Knee deep in the midst of a coaching search, Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin lined up a guest speaker for his 12:30 p.m. sports management class on Thursday.
The visit of a prominent professor from the University of North Carolina was well-timed. For the next couple of hours, instead of teaching or looking for a new Winthrop basketball coach, Halpin dealt with a rapidly unfolding situation that culminated in Pat Kelsey backing out of the UMass basketball coaching job that he took on Tuesday and returning to Rock Hill to resume leadership of the Winthrop program he’s coached the last five years.
“I just didn’t feel like it was the right fit once I had an opportunity to get up there,” Kelsey said Friday. “I thought it was in the best interest of me and my family to remain at Winthrop.”
That left Halpin with little time to make the biggest decision of his young athletic director career.
“I try hard to remove emotion from the job,” he said Friday in Rock Hill. “I had a decision to make, a time sensitive one, and he’s checked three boxes: he’s brought in amazing student-athletes and graduated them, given them a great experience and he’s won games. Lot of reason to believe that’s gonna continue to happen with him at Winthrop as our coach.”
Even though I do think about this very formally as a lawyer, the metaphor I use is if they broke an engagement. It’s not a divorce because they didn’t formalize a contractual relationship, but it’s a broken engagement. That’s kind of the paradigm in which I place this latest thing.
Karl Folkens, Winthrop board of trustees chairman, on the legal status of Pat Kelsey’s abrupt departure from UMass.
Legally, bringing Kelsey back into the fold at Winthrop was easy.
“We never received a letter of resignation,” Halpin said. “So his contract has not changed. He and I never even discussed it. Right now, he’s our coach, under contract. That didn’t change through this whole process.”
The news set off contrasting reactions from the two schools’ fanbases, and plenty of online commentary nationwide as people tried to figure out what happened.
Kelsey said Friday he never signed an actual contract with UMass, but did sign a Memorandum of Understanding (more on that below). He signed it before visiting the school’s Amherst campus, though he didn’t say where his meeting with UMass AD Ryan Bamford took place.
Kelsey’s first time on the UMass campus was Wednesday. Bamford explained to Massachusetts media Thursday evening that he and Kelsey had lunch earlier that day and then Kelsey was left alone for a couple of hours while preparations were made for the 4 p.m. introductory news conference. Kelsey called Bamford at 3:25 p.m. to deliver the news.
“I feel bad, I apologized to them,” Kelsey said. “I just felt in my gut the best thing for me and my family was to be back here.”
Halpin said he and Kelsey missed each other on the phone several times Thursday before finally getting in contact early afternoon. Kelsey asked Halpin if he could come back to Winthrop.
I took his word for it, that it didn’t feel right for his family. I respect his decision.
Winthrop AD Ken Halpin
Kelsey’s move reminded many of another Winthrop basketball coach that had a change of heart in 2006, Gregg Marshall. He went through the introductory news conference at College of Charleston before calling Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio just before midnight to tell him he changed his mind.
Karl Folken, chairman of the Winthrop board of trustees, sees one major similarity in the two situations.
“Two different coaches, two different personalities and two different family situations,” he said. “But I understand as a lawyer that people in the course of negotiations change position and change their minds.”
One key difference in Kelsey’s case was how clear the step up from Winthrop to UMass was. The Minutemen have a bigger basketball budget, play in a better and tougher conference and nearly quadrupled Kelsey’s salary, and few Winthrop supporters could begrudge Kelsey for making the move. Those factors made his return to Winthrop harder to understand than Marshall’s 11 years ago.
“It’s happened before. It doesn’t happen a lot but there are other coaches that have gone through this before,” said Kelsey. “The end of the day I just felt like in the best interest of my family and me, we wanted to be back here in Rock Hill. It just wasn’t the right situation for me. But that’s it. Period.”
Halpin didn’t expect the events of this week would have a huge impact on his relationship with his men’s basketball coach.
“I’ve been his A.D. for 10 months now, we’re still learning that part, we’re still building on how we communicate,” Halpin said. “But he was never dishonest, once. In fact, he was the exact opposite. It was a decision he had to make, and I believed him and I respected that.”
Bret McCormick: 803-329-4032
What about the Memorandum of Understanding?
One outstanding aspect of Pat Kelsey’s brief involvement with UMass is what’s termed a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU.
According to UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford, Kelsey’s MOU had a $1 million buyout if he left the school within the first two years of his five-year contract. But Winthrop doesn’t appear to be involved in resolving that situation, according to Karl Folkens, Winthrop board of trustees chairman.
“Right now, we’re not a party to it so we have no comment on it,” said Folkens, a lawyer based in Florence. “It’s my understanding that there has been no contact between UMass and Winthrop University that would involve us in anything with their contractual relationship.”
Folkens used an old Irish saying to explain the limit of an MOU: “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” Translated, that means that a lot can happen between an MOU and the actual execution of a contract. Kelsey stepped away from the deal in this case, but UMass would have the same ability to do so if something had concerned its people.
“MOUs are strange animals,” Folkens said. “It’s an agreement that we agree to work toward something. It’s more of a good faith document.”
He continued, saying, “MOUs usually don’t include all of the contractual terms necessary for there to be a binding contract. But again, I haven’t seen (Kelsey’s).”
Bamford and UMass haven’t released any other information about Kelsey and the MOU, only that they’re working to resolve the issue. Kelsey wouldn’t comment on the issue when asked.