Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Omaha
Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Omaha
Fort Lewis College turned to a familiar face to replace the most decorated women’s basketball coach in school history.
The Jason Flores era officially has begun.
Flores, a former Fort Lewis associate head coach, is coming back to Durango, this time as the new head coach of the FLC women’s basketball team, replacing the recently departed Mark Kellogg.
In his original stint at Fort Lewis, Flores was an assistant on Fort Lewis women’s teams that went a combined 60-49 from 2000-04.
In his final season under Patty Patton Shearer at FLC, the Skyhawks captured the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference West Division championship and made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament.
Now, returning as the man in charge, Flores said he’s excited for the challenge his first collegiate head coaching job surely will bring.
“When I heard FLC first opened up, something like a little string pulled at my heart a little bit,” Flores said. “It sounds corny, but I can’t explain it any other way.”
Most recently, Flores was an assistant women’s coach at Nebraska-Omaha, which began play in Division I last season. He followed Patton Shearer from Durango to Omaha in 2004, and two years into his tenure on the Mavericks’ staff, UNO went from a five-win team to 20-11.
During Flores’ tenure as an assistant coach at UNO, the Mavericks compiled a record of 117-106.
Fort Lewis athletic director Gary Hunter said the search wound its way down to Flores and former Air Force and Idaho State head coach Ardie McInelly. Hunter said he received input from various faculty, staff, students, players and community members before he and Fort Lewis President Dene Kay Thomas made the final decision.
In the end, Flores’ more recent exposure to the culture of Division II athletics – with its multitude of requirements aside from coaching and budgetary restrictions – and familiarity with both Durango and the Fort Lewis program were factors that played in his favor.
“He did not have a single reference that was not incredibly positive. ... You always take a chance when you hire someone who hasn’t been a head coach, but we felt that it was worth giving him a chance,” Hunter said. “His experience here was very positive, and we felt that his familiarity with Colorado, with Durango, with Fort Lewis was enough to overcome that concern.”
Hunter said he thinks the going rate at FLC for the position is $52,000 per year plus benefits.
Flores’ duties at Nebraska-Omaha under both Patton Shearer and current head coach Chance Lindley included recruiting, coordination, game scheduling, planning practice and games, scouting and a plethora of other administrative details, which he said should help him overcome his lack of head coaching experience.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach with people that have allowed me, you know, to be a coach,” he said. “Sometimes assistants are put in these little boxes ... but I’ve always been fortunate to have a hand involved in all aspects of the program.”
Perhaps the biggest task for an incoming collegiate head coach is winning over the players he inherits, which is why when the field was narrowed to two, Fort Lewis players Katerina Garcia and Mary Brinton were tasked with having lunch with each finalist – a duty they received in large part because they live in Durango and Pagosa Springs, respectively, while other players were away for the summer.
Garcia, who has expressed her preference for a continuation of FLC’s uptempo style, said she’s excited about the hire of Flores and relieved that the long process has come to a close.
“There’s definitely some relief,” said Garcia, daughter of Alfonso and Yvette Garcia. “I think we’re all thankful that it’s over, because, I mean, you know, it’s June. ... It’s nice to know now who’s going to be leading our team.”
Brinton added that with a coach in place, now the team can focus on what it needs to do to be ready once the preseason begins.
“Now that we know, let’s go. Let’s come back in shape; let’s do the best we can,” said Brinton, daughter of David and Dorothy Brinton, of the team’s mindset. “We’re not just the players, we have a coach and everything.”
Flores, a 1995 graduate of the University of Arizona, will have big shoes to fill upon his arrival. Kellogg left for Northwest Missouri State on April 10 after having built the Skyhawks into a player on the national stage, and they went 173-46 overall and 116-23 in the RMAC in his tenure.
Kellogg’s biggest accomplishment was leading Fort Lewis to the 2010 national championship game before succumbing to Emporia State.
Fort Lewis won three RMAC regular-season titles, four West Division championships, two RMAC Shootout titles and made the NCAA Tournament each of the last five seasons, including the runner-up finish and another Sweet 16 appearance.
Hunter said he made it a point to ask all interviewees about their ability to handle the expectations for the program set by recent success.
Flores said he spoke with Kellogg about those expectations, and Kellogg reminded him that his first few years after replacing Patton Shearer were decent but not outstanding.
The new boss knows it’ll be a challenge in Year 1 as FLC must replace four of its top five scorers from last year and its top four rebounders, but he’s eager to see what he can do with a young, if inexperienced, roster.
“Mark liked some of the young kids he had; they just don’t have the experience yet,” Flores said. “I can’t be Mark, but in any transition, they have to really trust in me and what we’re doing. I think it’s a two-way street – I have to gain that (trust) with them, as well.”
Flores also was quick to assuage any potential fears of a vast stylistic change.
“I think the philosophy, at least what people are seeing, isn’t going to be a drastic change. We’re not going to go from that to killing the clock,” he said. “My main goal is to get high-percentage shots with a lot of players involved.”
Adding to the challenge is the fact that Flores is getting a late start in recruiting. Hunter said that part of the reason the search took so long is because the school’s human resources department asked him to keep the application period open for two or three weeks.
Then came the arduous task of pouring through the multitude of applicants a program with the recent history of Fort Lewis draws, checking not only the listed references, but additional references such as opposing coaches and players that Hunter likes to talk to as well.
By this point, most top recruits from the Class of 2012 have made their college choice, and Flores still has to line up assistant coaches.
But Flores said he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think he could handle the late start or the expectations.
“It’s late in the recruiting process, but I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think (the success) could continue,” he said.