DU’s Men’s Basketball Hiring Strategy: Cheap or Smart?

On first glance at the Indeed.com job listing for DU’s new head basketball coach, the salary range jumps right out:

Salary: $180,000- 200,000/yr.

For many of us in the working world, that might sound like a lot of money. But for an NCAA Division I basketball coach, $200K is on the low end of the national pay scale. In fact, the top 70 of the 360+ Division I coaches all make north of $1 million per year, with the top 30 making $3 million per year or more.  The NCAA D-I average coach’s salary is about $1.5 million per year, but that number is built on the back of the top 30 guys making more than $3 million each, and the Coach K’s and Calipari’s of the world who are now pushing $10 million/yr.

All nice coin, if you can get it.

In DU’s league, on the other hand — the Summit League, which is currently ranked 29th out of 32 Division I leagues – $200,000/yr is probably about the going rate. There is no TV revenue to split or 20,000-seat arenas to fill here in the low end of Division I.  You can see some of the other mid-major salaries hereThe only way to make a “profit” at this level is to sell approximately 4,000 seats per game, and even then, this will just go to subsidize other sports that don’t generate a profit. In the Summit league — the bottom of the NCAA hoops gravy train — the gravy gets pretty lumpy.

Some DU fans believe that as an aspiring national University that usually pays its highest-profile coaches very well (relative to others in the respective sports where they coach), DU should just bite the bullet and pay $500,000 to $1 million/year to bring in a name brand hoops coach who can recruit nationally and bring DU basketball into the NCAA tournament. Indeed, that’s the conventional wisdom if you ‘want to win’ or at least that’s the version agents, coaches and media commonly tell athletic directors, college presidents, and fan bases.

And there is something to be said for that conventional wisdom. As the old adage says ‘you get what you pay for’. Offer a low salary in most jobs and you probably get low quality, right?  Obviously, a number of basketball coaches at bigger hoops schools won’t even give DU a sniff at a $200,000 salary and will keep looking for better opportunities.

Many will ask why DU doesn’t ‘find’ the extra money and bring someone in who will excite the fans, sell more tickets, market the program, and get those three-star recruits to finally come to Denver? Moreover, some of those very same fans may believe DU is “cheaping out” by only offering $200k —  thinking that DU’s low hiring budget won’t produce enough quality coaching candidates to choose from, leaving only head coaches from lower divisions or inexperienced assistant coaches who have not been a head coach at the D-I level before.

Given that DU last hired a young assistant coach who had never been a head coach before in Rodney Billups in 2016, they’ll say “We’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well”.  That Billups gamble did not pay off, as he finished his DU head coaching career at the very bottom of NCAA Division I schools that played men’s hoops his season.

But there are some other ways of looking at the financial situation.

First, that $200k isn’t really just $200k. It’s a base salary.  Add in the summer basketball camp revenue and generous bonuses DU usually pays out for doing well, and you could be adding $100k or more to the coach’s pay package each year, so there’s that.

But even more importantly, DU will pay more for better performance. For example, if the new coach were to get DU in the NCAA tournament, a DU contract extension would likely follow that would be worth a lot more than $200k/year to the coach. Chances are that other schools would also offer that coach more money, so winning here is a ticket to more money for a coach in the longer run. For example, Joe Scott was hired in 2007 to rebuild DU from a national bottom-feeder program at a modest salary. After a conference title and 22 wins in 2013, including going to the second round of the NIT, Scott’s contract extension had him making over $400,000/yr. He would be fired three years later though for not getting to the dance, but DU paid him for winning. He’s now the head coach at Air Force.

It’s arguable that there are even some possible advantages of a low base salary. For one, it will screen out those coaches who are just looking for money (you’ll be shocked to hear that there are some shady characters in college hoops) or those who are just looking for a cushy retirement gig, banking a couple million more for the last five years or so before cashing out without working all that hard. Why should DU fund that? The DU coach who decides to take $200k is someone who wants to coach, rebuild and win at DENVER, and is betting on himself. That coach will be hungry, and hopefully, experienced enough to know what to do in order to get DU back to competitive basketball.

Second, just because the base salary may look low, don’t think some good, well-paid coaches won’t be interested in DU. A good mid or late-career basketball coach may already have a lot of money in the bank from coaching at higher-profile schools, but make not like the coaching situation they are in right now. Maybe that coach doesn’t like the person he works for anymore, or maybe the coach doesn’t like the city or town where they live very much.

