Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Earth is Flat, Fairfield Edition

Princeton's head basketball coach, Sydney Johnson, has left to take a similar position at Fairfield University.

And a Tiger Nation wonders why.

Time for an adult conversation.

Here's one reality: Sydney did a great job with a difficult hand. He turned a 6-23 team into one that won the Ivy title and took a Final Four team (Kentucky) to the last two seconds. He did it with class and made everyone associated with the team feel good about how he did it.

He also did it faster than the much-more-publicized Tommy Amaker did at Harvard (they both started four years ago) despite Harvard's stronger commitment -- both financially and with admissions, um, "flexibility".

So Tiger Nation can fairly be disappointed.

Here's the second reality: Sydney's chosen profession is coaching.

Princeton's basketball coach is normally paid (at somewhere in the low-to-mid $200s as widely reported) -- if he does his job correctly, and performs in accordance with historic norms -- below "market." And the market is moving upscale.

An aside: Yes, Pete Carril stayed at the school for 29 years despite winning multiple titles. But Coach Carril grew up in the 1930s in Bethlehem (PA), at a time when you were happy to have a job(*).

(*-Shades of players, decades later who, in Carril-speak, were "happy to have a uniform.")

But back to the current day. If you have the ability to find eight high-schoolers, convince them to come to your school, and turn them into a winning basketball team, you can make a lot of money.

A lotta lot.

Rick Pitino made $8M last year. 30 of the 68 coaches who took their teams to the NCAA this March earn $1M or more.

(Actually, make that 31: VCU's Shaka Smart just signed for 8 years at $1.2M/year.)

And the velocity at the top is increasing. Back to Carril: in the 1980s, the then-Kentucky coach (Joe B. Hall) probably made $750K, or 4x or 5x as much as the Princeton basketball coach.

In 2007 (the year Sydney started at Princeton), Kentucky hired Billy Gillispie for $2.3M per year. 10x.

Current Kentucky Coach John Calipari makes close to $5M per year. 25x.

And even beyond the dollars that the schools pay, the current "cult of personality"(*) that surrounds big-time college coaches provides plenty of other opportunities, from summer camp lectures to corporate retreats.

(*-A small point on this: the raised "NCAA custom court"(**) for the Final Four has resulted in even more (marginal) focus on the coaches. They are elevated above the rest of their bench, their coaching staff, even the official scorer. And since almost no single athlete plays all 40 minutes, they have literally the longest-running role on "center stage.")

(**-Not to get off on a tangent, but one does wonder: what does the "custom court" have to do with the NCAA's academic mission? And how much does it cost? Oh, and by the way, the NCAA owns at least 13 of them (8 opening round sites (mens) + 4 (womens regionals only) + the one in Dayton.)

See: John Thompson III, who left Princeton in 2004, is paid $1.8M/year and is featured in a national television commercial alongside Magic Johnson.

Meanwhile, and most relevantly for this discussion, it's clear that the dollars at the top of the pay scale are trickling down. The "mid-majors" -- George Mason, VCU, Butler, Richmond (with FoAP Chris Mooney) -- are willing to invest in their quality coaches(*), and give them long-term security (6 years for GMU's Larranaga, 8 years for Smart, 10 years for each of the other two).

(*-Whether this money is being found inside the athletic budget, or via outside (ie., special-purpose fundraising), and if the latter, how the schools' development offices feel about it, is an interesting question.)

It's not Rick Pitino money, but it's still a good living, and with more job security (i.e., a longer-term contract) than at some of the "BCS Schools."(*) That's what has changed in the past decade. As noted earlier with regard to Jeff Capel, the patience at the BCS schools is shorter.

(*-And unlike the Ivies, the Mid Majors offer the simplicity of offering athletic scholarships rather than hoping on the Princeton, say, Admissions Office for (i) an admit; and (ii) a financial aid package.)

We don't think of Fairfield as having a great recent basketball tradition, but frankly, who thought about Butler's tradition before last year? Or VCU's before last week?

Fairfield, by all accounts, was willing to invest in Sydney (query whether or not Fairfield can afford its investment, given its basketball revenue, but that's a problem for another day).

Indeed, by inking Johnson, Fairfield has raised its basketball visibility. Oh, and by the way, they are still in a major media market, and one that will be undoubtedly thinking -- and reporting -- more about the Stags (and probably the rest of the MAAC(*) as well.)

(*-Indeed, with its core Jesuit institutions -- and local, traditional rivalries -- the MAAC is starting to look more-and-more like the old Big East did when it was started in the late 1970s.)

And while at Princeton, Johnson was "just another" representative of the school, he's likely to be The Face of Fairfield(*) - the school, not just the basketball team.

(*-Johnson's photo is currently on the front-page of Fairfield's website, above the "fold". One doubts that the new Princeton coach -- whomever he is -- will get the same attention.)

(Quick quiz: Name the most prominent Fairfield alum.)

(Answer: Probably, Buddy Cianci.)

And he's likely to have a direct line into the President's office. Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J. is a 1969 Princeton alum.

As the NCAA basketball world is now "flat" (in Seth Davis' words -- sort of), it's a reasonable -- if not expected -- move. (Davis' point is that, in a one-and-done era, the gap between BCS-elite teams fielding frosh and sophs and a mid-major built around veterans has shrunk. On four different occasions in the last six Final Fours, Mid Majors have appeared (GMU (2006), Butler (2010 & 2011) and VCU (2011).))

Realistically, the foreseeable NCAA ceiling on the Ivy League is probably the Sweet Sixteen, which Cornell reached last year, not the Final Four or even the Round of Eight. In the 31 years since Penn went to the Bird-Magic Final Four, only 7 Ivy teams have won a single game in the tournament. Only the aforementioned Cornell team won in the Round of 32.(*)

(*-The 1983 Princeton team won two games, but the first game was a "Preliminary"/Play-in, hence they did not reach the Sixteen.)

In the last ten years, the MAAC has won four NCAA first round games(*), although it has not sent a team to the Sixteen in its history (begun in 1983-4). (By the way, Sydney's inheriting a team that was 25-8 and has 4 starters returning.)

(*-Niagra also won a play-in game in 2007, but was blitzed by #1-Kansas in the First Round.)

And while Princeton may seem like a great place to live and raise a family, there are any number of residents -- many of whom work on Wall Street -- who seem to find Fairfield County perfectly acceptable.

Is Princeton-to-Fairfield a move that we expect?

No, but in this world-is-flat time in college basketball, we shouldn't really be surprised.


Matt Henshon said...

Updated (4/7/2011) with Kentucky data.

Matt Henshon said...

Updated (4/7/2011) to correct VBK reference.

SportsProf said...

Great stuff.

Some Princeton alums are lamenting that perhaps Princeton is becoming a "cradle of coaches", i.e., a springboard for good young coaches to advance to greater positions. I'm not sure that I see anything wrong with that construct, because implicit in it is that these young coaches will win titles (or else there is no springboard). The economics are pretty crazy -- where does a commuter school like VCU get $1.2 million a year to pay a basketball coach? It's not that the Ivies are cheap; it's that everyone else is becoming insane.

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