The best basketball player in years at UMass Amherst, Tre Mitchell, is taking his talent elsewhere. The head coach, Matt McCall, is struggling to restore the once-mighty program to some semblance of glory. And athletic director Ryan Bamford badly needs his flagging big-revenue teams — men’s basketball and football — to succeed.
Then there is the man behind Mitchell, Tony Bergeron, who was helping the 6-foot-9-inch sophomore star explore his options beyond UMass — even as Bergeron was under contract as McCall’s assistant coach.
Bergeron lost his UMass job Friday when Bamford bought out the final year of his hefty contract, according to a source familiar with the university’s decision.
Bergeron, contacted by the Globe, said he was asked to refer any questions to Bamford or McCall. Bamford declined to comment about Bergeron or Mitchell, and McCall was not available.
In Amherst, these are dicey times for the state’s flagship men’s basketball team.
A half-century after the celebrated brilliance of Dr. J and a quarter-century after John Calipari’s national powerhouses, the Minutemen have yet to advance past the first round of the NCAA Tournament since 1996. That year, a Calipari team reached the Final Four — a feat that was vacated after star center Marcus Camby admitted receiving improper benefits from an agent.
Mitchell is an NBA prospect who, in 2020, was the Atlantic 10 rookie of the year and who this month was named first-team all-conference. The prospect of losing him has struck some fans as almost akin to the Red Sox losing Mookie Betts.
Eight years had passed since a UMass player (Chaz Williams) was named first-team all-conference. And Mitchell, a high-character leader, also in March became the first player in the program’s history to be named both first-team all-conference and all-academic.
“He’s a gem,” said Paul Cormier, a former head advance scout and assistant coach for the Celtics.
As a prep star at Woodstock Academy in Connecticut, Mitchell received offers from a cavalcade of the nation’s top basketball programs, including Louisville, Notre Dame, Illinois, and Syracuse.
But he followed Bergeron, his Woodstock coach, to Amherst in 2019, along with two Woodstock teammates, including T.J. Weeks Jr., the son of former Minuteman standout Tyrone Weeks, as Bergeron landed a job as McCall’s assistant. In all, seven of Bergeron’s former Woodstock players appeared on this season’s UMass roster, fully half the team.
UMass handsomely compensated Bergeron for his contributions, first with a one-year, $190,000 contract, then with a two-year extension worth nearly $465,000 that was due to run until 2022. The deal made Bergeron one of the highest-paid assistants in the Atlantic 10, with his contract paying him double what fellow UMass assistants earned.
Now there is a whiff of betrayal in the Amherst air.
Bergeron, a Springfield native, is so close to Mitchell that he is engaged to the player’s mother, Erin Tortorice, and lives with them in his home near Amherst. If anyone could have kept Mitchell at UMass, it would seem to have been Bergeron.
The fact that Mitchell entered the NCAA’s transfer portal and is all but certain to depart drastically depreciated Bergeron’s value in Amherst. His contract called for him to earn $232,000 next season, beginning April 11, plus a $6,000 car allowance, six season tickets to home games, and $5,500 in possible incentives tied to the team’s success. He also received a $10,000 signing bonus.
But Bamford apparently had seen enough. Under Bergeron’s contract, UMass is required to pay 25 percent of his base salary, or $58,000, to buy out the final year of his contract.
Bergeron is now free to try to land a coaching job, possibly with Mitchell’s next team. While Mitchell is widely coveted, it remains to be seen how eager teams will be to hire Bergeron, who had never coached at the collegiate level before UMass but had a long record of success at the high school and prep levels.
Bergeron’s buyout allows Bamford to move past the disappointing Mitchell saga. He can now fully focus on the future, first by deciding whether McCall remains the best coach to breed success at UMass.
Bamford hired McCall in 2017 after his first choice to replace Derek Kellogg, Winthrop University’s Pat Kelsey, abruptly backed out just before a news conference to announce his hiring. Kelsey has since gone 84-35 at Winthrop, including a 23-1 run this year to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
McCall came from Chattanooga, where he went 48-18 over two seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016. But his Chattanooga magic has yet to transfer to Amherst. He has gone 46-65 in four years there, backsliding from the 70-60 record Kellogg logged over his final four seasons.
McCall’s contract, which Bamford extended in 2018, runs until 2023. Bamford acknowledged their need to succeed.
“There’s no doubt we need to be better,” he said in an interview. “We’re in a great, competitive league, and we need to figure out how to carve out our spot for success in this league, which is hard to do.”
The Minutemen finished 6-4 in the A-10 this abbreviated season, their first winning record in the conference since 2014-15.
“It has taken us four years to get ourselves into the middle of the pack, and our goal is to get to the top,” Bamford said. “We’re not going to rest until we do.”
If Bamford were to consider replacing McCall, his $1.4 million buyout might be prohibitive. Yet Bamford has given no indication he is inclined to make a change.
“Matt does all the things we want him to do in our program,” Bamford said. “He’s a guy I believe in, and I feel he deserves every opportunity to win.”
McCall shares his “urgency to build a winning program,” Bamford said.
‘“It has taken us four years to get ourselves into the middle of the pack, and our goal is to get to the top. We’re not going to rest until we do.”’
Ryan Bamford, UMass Amherst athletic director, on the men's basketball program
After McCall’s teams went from mediocre to worse in his first two seasons at UMass, Bamford hired the widely respected Cormier to serve as a special adviser to McCall. Cormier had spent 20 years as a head coach at Dartmouth and Fairfield and 12 years in the NBA, including serving as an assistant under Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Cormier arrived in Amherst the same season as Mitchell and Bergeron, who became a dominant personality on the staff. Cormier’s assignment was to help the coaches succeed, but the experience proved unproductive. He lasted only a year.
“The chemistry and the personnel involved was such that I wasn’t going to be successful in bringing anything to the table,” Cormier said in an interview. “In order for you to help or teach or mentor, you have to at least have listeners, and I don’t think the staff was ready for that.”
Cormier declined to point fingers. Instead, he expressed cautious optimism and suggested the program would benefit from stronger strategic planning.
“I think they’re progressing to some degree, but there has been too much turnover and not enough stability to really be where they want to be,” Cormier said. “They need some stability. They need people who really buy in and want to stay there and build a program, not just go from year to year.”
‘“In order for you to help or teach or mentor, you have to at least have listeners, and I don’t think the staff was ready for that.”’
Paul Cormier, longtime college basketball head coach and former UMass assistant, on his one season with the team
In addition to Mitchell’s departure, veteran guard Carl Pierre, out of BC High, is moving on from UMass, either to play out his final year of eligibility collegiately or turn professional overseas.
An exodus of Bergeron’s other former Woodstock players is not anticipated, though there could be some additional turnover if McCall brings in players who are perceived as upgrades.
UMass finished 8-7 overall amid the pandemic, with only one victory against a team over .500. The program now needs to build around a young core of Weeks, Noah Fernandes, Javohn Garcia, and Ronnie DeGray III, all freshmen or sophomores.
The NCAA’s transfer portal is chock full of talent, with hundreds of players considering switching schools under a rule that allows them to move without sitting out a year. The challenge for UMass will be securing highly skilled players who not only can help the Minutemen win but are committed to sticking around.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.