The minute he sat down for his first coaches meeting in the Missouri Valley, Geno Ford figured out what he was in for.
“You know they say in poker, you try to figure out who the sucker is,’’ the new Bradley coach said. “Well, I looked around and there weren’t any, so I’m just hoping it isn’t me.’’
Ford laughed when he told the story, but the reality is there’s not much to giggle about in the Valley. The league has branded itself into the public consciousness, carving out its own special niche as a well-respected league that is neither BCS nor true mid-major. Winners are rewarded well thanks to the league’s reputation, but winning among schools that have capitalized on the Valley’s success isn’t exactly easy.
Especially this season. By its own high standards, the conference has been down in recent years, earning just its automatic bid in each of the last four seasons. But all signs point to a return to the glory years, back when the Valley was sending as many as four teams to the NCAA tournament and a Sweet 16 berth was commonplace.
Not exactly an easy time for Ford to bluff at the table.
Bradley has never finished higher than fourth in the league and hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2006. That’s why Ford is here and ex-coach Jim Les is now at UC Davis.
Ford had a good thing at Kent State -- he led the Golden Flashes to back-to-back Mid-American Conference championships. But he found the ceiling in the MAC hard to penetrate. Though he won those two regular-season titles and 20-plus games in each season, he had to settle for an NIT bid both times, done in both seasons by upset losses in the MAC tournament.
“We all play for the postseason,’’ Ford said. “The hope is here, in this league, if you win the regular season, you’re either in the tournament or in the major discussion. That’s a big attraction, that if you have a special regular season you’re rewarded.’’
That’s what pushed Ford to leave Kent after three years, but it wasn’t an amicable parting. The former coach and his ex-employer are locked in a lawsuit that likely won’t reach a court date until the summer.
Kent State contends Ford broke his contract -- a deal with four years left at $300,000 per year -- and consequently owes the school $1.2 million. Ford and his lawyers at Bradley contend that KSU granted Ford permission to interview, thereby prohibiting the school from seeking damages.
Ford said he has attempted to settle but has had no luck.
“Hopefully this will get resolved in a short amount of time,’’ he said. “It’s certainly unfortunate, but it will run its course and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.’’
Fortunately lawyers have handled the brunt of the work on the lawsuit, allowing Ford to concentrate on basketball. He has a lot of work to do. Though the Braves have players back -- including Dyricus Simms-Edwards, who averaged 16 points in his final 10 games and Taylor Brown, who missed last year with a heart problem -- they also have no big man with experience (Will Egolf is out with an ACL tear) and five freshmen who will be put to work immediately.
It’s not exactly the loaded cupboard needed to contend in a league top heavy with upperclassmen, but Ford believes it is a recipe he can work with.
“No transition period is a pleasure cruise and there will be bumps and bruises along the way, but if you have guys willing to take a shot, you can make it,’’ he said. “We don’t have a championship from last year to say, ‘Here, if you buy in, this is the result.’ So we have to ask them to trust us and trust our system.’’
In other words, it’s time for the Braves to go all in.