DU is the second-ranked job among Summit coaches because they like the city, school, and facility as well as the fact that DU does not have to get involved in many “buy games” – having to pay money out to bring in low-level non-league opponents or flying off to get pummeled by a non-league bigger school at their place for a guaranteed payday. Maybe starting over in a wonderful city like Denver, with a strong athletic department, a potentially winnable league, and no real media or booster pressure to win is far more appealing than toughing it out in an unhappy situation in some of these less pleasant places in college basketball, even if the budgets are larger. It might be that coming to Denver may well be worth a pay cut for someone, especially for a coach who already has a healthy bank account.  After all, there is more to life than money, but that is a realization that usually only tends to happen to those who have enough of it.

Third, the low hoops base salary is certainly good for the DU athletic department, which simply doesn’t have the revenue it would like to have in this Covid-19-affected year.  We’re not sure if there is an interested donor or sponsor willing to help fund such a hire, either.  There is something to be said for good stewardship of resources in any organization, even when you want to win. There are a lot of schools that are certainly overpaying their basketball coaches, and I can see why DU does not want to throw big money at up-front promises, rather than paying bigger on the backside for real performance here in Denver.

Finally, there is the internal reality of staff griping that DU (and every university) faces each day. DU probably doesn’t want to pay a basketball coach $500,000 or more upfront when there are other star coaches at DU who are nationally competitive in their own sport and are making far less than that kind of salary. And that doesn’t even count faculty members, who will always gripe that athletic coaching salaries being higher than their salaries is evidence (at least to them) of misplaced priorities.  Of course, those faculty members tend to have a lot more job security once they get tenure and nobody boos them when their teaching or research doesn’t add up to anything special.

So let’s see where this all goes.  

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want DU to find the money for the best coach they can get.  Although any choice of coaches is a gamble, I want DU to put themselves in the best possible position to be successful. I am a DU fan after all, and we fans want winners to cheer, which by the way, are much more fun to cheer on than a balanced budget ever was.

But I also understand the school’s desire to save its money to pay a winner for performing here in Denver, rather than just throwing a bunch of up-front money at someone because that coach won somewhere else under some other circumstances. As they say, past performance is no guarantee of future success, but it sure does push the price tag up. DU doesn’t want to play a sucker’s game.

Bottom line: This is DU Athletic Director Karlton Creech’s signature hire (after hockey coach David Carle) and it is happening right now — hopefully before the 2021 NCAA tournament ends.

If DU’s strategy works out, he (and DU) will look like geniuses, playing a pretty poor financial hand into a winning one. If Creech can hire the coach that takes DU to the NCAA Tournament, he’ll do something no DU AD has ever done, and he will become a legend at University and Asbury.

But if it doesn’t work out, the new coach would just become the latest bust in the long, growing line of seven DU basketball coaches since 1970 who could not produce a winning career record here, joining Al Harden (.466), Terry Carroll (.444), Bill Weimar (.370), Rodney Billups (.338), Stan Albeck (.300) and Marty Fletcher (.300) in the DU Men’s Basketball Hall of Infamy.

Let’s hope it’s the former and not the latter.

Go Pios!

Puck Swami is the internet moniker for a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He posts his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.

27 thoughts on “DU’s Men’s Basketball Hiring Strategy: Cheap or Smart?”

  1. Swami- Is there a DU Basketball coaching endownment? Any endowed player scholies? Any way of telling what level of donor support the program has?

  2. Indeed.com job listings seem to only be local. I’d imagine our opening is also on true college job opening websites

  3. The job is listed on Indeed, also.

    The new coach better be a good recruiter because Jase Townsend and Sam Hines, Jr are in the transfer portal.

  4. We could also hire someone just fired who had success at a lower level. Vandy and especially New Mexico off top of my head. If their former school owes them a lot of money, The $200,000 we pay simply lowers the prior school’s responsibility. Maybe a win,win,win situation. I’m certain the UNM coach took NMSU to the tournament.

  5. Per DU’s men’s hoops team records, Joe Scott did not win a league championship in the Sun Belt, WAC, or Summit League. The stellar 2012-13 league season ended in a loss in Las Vegas to Texas State in the WAC finals. DU went on to beat Ohio State at home in the 1st round of the NIT and lose to Maryland at Maryland in the 2nd round. The following season, their first in the Summit League, Joe and the Pios went 16-15 overall.

    1. True and not true. True DU did not win the WAC tourney that year, but they did cut down the nets in 2013 at Magness as the WAC regular season co-champion, so I counted it. It was pretty cool to watch it happen. In those days, DU was top 75 program. With our two best players this year in the transfer portal right now, it may be some years before DU cuts down another net…

      As for the endowments, there isn’t one in basketball as far as I know. Tierney and Carle are the only two coaching positions that are officially endowed as far as I know, although Melissa Kutcher Rinehart had a long and strong donor relationship with the late Joy Burns that perhaps was a de-facto coaching endowment.

