- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The salary numbers seemed staggering, something reserved for the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, SEC, Pac-10 or Big 12.
Yet throughout this spring, coaches at places such as George Mason and Wichita State suddenly were getting raises that put them into a higher tax bracket, with security unheard of for these schools.
The raises beg questions: Where did the money come from? And how did these schools suddenly become agreeable to the idea of digging deep into their pockets or going searching for other revenue streams?
"It's hard to find the money from external sources, and if you can't, you've got to take the enhanced ticket sale revenue from a successful basketball program and turn that into salary," Northern Iowa athletic director Rick Hartzell said. "In these tough economic times, you have to prioritize, and the money also has to go to keeping the entire program going."
Hartzell said he had to get $210,000 from outside sources just to get former coach Greg McDermott's package up to $325,000. It still wasn't enough, and McDermott was hired away by Iowa State.
"I could have raised another $200,000 and pushed him to $500,000, and it still would have been short," Hartzell said.
How did George Mason coach Jim Larranaga's package go from roughly $280,000 to $375,000 (and a deal that goes to 2012). Unlike most schools, GMU decided to open its own checkbook.
More interesting, the decision actually was made in February, before the Patriots' historic run to the Final Four.
"It is university money," George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "We didn't have to raise any money for it. I may have the best job in the country because we have the support and philosophy to do it the right way. To keep Jim, we knew we had to move forward. The money was important, but it wasn't the driving force. [The added years] allowed us to have continuity."
At Wichita State, Mark Turgeon received a reported $290,000 raise to get his overall package up to $750,000 a year.
"It's a challenge," Wichita State athletic director Jim Schaus said of dealing with all sorts of increasing costs. "We just get creative."
Schaus declined to give specifics on where the money came from to increase Turgeon's salary, but it wasn't all from the university.
"It ended up being difference sources," Schaus said. "As our program has grown, that has allowed us to generate additional revenue. It's all about market value."
Turgeon was a top candidate at Arizona State and Oklahoma, and the possibility of losing him certainly pushed the issue for the Shockers after he had turned the program around and led Wichita State to a Missouri Valley Conference title and the Sweet 16.
All these schools seem to be trying to follow the Gonzaga model with head coach Mark Few. When Few took over for Dan Monson in 1999, he started at $85,000 a year. (Monson said he was making about $125,000 a year when he left for Minnesota.)
Since then, Few's salary has increased nearly every year. Now, he's getting close to reaching seven figures.
"We've done it through TV agreements, the university contract, budget increases, and had a number of significant benefactors," Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. "You've got to be creative. We've felt we needed to reward Mark for his success and be proactive."
Roth said he made the decision that he would do the same with assistant coach Billy Grier, who has been officially dubbed Few's successor even though Few doesn't look as though he will leave any time soon. Roth said that five years ago he would have slid Grier way back from Few's compensation if he were to replace Few. Now, Roth's not so sure he would make a new coach take that much of a step back, especially one who has been tied to the program, like Grier.
"If you want to be a top-20 program, then you have to do what is consistent out there," Roth said. "Mark clearly has us at a high level, and I'm confident Billy would, too."
That kind of thinking is what Brad Brownell thought would occur at UNC Wilmington after he led the Seahawks to two NCAA Tournaments in the past three seasons with an overall record of 83-40 (61-22 in CAA play, best in the league the past four seasons).
But while George Mason, Old Dominion, Hofstra, Drexel and VCU were paying significant dollars in the CAA to keep their head coaches content, Wilmington apparently didn't do the same for Brownell, who then split for the Horizon League's Wright State, on the surface one of the stranger moves in this spring's coaching carousel.
"I was offered a raise, but it wasn't significant," Brownell said of going from a package worth $167,000 to $195,000, then to a last-minute offer of $215,000. "In my situation, there were trust issues broken. It wasn't about the money. I came to Wright State for basically the same money. I wanted more years. Nothing seemed to happen until the last minute. We won 25 games, had a great year, and then you look at my salary and I'm still in the middle of the CAA behind [Old Dominion's] Blaine Taylor, Jim Larranaga, [former VCU coach] Jeff Capel, [Hofstra's] Tom Pecora [and Drexel's] Bruiser Flint."
Larranaga, Turgeon, Pecora and, of course, Few are now at or near the top in their respective conferences, and their schools are keen on keeping them and their programs at a high level rather than having them snatched away. Northern Iowa wasn't able to do that. (Ironically, Hartzell is a candidate for the AD gig at Iowa, so the big brothers in the state might call twice on the Panthers.)
"When I've been out talking to coaches like Jim Calhoun [Connecticut] and Skip Prosser [Wake Forest], I don't talk to them about how they're doing it at where they are now but how they did it at their previous stops [Northeastern for Calhoun, Xavier for Prosser]," Pecora said. "They said year in and year out you have to have the president, athletic director on the same page, the same vision. Money can make you only so happy."
Pecora decided against pursuing Seton Hall when the Pirates were looking at him as a possibility. Instead, he got bumped up a bit (Pecora declined to give numbers), got more security (a new five-year deal to 2010-11) and the realization that being the head coach at Hofstra is a pretty good gig, maybe better than being in the sweat shop of a middling Big East job.
"It wasn't a great fit for me," Pecora said of Seton Hall. "It's hard to find a minute to exhale. It's not crazy now for me. I have time to spend with my family and do things I like to do."
If ADs and presidents take the approach going on at Gonzaga, George Mason, Wichita State and Hofstra, then more coaches might find it better to stay put. They are paid well, have secure contracts, and don't have the headache or hassle of dealing with a job in the lower level of a major conference -- the previous destination of many mid-major coaches looking to move up.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
After seeing several mid-majors dig deep to pay their basketball coaches this spring, Andy Katz wonders whether this is a growing trend.