JERREY ROBERTS University of Massachusetts Head Coach Derek Kellogg talks to Chaz Williams, left, and Derrick Gordon during his team's loss to Saint Louis March 9 at the Mullins Center.
AMHERST — University of Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg had sat in the window seat at Arigato in downtown Amherst many times before. It was a good spot to watch the foot traffic of North Pleasant Street while having dolsot bibimbap.
As he and staff assistant Andy Allison ate their rice bowls with beef and egg, people began waving at him through the window.
Days earlier the Minutemen had upset No. 19 New Mexico en route to winning the Charleston Classic. The tournament title helped launched them into the top 25 for the first time in years. UMass was taking off and carrying Kellogg’s celebrity status along with it.
“People were like, ‘Great job coach!’” Kellogg said, smiling at the recollection.
It’s not just at restaurants. Strangers smile and nod their head at him when he takes communion at Sunday Mass, and whisper “hey that’s the UMass coach” when he attends one of his son’s basketball games.
Kellogg received a similar level of attention as a player at UMass in the early 1990s. He watched John Calipari, his coach at UMass and boss when Kellogg was an assistant at Memphis, live in the spotlight. But it’s taken some getting used to for Kellogg as the head coach.
“I like the attention. It’s good for the program,” Kellogg said. “But at the same time it’s odd. I’m mostly an unassuming guy.”
He’s no longer coaching an unassuming program.
Standing at the podium almost six years ago, Kellogg put his spin on the standard press conference speech nearly every coach gives the day he is hired.
He talked about bringing UMass back to the NCAA tournament and making the Minutemen a consistent winner again. He wanted to make the Mullins Center a tough ticket and make basketball matter again in Amherst.
It’s exactly what longtime fans and alumni wanted to hear. While the accent and wording were different, Kellogg’s promises weren’t that different from what Steve Lappas or Travis Ford promised. Press conference promises don’t mean much in the long term.
But while Lappas’ and Ford’s visions fell short, Kellogg delivered on his, bringing the Minutemen back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 16 years.
He’ll lead No. 6-seeded UMass against the No. 11-seeded winner of the play-in game between Tennessee and Iowa, Friday at 2:45 p.m. at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
Kellogg said he’d been thinking about how to resurrect the Minutemen long before he’d been hired.
“It took a lot of hard work from me, my staff and our families to get to this point,” Kellogg said. “I’ve had a vision for UMass for a long time. Not just being here, but even when I was an assistant at Memphis. ‘If I ever got that job, this is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.’ To have it coming to fruition, and it’s not all the way to fruition yet, but to get to this point is special.”
Getting to that point wasn’t easy.
Kellogg made some mistakes early in his tenure. In hopes of turning things quickly, he took three transfers right away. While Oregon State big man Sean Carter turned out to be a good player and a good ambassador for the program, Memphis big man Hashim “Big City” Bailey was ineffective and UConn guard Doug Wiggins’ off-the-court troubles led to his dismissal without ever playing a game.
He kicked freshman point guard Daryl Traynham off the team less than a season into his UMass career.
Many of Calipari’s former assistant coaches have struggled early in their initial head coaching tenures as they try to replicate everything he does. When Kellogg started to become more of his own man, the more success he found. Calipari has had some success with troubled kids, but for Kellogg cutting ties with Traynham, a talented player who was damaging team chemistry, was a philosophical change.
Kellogg said he was going to build his team with players he liked being around and liked being around each other. He abandoned the dribble-drive motion offense that he’d brought with him from Memphis and cut ties with assistant coach Vance Walberg, the creator of the dribble-drive. Kellogg and Calipari are still close, but the UMass program is now built more of chasing future glory than recreating the past. Kellogg installed his own offense and took greater control. He’s been in the postseason every year since.
“I wasn’t sure what the path was going to be or how quick it was going to happen,” he said. “There’s been some bumps along the way, but I didn’t waiver on how we do things.”
While many college coaches either won’t allow themselves a moment to soak in what their success had produced or acknowledge that they have, Kellogg admitted it’s been special.
“It’s satisfying to see the Mullins Center sold out. To see people coming in droves. That people can’t get tickets. That’s what it’s supposed to be,” Kellogg said. “I’m enjoying seeing so many people getting enjoyment from what we’re doing.”
As the Minutemen get set to head to the NCAAs, people are still going out of their way to get his attention.
“There’s been years where you might get a hello or a good job once in a great while,” Kellogg said. “Now it’s a consistent every day once we got back from Charleston.”