, a program where Henry Iba won two NCAA titles (1945 and ’46) and Eddie Sutton produced two Final Four trips (1995 and 2004), had been in the NIT in each of the three seasons prior to Ford’s hiring in 2008.

Against that backdrop, five NCAA Tournament trips in eight years doesn’t look horrible. Ford’s 1-5 record in NCAA tourney games at OSU was less than stellar, however.

“At any school, even the University of Kentucky, Louisville, you always want more,” Ford said. “The draws we got in the NCAA Tournament were just unbelievable, some tough deals. … But, you can always find excuses.”

It figures to take a couple of recruiting classes, but Saint Louis might allow Ford a chance to produce some better March Madness memories.

Traffic notwithstanding, the city of St. Louis seems a good fit for Ford. “I’m closer to home, only two-and-a-half, three hours from Madisonville,” he said.

As is the case with many who grow up in western Kentucky, Ford rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals as a kid.

So it was equal parts thrilling and terrifying for Ford when he took the mound Monday before 45,008 in Busch Stadium to throw out the first pitch before the Cardinals faced the archrival Chicago Cubs.

“I played in the Final Four before 64,000,” Ford says, referencing Kentucky’s 1993 overtime loss to Michigan in the New Orleans Superdome. “But that was nothing like the nerves out on that mound. You get out there, that catcher starts looking pretty far away.”

Ford’s story is he got the ball over the plate.

“It looked like a strike to me,” he said. “Now, if you ask my wife and kids, you may get a different story.”

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