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