When a team sits at 0-11 in conference, loses to two abject patsies in the non-conference schedule, and its best win is over a team currently sitting in Joe Lunardi's "Next Four Out" category, it's perfectly understandable for fans to demand the head coach's dismissal. But this isn't about a bad coach / nice guy, or disasterous plays after timeouts. It's not about weird substitution patterns, or the stunning lack of improvement among key players.
This is about reality, and the reality is that Penn State basketball is wildly successful to the only people who matter -- the spreadsheet enthusiasts in the athletic department.
Tim Curley, artist's rendering
The estimable Tailgate Shogun, a longtime friend and BSD commenteur rather familiar with the inner workings of Penn State, loves to tell me that PSU is eternally interested in two goals: make lots of money, don't get sued. Here's a poorly kept secret about Penn State basketball -- it's kind of profitable. A flashback to the 2004-05 season, when Penn State finished 3-13 in the conference:
No Big Ten men's basketball team generated less revenue and less profit than the Lions in 2004-05, according to the Office of Post-secondary Education and the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA). Total expenses came to $2.5 million, while revenues totaled just under $5.2 million. Northwestern, the closest program to Penn State at the depths of this ranking, grossed more than $6.7 million from less than $2.7 million in expenses.
That's right, just Northwestern brought in more money than Penn State. With incoming Big Ten television revenues set against a meager outlay of cash by Penn State, the men's program usually bagged a few million every year -- and certainly more today, now that the insanely profitable Big Ten Network has hit its stride. Why? The men's basketball program is run on the cheap. Always has been, and probably always will.
You Gotta Pay The Troll Toll
Ed DeChellis' reputation as a great guy can't be overstated. Nobody wants to see him fail. He came from a tough background, worked in steel mills during his younger days, survived cancer, donates countless hours to charity, runs a clean program, and does nothing in his personal or professional life to bring shame upon Penn State. Okay, his teams lose a lot of games. There's that. He also works for relative peanuts, compared to his Big Ten colleagues. A Right To Know request revealed that DeChellis' salary is $642,366, which seems to be an absurd amount until you look around the conference. For example, Bill Freaking Carmody "earns" $1,132,965 as Northwestern's coach.
Here's the full list, as compiled by stltoday.com's Stu Durando last year:
1. Thad Matta, Ohio State, $2.5 million, according to the Associated Press and other sources when he received a raise in September 2007.
2. Tom Crean, Indiana, average of $2.36 million through 2018, according to the Indianapolis Star and other sources.
3. Tubby Smith, Minnesota, more than $1.8 million annually based on a $13 million, seven-year contract, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and other sources.
4. Tom Izzo, Michigan State, $1.7 million, according to Fox News and and other sources.
5. John Beilein, Michigan, $1.3 million, according to multiple sources when he signed in April 2007.
6. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin, $1.25 million, according to multiple sources when he received a raise in April 2007.
7. Todd Lickliter, Iowa, $1.2 million, according to his contract, which can be found on the internet divided into base pay ($650,000) and public relations/camps/TV-radio/apparel ($550,000).
8. Bill Carmody, Northwestern, more than $1.1 million, according to the school’s 2007 990 tax form (available online) and a report at charitynavigator.org, which quoted his salary at $1,132,965 as of March 2007.
9. Weber, $1 million, according to the university.
10. Matt Painter, Purdue, $843,000, according to the Indianapolis Star.
11. Ed DeChellis, Penn State, $500,000, according to the web site coacheshotseat.com
Obviously, DeChellis' number is incorrect, which is what happens when you depend upon something called "coacheshotseat.com". These types of figures are always hard to nail down, but you get the basic idea here. Penn State is lowballing its own program. And it doesn't stop there -- Penn State has a tendency to lowball all of its coaches. Let's go back to that 2006 Collegian article:
According to the reports, Penn State pays the head coaches of its 13 male teams an average of $92,520, a far lower average than at any other Big Ten school.
At Wisconsin, for instance, that same category yields a figure of over $320,000. At Ohio State almost $400,000. At Michigan State more than $410,000. This category, however, is not entirely reliable, as schools like Michigan State factor the cost of fringe benefits into their reports, while some other institutions do not, preferring instead to simply make those costs part of the total revenue reported.
But even if the costs of pensions and benefits were factored in for Penn State, it would likely not make up the difference in reported salaries. The cost of benefits, pensions and the like is typically around 30 percent of salary. As is, Penn State's average reported salary for coaches of men's sports is $40,000 less than the next lowest Big Ten employer. The Penn State average for coaches of women's sports, by the way, is just under $75,000.
[And let's not forget the ridiculous discount we're getting on Joe Paterno, either. So if you have any dreams of Penn State hiring its next football coach from outside the current staff, forget it. That's expensive as hell, but another discussion for another time.]
Of course, Cael Sanderson's salary (however it's structured) bumps up that average, but his compensation is largely due to some wealthy wrestling boosters pitching in and coming up with an obscene amount of cash for a wrestling coach. The bulk of it is certainly not the athletic department's money. The point is, Penn State isn't the type of place that is going to drop $1.5M on a basketball coach without a lot of outside money flowing in -- and that's not happening. Have you ever even heard of a Penn State basketball booster? Exactly.
In an era of overpaid coaches and bloated contracts, it's rare that a university gets what it pays for. When it comes to men's basketball at Penn State, however, that's precisely what they get. It's a program that has sniffed the fringes of the NCAA tournament once in DeChellis' tenure, a season that was ultimately torpedoed by Iowa's Jake Kelly and a pastry filled schedule that would make the Harlem Globetrotters blush. Other than last season, DeChellis' tenure has been a failure -- a failure caused predominantly by an administration which has meticulously followed the Bill Bidwell / Donald Sterling model of running a team.
