To stay or not to stay
When college athletes commit to a school, they’re not only committing to the sports program, but also to their coaches.
The relationship and interaction with the coach is a key selling point for athletes and their families. This dynamic was put to the test for members of the school’s men’s basketball team, following coach Kareem Richardson and his staff’s exit after a loss against Utah Valley University (UVU) earlier this semester.
Richardson recruited the squad and developed a bond with the athletes, who suddenly found themselves left without him.
“The coaches brought me in and made me feel like we were family,” said former UMKC basketball player DeMarco Smith. “I needed them and they needed me.”
The team was emotionally and mentally upset from their loss against UVU, a feeling compounded by Richardon’s firing.
Players said they felt confused and lost after hearing the news. Many were upset the focus was on what Richardson did not accomplish.
“I feel everyone focused on the basketball side of it, what he didn’t do,” said sophomore guard Brandon McKissic. “He really took care of us, and the things he did he didn’t have to, he was really involved with us.”
Players recalled how Richardson would make sure they were taken care of both on and off the court. If players expressed a need for tutors, for example, he was always the first one to help.
“He had a lot of adversity going against him recruitment wise, trying to get kids to come to a school where you’re playing in a rec center. That’s hard,” McKissic said. “You can’t recruit like that, and I don’t want to sit here and make him out to be a bad guy. He was just working with what he had.”
Meeting the new coach
After Richardson’s firing was announced, 10 players entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. This is the first step in the process of moving and playing for a different school.
“We were just looking out for ourselves,” Smith said. “A new coach can come in and clean house. He can like you or hate you. We just needed to look out for ourselves.”
The players heard rumors about who the next coach could be. They also heard about different coaching styles. Some players said they felt if certain coaches were picked, they wouldn’t want to stay.
Although it might look like they were making plans to leave right away, players said they just wanted to see what other opportunities were out there.
In March, UMKC announced that Billy Donlon will be taking over as the new head basketball coach. Donlon met with players immediately after the announcement.
Smith said he and another teammate attended Donlon’s press conference and liked what they heard.
“His message was that he wanted to keep everyone on the team and that he’s not trying to get rid of anyone,” Smith said. “He was motivating everyone.”
With 10 players already in the portal, McKissic said he listened to his family and took time to decide whether or not he would enter.
“I cut myself off from everyone, and didn’t listen to my teammates about going into the portal,” McKissic said. “I talked to my mom and second dad. He let me know not to be eager to put my name into the portal.”
McKissic’s family was concerned that if he went into the portal he would forfeit his safe year.
From there, McKissic waited to see who the new coach was going to be. He planned to sit and talk with Athletic Director Brandon Martin to see where the program was heading after the new coach was announced.
After talking with Donlon, McKissic decided to enter the portal, becoming the 11th UMKC player to do so. Eleven players is the highest number of athletes to enter the transfer portal at one time for any Division I program, according to 247 sports.
Despite entering the portal, McKissis wasn’t sure if he’d be leaving yet. He knew if the rest of the team left, however, he didn’t want to be the only player left from the old team. McKissic said Donlon respected this choice.
“I had schools calling me,” McKissic said. “I would’ve went to some of those schools, if I didn’t fall in love with the way Donlon leads and runs workouts.”
McKissic and seven other players decided to stay at UMKC.
One player McKissic was not able to convince to stay was his close friend, Demarco Smith.
“I almost had him, but it was nothing I could do,” McKissic said. “It was just one workout that threw him off, and I couldn’t control that.”
Some players made their decision based on who was leaving and who was staying. Others said they based their decision off bettering their career or needing to be with like-minded players.
For Smith, it was about the opportunity to venture outside of Kansas City.
“I did want to stay. But being from Kansas City, I felt I owed it to myself to try something different and see what is out there,” Smith said. “I visited Omaha and liked the facility, and everyone supported the basketball team there.”
Smith is a Kansas City native who committed to play at UMKC right away. He said he never had the chance to look at other options or go on visits to other schools, an experience he and his family thought was worth exploring.
There are currently eight players left from the original team, with a variety of experience levels.
The team is optimistic. Between the core players already in place and the new talent Donlon is bringing in, they believe next year’s team will be something UMKC has never seen before.
The athletics department is working to give Swinney the look and feel of a Division I facility.
Donlon has already helped the players gain more access to Swinney, which used to close down at 6 p.m. Now, players can go in later and practice.
With the hopes of a bigger and better team in sight, players said they have a good feeling about the upcoming year.
“The group that were about to piece together is going to be a great special winning group,” McKissic said.
(From left: Brandon McKissic, Demarco Smith, and Billy Donlon. Courtesy of UMKC Athletics)