After severing ties with head coach Gregg Marshall, who resigned two weeks before the start of the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season after a university investigation detailed allegations of physical and verbal abuse, Wichita State went down the bench and tapped assistant coach Isaac Brown, who joined the program in 2014, to serve as the Shockers’ interim replacement.
Marshall, who made $3.6 million during his final contract year, walked away with a settlement of $7.75 million spaced over six years.
Brown, meanwhile, has coached this season with only a slight adjustment to his salary: Wichita State made a verbal agreement to up his pay $90,0000 to $300,000, minus a one-week pay reduction conducted across the school’s athletics department due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It had been a tumultuous summer,” Wichita State athletics director Darron Boatright told USA TODAY Sports. “There was just more uncertainty in the fall and leading into November. That really threw a wrench in things. It came to the point where you just realized that these young men had been through enough uncertainty.”
WHO’S PAID WHAT? See salaries for Division I men’s basketball coaches
NCAA TOURNAMENT: Why this Selection Sunday may be most controversial
BUBBLE TRACKER: How Duke, Kentucky could blow up bracket
What has unfolded is a return on investment that may exceed even the most optimistic expectations, given the program’s preseason upheaval. Heading into this week’s American Athletic Conference tournament, Wichita State is 15-4 overall and atop the conference standings, earning the interim coach the permanent position and a raise — effective May 1, Brown will operate on a five-year deal with a $1 million base salary.
“I think over time it became increasingly clear that Isaac had went from an interim head coach to a very serious candidate to be the head coach permanently moving forward,” Boatright said.
The Shockers’ success highlights one of the oddities of an oddball regular season conducted amid a pandemic: Across the sport’s highest level, many of the lowest-paid coaches in the Power Five conferences and select others are leading teams into the NCAA Tournament.
Whether as a result of foresight, luck or the unpredictability of a season that has sputtered into March, these lower-paid coaches have largely matched and often outperformed peers drawing more lucrative salaries, with many of the highest-paid coaches in the sport struggling through uncharacteristically poor seasons.
USA TODAY Sports compiled the salaries and contract details of 84 Division I head coaches, including every available Power Five coach and coaches at programs outside the Power Five that have appeared in at least three of the past five NCAA Tournaments.
Lower pay, higher rate of return highlights odd season
The number of lower-paid coaches with teams at or near the top of the major conferences illustrates the guessing game of Division I hiring and firing, where most universities cycle through multiple hires each decade in hopes the latest coaching investment bucks the trend and yields positive results, while elite coaches typically stay put at elite programs — and are consistently rewarded with larger compensation and buyout packages — and lead teams deep into March.
It hasn’t been that kind of season.
►By total pay, which includes reductions and private schools, four of the five lowest-paid coaches in the ACC have teams on the verge of reaching the NCAA Tournament: Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner, Virginia Tech’s Mike Young, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Clemson’s Brad Brownell. By scheduled pay, which eliminates private schools, the four lowest-paid are likely in the tournament. (The league’s lowest-paid coach, Boston College’s Jim Christian, was fired in February.)
Young has the Hokies at 15-5 and No. 21 in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll while making $2 million in scheduled compensation for this contract year, tied for the lowest of any head coach in the ACC. The former Wofford coach, who made $250,815 during his last full calendar year with the Terriers in 2018, has a maximum bonus this season of $1.22 million and is already set to get a $250,000 in scheduled pay for next season.
Tied with Young at $2 million in scheduled compensation, Pastner has the Yellow Jackets on the verge of the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010. Florida State is in second place in the conference under Hamilton, the longtime coach who agreed earlier this month to an extension that will keep his scheduled annual pay at $2.25 million plus maintain a gigantic bonus plan. Hamilton’s contract includes 17 possible bonuses with a maximum annual payout of $2.675 million.
►The lowest-paid coach in the Big 12 at a scheduled $1.85 million for this contract year, Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton has led the No. 14 Cowboys to 18 wins during the regular season. His pay this year is at $1.6 million counting agreed-upon reductions related to the pandemic.
Boynton was promoted from within the Cowboys’ staff in 2017 and had no prior experience as a head coach on any level.
“In Mike Boynton we had someone that checked all of the leadership boxes but also someone who lacked a head coaching resume with a win-loss record. For other candidates we had extensive head coaching resumes but limited information on their character,” said Oklahoma State athletics director Mike Holder.
“We decided to take a chance on a young coach who possessed all of the personal qualities that we valued and counted on him to figure out the head coaching part.”
►By total pay, including reductions, five of the six lowest-paid coaches in the Big Ten look to be in the tournament. This includes Purdue coach Matt Painter, who voluntarily took a 20% pay cut, half of which is coming in the form of a donation to the athletics department, and agreed to forfeit money from incentives as part of efforts to help the department combat a projected budget shortfall due to COVID-19.
