April 24, 2023
First-time head coach Mike Leflar looks to put his stamp on the UMass program
What the start of the Leflar era means for the Minutewomen
Mike Leflar grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs watching Saint Joseph’s and La Salle. Now, 20 years into his career, his first head coaching job will allow him to coach against the Philadelphia schools he watched growing up.
“The [Atlantic 10] was always special to me growing up and to be able to coach in that conference is a dream come true,” Leflar told The Next.
On April 10, UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford announced that Leflar had been elevated to the position of head coach after Tory Verdi took the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh. Leflar came to UMass prior to the 2018-19 season and was promoted to associate head coach during the 2021-22 season. As Verdi engaged in conversations about the job at Pitt, Leflar had conversations with Bamford and deputy athletic director – sport administration/senior women administrator Kirsten Britton which built on the informal conversations he had with the administration in the past. “[It] made the timing a little quicker and for me personally, the transition a little smoother,” Leflar said.
At Leflar’s introductory press conference, Bamford said that Leflar’s last five years at UMass have been a job interview. “When Mike got here five years ago, he and I met [and] we talked about his aspirations, as I’m often to do with our staff is to say, where do you want to be? What do you want to do?” Bamford recalled. “And one of the things that struck me is Mike said, ‘I’d love to be a head coach at a place like UMass. I’d love to be able to lead my own program. And here are the things that I’m about.’ And then he went out and lived them every day.”
When he met with Leflar five years ago, another thing that stood out to Bamford was in the three schools prior to coming to UMass Leflar was either hired into or promoted to the role of associate head coach. “It tells you a lot about somebody’s growth, about the opportunity that they had at their pre-existing institutions, and what they were able to do to be seen as a leader,” Bamford said.
After starting his career as a volunteer assistant coach at Penn, stocking grocery store shelves at night to make ends meet, Leflar went on to coach 10 seasons at Boston University. There, he served as associate head coach from 2012-14. He then spent one season as associate head coach at Binghampton before spending three seasons at Northeastern, where he served as associate head coach during his final season. At UMass, as he did at his previous stops, Leflar invested himself in the campus. Knowing his position on the women’s basketball staff came with a level of visibility, Leflar tried to get as involved in the athletic department so he could and pay back the support he received.
Over the last two seasons under Tory Verdi, UMass won the A-10 Tournament (2022) and a share of the regular-season title (2023), but Leflar looks forward to putting his stamp on the program and redefining what the program is about.
“We’ve been a very successful program especially recently… I feel like we have won, [we] will win again,” he said. “And I think I just want to dive into relationships and try and help our players and our future student-athletes really see and enjoy the whole UMass experience, not just the basketball experience, and that’s going to be a real big, a big kind of transition, a shift for our program and something that’s going to be really important to me.”
As he prepares to move to the head coach seat for the first time in his career, he knows he will need to keep one eye on the future instead of locking in on the present as he did as an assistant coach. In addition, recruiting and the transfer portal remain key in the short term. Sam Breen and Destiney Philoxy finished their final season of eligibility in March and nine players entered the transfer portal between the end of the season and the days following Leflar’s hiring as head coach.
Leflar spent one of his first full days on the job working to re-recruit the players in the transfer portal. “Then I really had to make the decision, where am I going to invest my time with our current roster and I decided I want to invest it with the players that are two feet in here,” Leflar said. “And I shared that with the players in the portal. And because they all do know me and we’ve built a relationship these past few years and I said I’d love for you to be here at UMass and learning from me and trusting my leadership. But I really want to make sure that we decide that on the sooner side, because I need to start thinking about the future.”
As he looks to continue to fill out his roster with well-rounded, athletic players Leflar remains excited about the players still on the roster. He is also excited about the high school seniors and players in the transfer portal he’s continuing to recruit and looks to continue putting the pieces together to build success for next season.
“Success is always going to be, for me, our players becoming the best they can individually, our team becoming the best it can be and us really loving our UMass experience,” he said. “I mean, they’re my three goals. And if that leads to 25 wins, fantastic. But I’m definitely more relationship, process-oriented. And the results are a byproduct of the work we put in and there’s no doubt that we have in the past and will in the future continue to develop our players and continue to become the best team we can be.”
Leflar plans to run a similar system to what the team has run in the past, relying on its continuity wing ball screen offense, playing fast and guards that attack and make decisions. Under him, he does hope the team is able to incorporate more movement after the team relied on isolation plays last season. Defensively he hopes to build on the team’s hard-nosed, man-to-man defense but hopes the team will be more flexible as well.
In the coming months, Leflar’s top priority is to be here for the current student-athletes and work to build his staff. “It’s going to be a really good fit together, and a really good fit for me,” he said. “And then to just dive into the transfer portal, and see if we can find people that want to come in and make an impact and leave an impression and have a great experience.”