North Florida men’s basketball coach Matt Driscoll worked as he spoke, directing pieces across the wooden surface, leading with conscious ideas of spacing and positioning as he prepared for the night’s event.
Company was coming over to his house, and the deck needed to be cleared.
“I just received my ‘honey-do’ list,” Driscoll said with a chortle Friday. “I don’t think there are a lot of high-major coaches out there that are out there cleaning out gutters and clearing off their decks right now.”
OK, that might be true. But the reality is, in a shifting college basketball landscape, the advantages of high-majors over smaller, non-BCS schools are, as a whole, shrinking.
In recent years, schools and coaches in smaller conferences — led by those like Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Butler’s Brad Stevens — are feeling the difference. Salaries have gone up. Publicity has expanded. Recruiting is easier. Winning? Hey, you can do that, too, without having to leave the small program you helped build.
As a result, midmajor coaches have become more comfortable, more successful and suddenly less attainable for programs like Minnesota. The Gophers reportedly had interest in at least two such coaches — Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart — in their search to replace the fired Tubby Smith. UCLA also reportedly wanted both of them but announced Saturday it has hired New Mexico’s Steve Alford, who also previously coached at Iowa.
This past week, Smart signed a contract extension through 2023 with VCU, while Stevens is reportedly happy at Butler.
“There’s no question things have changed significantly,” said Dan Muller, a longtime Vanderbilt assistant who just finished the first year of his first head job at Illinois State. “A lot of times, that shinier job isn’t always the better job.”
For decades, the midmajor job was looked at as a steppingstone — something to hold one’s breath through and jump at the first chance to escalate to a power conference. Then, the task was easy: An athletic director at a high-major school would write a figure on a piece of paper and simply blow the candidate away with both money and prestige. That model helped the Gophers pry Dan Monson away from Gonzaga in 1999.
Now, the Gophers are hastily being reminded that’s no longer the case.
Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague coveted Smart, the hot young coach he originally hired at VCU. But Smart — as he has done with multiple overtures from multiple schools in recent years — made it clear that he is quite fine where he is, agreeing to an extension with the Rams. Smart said in a news release he is “very excited about the challenges that lie ahead and the student-athletes that we have the pleasure of working with on a daily basis.”
A day later, rumors about the Gophers chasing Stevens surfaced, only to be replaced quickly by reports that Minnesota is now turning its attention to veteran coach Flip Saunders.
Two attempts, two apparent strikeouts, even from an AD with relationships with the candidates and Big Ten bragging rights. But these aren’t your father’s midmajor schools.
“Guys like Shaka and Brad — and you can go across the board of people who have chosen to stay where they are — it would have been a lot harder to keep them a few years ago,” VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin said. “In the past, the thought was, ‘I’m going to be here for a few years and then I’ll win and I’ll get to the next level and that’s really where I want to be.’ Well, I think a lot of coaches are seeing now that you don’t have to do that anymore.”
George Mason started the party in 2006, when the Patriots made it to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. Butler exploded to the title game in both 2010 and 2011, the latter being same year VCU made the Final Four. Gonzaga has authored new heights altogether this season, earning a No. 1 ranking in the AP poll and a No. 1 tournament seed.
This year, Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16. And then ninth-seeded Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference became the latest midmajor to make a Final Four by beating Big Ten behemoth Ohio State on Saturday.
“There’s definitely been a lot of [midmajor] presidents this week, a lot of athletic directors this week saying to themselves, ‘Why not us? Why haven’t we done that?’ ” North Florida’s Driscoll said.
Money and happiness
The top-tier midmajor coaches’ pockets certainly aren’t hurting. Smart’s extension reportedly bumps his salary to $1.5 million a year. Stevens makes more than $1 million, and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall will get there with bonuses this year.
The ceiling at a Big Ten school is certainly higher, but the gap was more significant when smaller-school coaches were making one-half or one-third of what they are now.
More TV time has brought schools a bigger audience, more revenue and more resources. In turn, recruits take a second glance. Success builds on itself. And it doesn’t hurt that the rise of the smaller school has coincided with another trend at bigger schools: more pressure, and a quicker trigger to move on if the going gets even slightly tough.
“I know in our profession, we’re hired to be fired, but you kind of hope you get fired because you lose,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And now we’re to the point when you look at UCLA and Minnesota and different places like that, you’re getting fired because you didn’t win enough.”
Ultimately, it all comes to happiness: where a coach and his family feel most comfortable. If it’s at a smaller school, well, the good reasons to leave are evaporating as quickly as the water on a hosed-down deck in the Florida sun.
Driscoll might not be at the same level as Smart or Stevens, but the sentiment applies for most coaches glancing at a jump.
“It’s all risk versus reward,” he said. “When you look at the big picture, do you say to yourself, ‘What I’ve got is a whole lot better?’ ”