What is success in college athletics, really? Nobody wants Penn State to go broke running their athletic department, especially given that the entire operation basically depends on (a) the continued financial success of the football program and (b) the mild profitability of the men's basketball program. Penn State's athletic department, as you should know by now, is self-sufficient by design. And guess what? In a tough economic environment, it operates in the black, for which Tim Curley and his team should be strongly commended. Their job is to run the university athletic program responsibly, not to win at all costs.
In terms of actual athletic results, Penn State does well enough. For some, the standard for overall athletic prowess is the Directors' Cup standings. Here's how Penn State has finished lately:
Of course, these standings are only useful if you think a women's golf championship is equivalent to a football national championship, as all sports are weighted equally in the rankings. Regardless of the school, most fans care only about football and basketball. Wrestling and hockey are niche sports with smaller, dedicated followings in certain states. Most other sports are financial sinkholes, especially women's basketball and baseball. Nobody profits from those sports, but they're played anyway. They have to be financed somehow (thanks, JoePa!), and this brings us back to the curious situation of Tim Curley and Ed DeChellis.
"I'm just not ready to take that risk... of my life... on that gamble."
Essentially, Penn State is playing it safe with its basketball program. They throw pennies at it. It returns nickels. Profit! Wins and losses are immaterial in the broader picture, and that's why it's ultimately useless to get angry with Ed DeChellis and his players. They're making the best (give or take an eleven game losing streak) of a bad situation. Penn State basketball is essentially the Pittsburgh Pirates of Big Ten basketball. Fans go through the same ritual every season -- irrational hope spawned by a theory something along the lines of, "well, if everything breaks right and a few teams catch the bubonic plague, we could be on the NCAA bubble."
Winning basketball hasn't been a priority at Penn State for decades, if ever. Looking at the last 40 years, you could count Penn State's NCAA tournament apperances on one hand -- and still have two fingers with nothing to do. Coaches are permitted to chug along for as long as they run a clean, relatively congenial ship. Say what you want about the way this season has unfolded, but the team hasn't quit yet, which prompted me to drop this comment in the "Buzzer Beaten" recap thread after the Minnesota game:
Let’s look at this rationally. How much does Penn State really care about winning basketball games? They refused to put any money into the program for years, at least until Ed begged them to give a quarter of a damn. After last season, Ed’s contract was extended through 2014. You can argue over whether that was a good idea, but you can’t change the fact that it happened. Firing Ed means buying Ed out — probably not at the full salary, but a significant chunk of it. Ed gets between 500k and 600k (so really, if the guy does get fired, let’s not feel too bad for him). So let’s go conservative and say that a buyout would have to be around $1.25M.
So we’re out $1.25M and have no basketball coach. Now, find another one, Curley! What do you think he’ll do? Go find the fabled "big name coach" that people always clamor for? Not bloody likely. Those cost money. More money than Joe Paterno gets — and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s actually a factor under consideration here. I hate to break it to you folks, but Big Name Coach ain’t coming to State College.
What’s left? Hiring another mid-major guy and hoping that he is okay with (1) minimal institutional support, (2) taking over the 10th or 11th best roster in a tough league, (3) competing with Pitt, the Philly schools, and the elite programs who occasionally come into Philly and poach the best of the best recruits. Oh, and (4) building the trust of a fanbase from zilch, (5) being in the constant shadow of the football program, and (6) being strictly forbidden to take any recruiting shortcuts in a sport that is even shadier than football when it comes to recruiting shortcuts. And that’s all before you consider the possibility that PSU will try to hire another guy with PSU ties, which of course is stupid considering our awful basketball history, but would not be a remotely surprising move by any means.
Really, the frustration shouldn’t even be with the losing as much as the lack of a clear, best option. It’s easy to say FIRE ED. Believe me, I know. But there are a lot of other factors in play here, mostly financial, partially ethical. A season like this wouldn’t be tolerated at 95% of other schools, but Penn State isn’t like a lot of other places (in both bad and good ways).
I don’t think Ed will be gone unless the team really embarrasses itself down the stretch — not just losing (which, yes, is embarrassing) but completely throwing in the towel, which they haven’t done yet.
If Penn State ever overcomes its losing basketball tradition, it won't be because of a coaching change or monster recruiting class. It'll be from a cultural shift in the hierarchy of the athletic department -- a decision to make winning a priority by investing resources and energy into the program instead of being satisfied flirting with the NCAA bubble every eight years. It's easy to sit back and shout like an idiot, "CURLEY SHOULD HIRE A BIG NAME COACH!" Yeah, no kidding. Name the Big Name Coach who is willing to take over this smoking crater of a program, in spite of all of the reasons listed in the quoted paragraphs above. There isn't one. And good luck finding a thriving mid-major coach who would take a chance on Penn State as his big jump into a major conference. This job is a career-killer for anyone with aspirations of coaching a truly relevant program someday. That's another reason why DeChellis was a perfect fit for PSU, outside of his willingness to accept the lowest salary in the conference -- this is his destination job, not North Carolina or UCLA.
For those of us who suffer along with this program (and I was once masochistic enough to purchase the ESPN GamePlan during a 1-15 conference season), it's time to wake up to the stark reality that Penn State doesn't care as much about Penn State basketball as its coaches, players, and fans. Penn State doesn't believe that the basketball program is worth the investment. They never have. That's why the only option for PSU appears to be allowing Ed DeChellis to continue coaching, and hope against history and logic that he can eventually put a winning team on the floor.
It's the profitable, risk-free position, after all.