Reports surfaced in the wee hours of Sunday morning that North Dakota State men’s basketball coach Saul Phillips would be the next coach at Ohio University, replacing Boston College-bound Jim Christian. That decision affected Marshall University’s search in a couple of ways. One was obvious, the other less so.
The obvious effect was it eliminated a possible contender in the Thundering Herd’s search from the race. It doesn’t ruin Marshall’s search. There are plenty other successful coaches from smaller Division I programs who could fit the bill.
The other effect will mean something to Marshall no matter who the university hires to replace Tom Herrion. That one comes from Phillips’ price tag.
Several reports have Phillips signing a deal with Ohio for about $550,000 annually. That makes him the highest-paid basketball coach in the Mid-American Conference and the highest-paid basketball coach in Bobcats history.
Meanwhile, Marshall sits in Conference USA, a league its members consider superior to the MAC. In some ways it is. C-USA schools make several times more on their television contracts than do MAC schools.
So what does it mean when a MAC school breaks the half-million-dollar barrier on a coach’s contract, especially when Marshall would only have paid Herrion about $450,000 if he stayed through the duration of this current contract year?
It means that, as with many other parts of life, the price of doing business has gone up.
The loaf of bread you bought yesterday costs a bit more than the loaf you bought five years ago. Likewise with that movie ticket you bought Friday night. Why would a basketball coach be any different?
Herrion’s original deal, signed four years ago, had him squarely above Ohio’s previous two head coaches. When John Groce left Ohio for Illinois in 2012, he was making a $250,000 base salary with an extra $50,000 for media and public appearances. Christian signed a $425,000 deal that year to replace Groce.
Now Saul Phillips is making about $100,000 more per year than Marshall’s last coach. And now folks on all sides of the coaching search must ask themselves some important questions.
If you’re Marshall brass, the question is simple: Do you even want to offer a chance to debate which job is more attractive? Make no mistake, the contenders are paying attention. If you’re telling them you offer the best job option, they’ll expect you to prove it. If you don’t, they may wait until a school comes along that can.
If you’re among the contenders for the Marshall job, you’re asking yourself a couple of questions. First on the list: Do I need to take this job to get to the next job?
Here’s the truth, which may be unpleasant for some Herd fans. Marshall is not a destination job. Billy Donovan left for Florida. Donnie Jones left for the University of Central Florida. Marshall is a university and Conference USA is a conference where most coaches, if given the chance, take the seven-figure power-conference offers extended to them.
So those smaller-school coaches ponder whether those super-sized offers will appear without needing to take a medium-sized offer to get there. Then comes the next question: Is the medium-sized offer big enough to be worth the risk?
According to USA Today’s salary database for coaches in the 2014 NCAA tournament, Phillips made $188,547 a year at North Dakota State.
His Ohio contract nearly triples his old salary. Signing that deal is a no-brainer. It’s life-changing money, much like the mid-level coach that becomes a million-dollar man in the power conferences.
Now, say a mid-level school offers a smaller-school coach a $100,000 raise. You and I wouldn’t let the contract hit the table before our signature was on the dotted line. For the college coach, who knows his window is finite, it’s a different story.
Take that $100,000 raise. Now take about half of that away for taxes. If you’re a coach, are you willing to leave the program you’ve built into a success -- and are paid better than most of your neighbors to do so -- to take a new job for a five-figure pay bump? Do you do it knowing you could as easily be fired and looking for work in a few years as you could have the ACC pounding at your door? Or do you wait for the life-changing money?
If Marshall offers a contract in the ball park of Phillips’ at Ohio, that should be enough to entice nearly any smaller-school coach. Eastern Kentucky’s Jeff Neubauer made just shy of $270,000 this past season. Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood made $200,000. North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton made a hair south of Underwood’s total.
If Marshall offers below the Bobcats’ deal to Phillips, it starts running the risk of allowing those coaches to think twice.
Now there’s nothing that says Marshall can’t convince a coach to take a deal closer to Herrion’s old one than Phillips’ new one, and it’s still pretty good money for anyone jumping from the Big South or the Ohio Valley Conference. Yet no one should be surprised if Marshall’s next basketball coach nudges or even clears that half-million-dollar mark.
Just like at the gas pump or on the fast food menu, the dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.