Four of the five Big Ten coaches making less than $3 million, based on numbers that could be obtained, will very likely lead teams into the tournament: Michigan’s Juwan Howard ($2.1 million), Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell ($2.5 million), Wisconsin’s Greg Gard ($2.75 million) and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery ($2.8 million).
Howard has the Wolverines in the mix for one of the top seeds in the tournament after winning the program’s third regular-season Big Ten championship since 1987. After a lucrative playing career that made him nearly $150 million in career earnings, Howard was hired in 2019 with no college coaching experience.
Pikiell’s total compensation is raised by a $300,000 retention payment this contract year. Normal pay would make Pikiell the second-lowest paid in the Big Ten, though he’s scheduled to get $400,000 increases in each of the next two seasons.
►Sixty-one head coaches in USA TODAY Sports’ survey will make more this season than Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who has won 229 games in a tenure that predates the school’s move into the Pac-12. With scheduled compensation of $1.8 million, Boyle’s pay is at least doubled by two Pac-12 head coaches.
►And in the SEC, the league’s three lowest-paid coaches during this contract year are Arkansas’ Eric Musselman, Alabama’s Nate Oats and LSU’s Will Wade. The Crimson Tide, Razorbacks and Tigers lead the conference standings heading into the SEC tournament.
Musselman will get a $100,000 pay increase beginning next season if the team plays in the NCAA Tournament. The pay increase would be $250,000 if the Razorbacks advance to the Sweet 16.
After earning $2.46 million this year in a contract inked after leading Buffalo to two straight tournament appearances, Oats agreed to an extension last month that tacks three years onto his contract and increases his annual scheduled compensation from the school to $3.24 million.
“When we hired Nate, we knew he was going to be on the low end of the SEC,” Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne told USA TODAY Sports. “I had told him when we hired him, ‘You have success, and we will grow you in your compensation.’
“We’re committed to having a very strong program for men’s basketball and so we felt the timing was good to get it done at that point. It was actually a pretty easy negotiation. We thought we were fair, and he agreed.”
Oats’ new contract would include a massive buyout on both sides. If, as expected, the contract is approved by Alabama’s governing board and fully executed, the school would owe as much as $12.1 million to Oats if it fired him without cause at the end of next season. Oats would owe Alabama $10.5 million were he to leave in the same time frame, a figure far beyond the normal arrangement between a school and its coach.
“Showing that long-term commitment on our side, I wanted at least for the first couple years to be on the high end of a buyout if somebody tried to pursue him,” Byrne said. “I thought it showed a great commitment by Nate and his family, of their commitment to be here at the University of Alabama. So it was a win-win situation.”
Calipari, Krzyzewski among top-tier coaches underperforming
As more modestly paid coaches have teams rising up the conference standings, the 2020-21 season has seen many of college basketball’s biggest names struggle against the backdrop of their traditional success.
The highest-paid coach in college basketball, Kentucky’s John Calipari, is making $8.1 million during a season that has seen the Wildcats plunge to 9-15 overall. Kentucky needs to run the table in the SEC tournament to have a chance at avoiding the program’s first losing finish since the 1989-90 season.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is scheduled to make $7.04 million this contract year while the Blue Devils spend the final week of the regular season on the NCAA Tournament bubble at 12-11, beating Boston College in the first round of the ACC tournament after losing three straight after a brief surge in February (According to the school’s tax records, a little more than $1.2 million of Krzyzewski’s compensation has been reported in prior returns.)
Several other coaches with lucrative contracts have struggled to produce even a modest return on investment:
►The highest-paid coach at a public university in the Pac-12 at $3.97 million, Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak is 11-12 overall in 2020-21 and has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament since 2016.
►Second-year Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg is scheduled to earn $4 million, including a $1 million retention payment, for the 7-19 Cornhuskers, who again sit at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
►TCU coach Jamie Dixon ranks fourth among Big 12 coaches based on his most recently available compensation of $3.7 million for the 2018 calendar year while the Horned Frogs have gone 5-11 and won just two games in the past month.
►Both of those wins have come against Iowa State, which went 0-18 in Big 12 play and has dropped 17 straight under embattled coach Steve Prohm, who prior to agreeing to a negotiated reduction had been scheduled to make $2.4 million this contract year.
“When you get past those top 10 schools or so and now you’re looking at everyone else, the other 300 schools that are out there, paying one coach dramatically different than another would be kind of silly,” said David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. “I mean, they’re not going to change performance. You’re just paying for luck at that point.”
Eventually, winning coaches compensated on the lower end of the Power Five will have contracts reworked, as Alabama did with Oats. Boynton and Howard are two prime candidates to have their deals addressed before the start of next season and brought closer in line with the most successful coaches in the Big 12 and Big Ten, respectively. For schools hoping to maintain an upward trajectory, success comes at a cost.
“I hope it’s a challenge we have to deal with,” Byrne said.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg