STILLWATER — Travis Ford coached one heck of a basketball game Saturday. No Le'Bryan Nash? No problem.
Ford's short-handed Cowboys blistered Texas A&M 60-42 at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Not bad for a coach walking around with a flock of albatross around his neck.
Unrealistic expectations. A contract that became a football subplot. Following the House of Sutton, with patriarch Eddie usually sitting six rows up.
Burden galore on Ford's shoulders, independent of the makeshift roster he's coached down the stretch.
Four years into the job, Ford hasn't become an OSU staple. Fans have continued the lethargy that began under Sean Sutton (maybe 6,000 fans in the house Saturday). The winning has sputtered after Ford's two initial seasons produced NCAA Tournament trips: 20-14 (cupcake nonconference) and now 14-15 (barbecue nonconference).
Ford's tenure is proving what Eddie Sutton always said about the office he held: This is not an easy job.
“Good tradition,” Ford said, beginning a stream of consciousness discussion. “Not easy to get players here (Sutton always said that). Great fan support (Sutton always said that, too, and it was true, but not anymore).
“It has its challenges. I've had my challenges. I don't spend much time thinking about it.”
It's been a strange four years for Ford. An even stranger one year, this season, when blessings have turned to curses.
Like 10 or 11 players who could play, which only created tension over playing time and resulted in two midseason defections. Coupled with injuries, OSU was left thin at times and anorexic at others.
Like the 10-year contract awarded Ford in 2009 after State ended its NCAA Tournament drought and beat Tennessee. When football coach Mike Gundy wanted the same after the just-completed Fiesta Bowl season, Ford's contract became a topic for the public marketplace. No less than Boone Pickens declared athletic director Mike Holder knew he had made a mistake with such a generous contract.
“I have nothing to do with that,” Ford said. “I had one person mention it to me. Pretty much all I heard of it.”
Like OSU's preseason slot of seventh in Big 12 basketball. For some reason, Ford keeps talking about this team overachieving while most fans and media keep talking about this team underachieving. Ford is closer to the truth. The Cowboys were picked to finish seventh; they almost surely will finish seventh.
Of course, that was before the hodgepodge lineups that have marked OSU hoops the last two months, including Saturday, when Philip Jurick played 26 minutes, Cezar Guerrero 18 and Marek Soucek 14.
“One of the craziest seasons I've ever been a part of, as far as not having the same team every night,” said redshirt freshman Brian Williams. “We just try to make the most of the five we put on the court at one time.”
Ford coaches a thin roster. He does not walk thin ice. That 10-year contract is such a hot-button issue because it indeed protects the coach. Ford has superb security; OSU couldn't prudently fire him, even if it wanted to. Too much of a financial hit.
And the truth is, two years below the institutional standard, which at OSU is the NCAA Tournament, is not firing grounds. Maybe three years, but not two.
There is plenty of reason for hope in OSU's future. All these young players. Markel Brown, Nash (if he doesn't bolt for the NBA), Michael Cobbins, Williams. Lauded recruits coming in.
“We've done a lot of laying the foundation,” Ford said.
Ford says his family — including children 12, 10 and almost 8 — loves Stillwater. “The fans have gotten to know me outside basketball,” he said, though some claim Ford hasn't ingratiated himself into the community, a charge that seemed to lose oomph when Ford embraced the women's basketball team in the wake of the Kurt Budke tragedy.
“I enjoy living here, enjoy coaching here. I love being here. Love my players.”
Can't dispute that, if you ever hear Ford talk about Keiton Page.
“Every job is demanding,” Ford said. “There's so many things that go with it. I was telling the team the other day, coaching is so rewarding. I don't know if fun's the right word. It's very rewarding.”
Days like Saturday make it even more so. Seasons like this, not so much.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.