WALFISH: Matt McCall's battle for culture started too late

  • UMass Head Coach Matt McCall shouts instructions during his team's loss to Howard, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 at the Mullins Center. Jerrey Roberts / Staff Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/22/2019 10:41:04 AM

I can still remember the scene vividly despite it now being more than two and a half years since what I have dubbed the “Thanksgiving Throwdown” occurred.

It was my first season covering James Madison basketball, which had a first-time head coach early in his first season, and the Dukes had just gotten hammered at home the day before Thanksgiving. As I was getting ready to move toward the postgame interview room, I stopped to witness Louis Rowe giving an impassioned two-minute speech to his team at midcourt as the fans filed out of the arena.

When I asked Rowe about that moment in the press conference, he told me: “Now it’s at a point where I say, this team is going to look the way I want it to look — my vision of the team. There are some guys that if I turn the screws, they’re going to come with me — or I’m going to figure out if they’re going to come with me. The screws are getting ready to get turned.”

That moment was the turning point in setting the culture at JMU under Rowe, and it came in just his fifth game as a head coach. For the rest of that season, he stuck to his guns and only used the players who were committed to him and his identity. It didn’t lead to many wins, but it was a statement that needed to be made and at no point could you question whether or not the players loved and respected him.

I have thought about that moment a lot recently as Matt McCall tries to install a similar cultural change at UMass. This crusade has entered its third week and the results are still not conclusive, but they aren’t what they should be, either. Another dreadful performance Wednesday against George Washington is a sign that either Luwane Pipkins is actually a detriment to this team or perhaps McCall has started his culture changing process too late.

It is safe to say this season is a lost cause for the Minutemen, who continue to languish at the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings. They will almost certainly play on Wednesday afternoon in Brooklyn and the chance of them playing on Friday are about as slim as the chances Aidan Byrne will make an appearance for UMass on Saturday against Saint Joseph’s. What matters over the next three weeks is how McCall is serious about changing the culture at UMass.

As stupid as it’s going to sound, these last five regular season games should be about setting a culture and not about winning. If a guy isn’t committed to McCall’s vision of the future, he should barely see the floor over the next three weeks. If he is going to commit fully to the cause, he should play extended minutes. That should mean more time for players like Randall West, whose effort and compete have never been questioned. 

But then again, McCall put himself in this situation by not being more forceful at instilling his culture earlier in his tenure. The problems plaguing UMass this season didn’t just appear overnight, they’ve been festering under the surface all season and just now are breaking into our consciousness. By the time we recognized the issue for what it was, the damage had been done and it was too late to salvage the season.

So now McCall is receiving some heat from a fan base that is struggling to figure out how McCall could recruit a team that doesn’t fit into his cultural identity and how he could let the problems linger this long. In a span of four months, we’ve gone from fans excited and optimistic about McCall’s chances at returning UMass to its glory days to the same fans questioning if McCall is the right man for the job.

There is no doubt that McCall has great pride in UMass and he wants to instill that same level of respect for the program in his players. There are plenty who have completely bought into McCall’s message, but it is evident not enough are committed to the plan. McCall’s version of the “Thanksgiving Throwdown” is his decision to banish the team from the Champions Center, and it worked for two games. The question we’ll answer Saturday is if that stand is going to be successful long-term or just a simple ploy that didn’t have any staying power.

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