Had it not been for his short-lived career on the big screen more than 15 years ago, Travis Ford might not be the men’s basketball coach at Oklahoma State today.
In early 1995, Ford — one year removed from a collegiate career that started at Missouri and ended at Kentucky — had just passed his stockbroker’s exam and figured he would be embarking on a career in finance. Then, in a story straight out of Hollywood, Ford got an unlikely call at his Madisonville, KY, home from a studio executive at Touchstone Pictures.
“I’d never wanted to act,” Ford told author Gregg Doyel for the 2005 book “Kentucky Basketball: Where Have You Gone?” “I’d never even thought about acting. Never.”
Nonetheless, the studio executive thought that Ford’s fiery attitude and feathery jump shot would be perfect for the role of Danny O’Grady in The Sixth Man, a college basketball comedy starring Marlon Wayans (“The Wayans Brothers”) and Kadeem Hardison (“A Different World”).
A proven winner on the hardwood, Ford passed his first screen test with similarly flying colors.
“They put me with the [acting] coach for two or three days, then auditioned me in front of the producers and everyone else,” Ford told Doyel. “Three or four days later they called and offered me the role.”
Granted, it wasn’t the next Citizen Kane that Ford had signed up for. The premise of The Sixth Man was a recently deceased college basketball player, Kenny Tyler (Hardison), helping his brother and teammate Antoine (Wayans) and the rest of the Washington Huskies basketball team make the NCAA tournament as a ghost.
Ford’s pivotal scene came halfway through the flick, when Kenny Tyler — invisible to everyone but his brother Antoine — aids the diminutive O’Grady in miraculously dunking from beyond the three-point line to prove his existence to the other Washington players.
[WARNING: Language is NSFW]
Befitting its schlocky premise, The Sixth Man grossed only $14.8MM at the box office. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote of the movie, “Let’s not talk about how predictable it is. Let’s talk about how dumb it is … Movies like The Sixth Man are an example of Level One thinking, in which the filmmakers get the easy, obvious idea and are content with it.”
While the film wasn’t anything near a star-making vehicle for Ford, it did make him realize how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
“It gave me a little time to get away from basketball, actually, and re-energized me,” he told Doyel. “It made me realize how much I loved the game, and how much I wanted to coach.”
Just as the fates aligned for Ford’s brief dalliance with acting, so too did they help him in his coaching career. Shortly after The Sixth Man’s March 1997 theatrical release, Ford was hired to be the new coach at NAIA Campbellsville (KY) University.
“Dr. [Ken] Winters [Campbellsville’s then president] knew me from playing for Kentucky, and he liked my background in academics,” Ford told Doyel. “He saw me as a player who understood the game and succeeded because of my knowledge of the game, not necessarily my abilities.”
Ford’s ascent through the coaching world over the next decade was a meteoric one. A 28–3 season with Campbellsville in 1998–1999 helped him land the job at Eastern Kentucky in 2000. Leading the Colonels to the 2005 Big Dance paved the way for him to be hired at UMass. And a combined 49 wins over Ford’s final two seasons with the Minutemen led him to where he is now in Stillwater.
After reaching the Big Dance in each of his first two seasons with the Pokes (2009 and 2010), Ford has yet to lead Oklahoma State back. This year the Cowboys are 10–3, having blown out No. 20 NC State in November by 20 and endured close losses to No. 9 Gonzaga and No. 18 Kansas State while playing with an intensity that would make Danny O’Grady proud.
So keep an eye on Oklahoma State in March. After all, they’re led by a coach who knows a thing or two about Hollywood endings.