    2. Not to nitpick, but it was Ohio University, not Ohio State. We could compete with and beat the Buckeyes in hockey, soccer, lacrosse, and gymnastics, but sadly not even close in basketball.

  6. El Swambo, Great article. Well presented. But i disagree with my college hockey buddy on the matter of importance to succeed in basketball.at D.U.
    College sports is also a business.. Businesses aim to organically grow their success components and eliminate their losing ones.. It’s a business. Why is it important for a school with big time success in other areas to buck up one of it’s losers. In business you cut the losers. I was quick on the switch in doing that and it always worked out well.

    We have high success in Hockey, Skiing, Women’s Gymnastics ,LaCross and reasonable success in others like Soccer ,Volleyball.
    Those are the areas to allocate payroll to. Why chase a loser.and syphon money from the winner’s budget in so doing.. You play to your strengths.

    Gonzaga spends big time on basketball and ignores hockey.
    Should they try to develop a hockey program? Of course not.

    Swambo, see you in Boston next year at the Frozen Four.


    1. The reality is DU is not making money on any of these sports. Some lose less than others so I guess you can those are the winners. DU would be smarter to be D2 across the board and maybe keep a D1 Hockey program and corresponding equity sport(s) on the women’s side.

  7. Great question, John. I don’t think anyone has any grand illusions about DU becoming the next Gonzaga in hoops anymore. That ship has sailed, and DU isn’t on it and probably never will be.

    That said, I want every team DU puts out to be competitive in their league, and in sports where there are less than 100 schools that play (hockey, lax, skiing, gymnastics, etc.) I expect DU to be nationally competitive. And if DU can break through and be nationally competitive in a big number sports with 150 or 200 or 350 schools playing — like soccer, volleyball, basketball, swimming, tennis or golf, god bless ’em.

    What IS possible at DU, is getting good enough in hoops to contend/win the Summit League, and perhaps go the NCAA tournament perhaps before we all die. This is a winnable league, as we saw a bad DU team under Billups still really pushed the league champ NDSU two years ago at the Summit League tourney. There isn’t a huge talent differential at this Summit level – but you do need enough D-I level players to field a competent roster, and DU did not have enough of them in recent years.

    I don’t want to see any DU sport getting any less money than they do now in order for DU to ‘siphon’ that money into basketball to be good in basketball. I think the overall sports budget is what it is ($35-ish million), and if DU wants to put more money into any single sport’s budget, it won’t come the expense of the other DU sports – it will come from some other new revenue source. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that’s how they allocate it. That said, some minor sports do get dinged for a coach or two when DU has an overall budget shortfall, as they did in their recent Covid cuts last year.

    I think DU has enough of a budget for every sport to compete for titles at the league level for which they play, and there is enough money for some DU niche sports to be funded at a truly national level.

  8. Dunker liked your post Puck. I still feel Creech is not trying to sell our job to possible candidates. You call AD’s and head coaches and ask for permission to speak with a certain coach. Tierney didn’t fall in our lap. Peg did everything right to hire him and it was hard work. The portal guys can play it slow to see who we hire or jump at a good opportunity right away. Hopefully they choose the former. We can get Rashon from ASU on the cheap. If he fails at DU, he has the connections to get another assistant job in no time. Remember, if you fail at DU, it’s probably a high school job next. Only Ben Jobe got another HC job and he didn’t fail at DU.

    1. Actually, Stan Albeck was only .300 at DU from ’68-70 and went on to coach 10 years as a head coach in the NBA.

      You never know…:)

  9. That’s Rashon Burno from ASU. I heard from a reliable source that all ASU assistants want out because they can’t stand working for Hurley. I hope Carlton reads this site. Grab Burno or even approach Cal asst Trent Jones. SELL DU.

  10. I am a casual friend of Stan’s. Basketball genius ahead of his time. He couldn’t deal with late 60’s activist athletes. ABA Denver team recognized his ability and he coached in NBA for 30+ years.

  11. I don’t want DU to put other sports at risk gambling big bucks up-front. Like Puck said, DU needs 4,000 paying customers to make a profit. Peg got great coaches with a competitive base salary and a very good incentive package. I’ve got to believe DU can compete, win and get a title every 3-5 years in the Summit League. If you are a typical AAU player, do you want to go to Brookings, Grand Forks, Omaha or Denver? Add Denver’s beautiful campus and academic ranking, you should land every 2-3 star player you get on campus (assuming they can cut it academically). Doing well in hoops does not mean that you no longer support/care for the other sports. We don’t need Bill Self ($$$) – we need a coach who knows how to recruit and coach.

