UMass basketball: Mike Leflar introduced as new Minutewomen head coach

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 04-20-2023 3:14 PM

AMHERST — There wasn’t an empty seat inside a packed Massachusetts room at the Mullins Center last Wednesday afternoon. It seemed as though the entire UMass athletics department had turned out for new women’s basketball coach Mike Leflar’s introductory press conference. The pep band was there, and played a rousing rendition of the Flagship’s fight song to herald his entrance, and he received a standing ovation by all in attendance.

Athletic director Ryan Bamford commented on the impressive turnout in his opening remarks.

“(It’s) certainly a testament to the start that Mike had here five years ago… to have so many people from our department and our community here is a real testament to those relationships,” Bamford said.

Those relationships, both existing and those still to build, were at the crux of Leflar’s introductory press conference. The relationships that Leflar spent the last five years building as an assistant coach and associate head coach teed him up to have the opportunity to take over after Tory Verdi left to take over the program at the University of Pittsburgh earlier this month. It’s what brought him to UMass in the first place — the lessons he learned from previous coaches helped shape his coaching style, and he thanked his three previous bosses by name: Northeastern’s Kelly Cole, Binghamton’s Linda Cimino and his first boss, former Boston University coach Kelly Greenberg.

It was an emotional day for Leflar, who has spent his entire 20-year coaching career as either an assistant or associate head coach — always a bridesmaid but never a bride until now.

“Bear with me, because there’s going to be 20 years of thank-yous and 20 years of emotion, a lot of which has trickled out in the first couple meetings I’ve had with our players,” Leflar said to the full room on April 12. “The amount of gratitude I feel is overwhelming. The people that helped me get here, I cannot say thank you enough.”

After Bamford introduced Leflar and the new head coach finished his opening remarks, the two sat down for a question and answer session with media in attendance.

Bamford said that the decision to hire Leflar came quickly, aided in part by the last five years that had basically served as a job interview. It took about two days for them to decide that Leflar was their guy.

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“Mike and I have talked... probably two or three, four or five times in the last five years about opportunities and about being a head coach and his aspirations,” Bamford said. “We had a really good, in-depth conversation just over a week ago — Kirstin (Britton), Mike and I sat for a couple hours. When Coach Verdi let us know that he was going to be leaving, within 48 hours we had an offer to Mike. So I think that that tells you where we wanted to be.”

As quickly as he was hired, Leflar is going to have to get to work immediately to essentially reconstruct his program. While Bamford made it clear that the athletic department’s commitment to the program’s success isn’t going away — if anything, it’s going to be “ramped up” —  most of the players from last season have entered the transfer portal, highlighted by all three of the team’s remaining starters, Sydney Taylor, Ber’Nyah Mayo and Angelique Ngalakulondi.

When asked what kind of players he wanted to recruit, Leflar’s first quip was “good ones.”

“We’ve been the most athletic team in the Atlantic 10 the past couple of years and I think we want to recruit and continue to be that. I don’t think that will change. I want to see well-roundedness as well. And I think knowing the game. We have been really fortunate during the recruiting process,” Leflar said.

He also added that he’s spoken to all of the team’s three incoming freshmen — Aaryn Battle, Dallas Pierce and Chinenye Odenigbo — and all three are still committed to UMass. It’s unclear whether any of the UMass players who entered the portal might return to the program; Mayo and Taylor both wrote that they would be open to returning to the flagship if that was the right fit.

“I spoke with the team and I spoke with those individuals in the portal and I came to conclusion that they know me, and I’ve been with them for a year, two, three years… who I’ve been is who I’m going to be. I talked with them and I said I think you really have to give some consideration, now that you know I’m the next leader, you’re either two feet and all-in on me, or UMass isn’t going to be the place,” Leflar said.

“I asked them to really think about that. I was really impressed by the group that is committed to staying and that’s where I’m going to focus my attention.”

Despite the mountain of work that awaits Leflar, the introductory press conference was very much a celebration. After 20 years, Leflar has finally earned his title as a head coach. Now, it’s up to him and his staff to make sure UMass stays at the top of the A-10 Conference.

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