    And, BTW, Northern Colorado has clobbered DU with Colorado kids. Focus recruiting on Colorado, Texas and California and develop the kids. A solid coach and system will make 2-star players look like 3/4 star players.

    If a coach can figure this puzzle out, there will be a lot of money/opportunities.

    1. Denver is not a basketball city and definitely not a college basketball city. The reality is the 10 hours radius around DU doesn’t produce very many players who can help you win at the Division One level. So you have to get kids from further away and sell them on playing in front of an empty arena that was built for Hockey. DU would be better off playing D2 in basketball. They succeed in a bunch of niche sports that aren’t supported by the big time D1 schools…at least in the Western half of the country. If a coach catches a few breaks and makes the NCAA tourney they will be gone quickly. This is the reality of DU in Men’s Basketball.

      1. Actually, Magness Arena was very much built to accommodate basketball with all those seats on each end. If it it were truly hockey- centric, it probably would have more seats on the sides. But they had to shoehorn the 7,200 seat arena into a small space footprint so they could fit all the other stuff in like pools, gyms, offices and the second ice rink.

        Also, DU can no longer be D-II without moving ALL sports to D-II, which won’t happen unless there financial catastrophe. While some schools play multiple sports at different levels (like CC), they were grandfathered in, and the NCAA no longer permits schools to do this anymore. DU is the best non-football school in America in D-I, with national competitors in hockey, lacrosse, gymnastics, soccer, etc. with plenty of big-time school competitors in those sports, too.

        In short, DU has had a top 75 basketball team – we’ve seen it as recently as 2013, and with a good coach, DU can draw 4,000 a game and be quite a viable mid major. DU can also draw good players from Colorado, Texas and Minnesota.

  12. Stick to ‘low’ salary ie 200K range consistent with our league . Why piss money away on something few affiliated with DU or front range care about (ie college hoops). No one even cares about CU hoops and they have a budget and play in a legit league. So go with cheap, hope to get lucky, if not fire em and try again. Really what do we gain (if you are to a hoops fanatic, I realize many on this thread may be), by dumping money that we don’t have at a dream of occasionally (once per 10 years?) getting an invite to the dance. If a donor wants to fund it then good for them, then do it. Otherwise, just move on

    I say this as a 20 year season ticket holder for hockey, I go to a fair number of lax games and watch an occasional soccer game (mens and womans) and gymnastics meet once in awhile. I have to be honest, never been to a hoops game at DU

  13. I think it’s all about getting to the NCAA tournament. Until we do, there will continue to be fairly low interest and mediocre recruiting. Getting to the dance is the only thing that will jump start this program. It’s amazing that a great school like DU, with a a stellar history of athletic success, in a happening and buzzing city like Denver, can’t win a league where the competition is Dakota schools. Blows my mind. Blows my mind not only that we can’t win that conference, but that we can’t even compete in that conference. The bright side, is that there is no program in the country with more upside and potential for exponential improvement than DU. SELL THAT, KREECH! Get it done!!! Peg got Tierney, now you go get a good hoops coach!

  14. 1980, please stop with D2 talk. Not happening or part of the equation. Maybe you dislike college basketball, but there have been some interesting games on campus in the past 20 years. WAC games under Scott mattered

    1. Well put…D2 talk almost as lost in space as whoever that was that said no one here cares about basketball – everyone loves a winner and as a Denver resident I can say that’s pretty apparent when the Nuggets head to the playoffs

      Yes – with all the amenities DU have to offer it blows my mind why they struggle so much in the Slummit

    2. Love college basketball and understand it at a high level. Just pointing out the reality that the DU job is a tough one for reasons most don’t understand. Not going to ever draw fans on a consistent basis. Too much competition for the entertainment dollar in Denver.

  15. Where in this thread did I say d2

    I said don’t Overspend on a pipe dream few care about

    I am only reading this as I am bored without a normal hockey season

  16. I’m first and foremost a DU hockey fan. But there was one game that I caught a glimpse of what a good basketball program could mean to DU. I don’t remember the year, or the opponent…maybe a school from Tennessee?? Anyway, one of the ESPN channels was there, there was a big crowd, a boisterous student section, and a real buzz and excitement in the arena, similar to a good DU hockey game. I remember thinking that if this was sustainable, basketball could be a solid 1B, to our 1A hockey team. Or even 1A if it went to the next level. If you were at that game, all this fuss over basketball makes sense. If you weren’t, and if you can’t imagine that kind of buzz over this fallen proogram, then I don’t blame you for wondering why people think hoops success is important.

  17. That was 2012 DU against Middle Tennessee. ESPN 2 covered it live, DU won big with 5,000 in the house and 500 students stormed the court. It was a great moment.

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