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Penn State Basketball: The Risks Involved With a Big Name Hire

One argument against Penn State basketball is the school's unwillingness to spend for a big name coach. Today, we analyze this argument with a few examples of what sacrifices other schools have made for one of today's high-profile coaches.

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most regurgitated arguments for why Penn State hoops is Penn State hoops is the school's unwillingness to pony up the cash for a big-name head coach (Dick Harter notwithstanding). Many believe a renowned leader could overcome most of the program's biggest obstacles (fan apathy, no recruiting base, etc.) simply with his winning reputation alone. There hasn't been any evidence at Penn State to combat this argument, since the school has never hired a high-profile coach in the crazed digital age of NCAA athletics. However, there are a couple of schools who recently upped their financial commitment to struggling programs and lured in big-name coaches. We reviewed what each school risked with these moves to shed light on what this potential solution to Penn State's basketball problem would demand in today's world.

Virginia Tech - Buzz Williams

It's become clear early that new athletic director Whit Babcock wants Virginia Tech basketball on the map. The former Cincinnati AD replaced Jim Weaver on February 17th of this year and immediately got to work with the failing hoops team. He quickly fired first-time head coach James Johnson after just two years at the school and replaced him with Buzz Williams from Marquette, a move that shocked all of college basketball.

Johnson was the last unfortunate casualty from Weaver's botched dismissal of 9-year head coach Seth Greenberg back in 2012, a move that seemingly catapulted the Hokies into the ACC's basement. If you need more context on the controversial firing, I recommend this piece from Gobbler Country.

Babcock immediately decided one month into his tenure that his athletic department couldn't afford to wait around for Johnson to attempt a rebuild without any previous head coaching experience. The fallout from the Greenberg dismissal was already too much for Johnson, as many important players transferred out. While the Hokies had already plummeted to the bottom of the ACC (9-22, 2-16 last year), there was some risk involved for Babcock by cutting loose a $650,000/year coach who never had a fair chance to succeed.

(Sidenote: Johnson's buyout for the last three years on his contract was only $800,000. Couldn't Penn State's new AD negotiate something similarly cheap in an extension for Chambers?)

To make amends with the coaching fraternity, Babcock knew he had to offer strong job security and a firm financial commitment to his next coach, but he also wanted to make a big splash, rejuvenate interest in the program and give it the best chance to succeed. Enter Buzz Williams.

Penn Staters should know a little bit about the former Marquette coach. His abandonment of current Nittany Lion DJ Newbill in favor of Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson has been well-documented. The Newbill fiasco is just one of many pieces of evidence that the coach's prerogative has always been his own career pursuits, not the best interests of his players or employer.

Let's check out how he repaid the first two schools who hired him: as a 33-year-old, he was offered his first head coaching gig at the University of New Orleans in 2006. He had to know the challenges that would come with rebuilding a program at a school ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, but after one 14-17 season, Williams abruptly resigned in July to take an assistant coaching job with Tom Crean at Marquette.

After one season as an assistant, Marquette was willing to take a chance and give Williams the keys to Crean's program back in 2008. Most young coaches have to prove their worth at a low-major program before earning such a golden opportunity. Williams, who was then 35, got the chance to coach a Big East program coming off three straight NCAA appearances and 20+ win seasons under Crean.

Obviously he continued to build off Crean's prior successes, which is why Williams is today considered a high-profile coach. Already a proven recruiter, Buzz took Marquette to 5 NCAA tourneys in six seasons, including an Elite Eight appearance and three Sweet-16s. But after his toughest season in the new Big East and his first that didn't end in the NCAA tourney, Williams immediately jumped ship to Blacksburg. Gary Parrish wrote an in-depth piece for CBS Sports on why Williams made the questionable career move. While the article casts Williams in a favorable light, it's easy to deduce what the young coach only cares about: his own job security.

What did Babcock have to offer Williams to convince him to abandon his Marquette program? At first it surprisingly didn't seem like a lot, as Williams' annual salary at Virginia Tech is actually less than what he was making at Marquette ($2.8 million to $2.3). But thanks to Andrei Greska at, the impeccable perks of the contract reveal that Babcock practically sold away his soul for Williams in the 7-year, $18.2 million agreement.

An automatic rollover clause that extends the contract by one-year after 2017. A diminishing buyout structure for the coach who could bail for practically nothing down the road (just $1.5 million after year 3, $500,000 after year 5). A guaranteed annual raise of $100,000. An opportunity to earn two full salaries if terminated without cause from the school. Seriously, also read the Washington Post's report of his contract. The perks are endless.

Virginia Tech's program is practically at the mercy of Buzz Williams, a coach who has shown questionable ethics and little loyalty in his ascension up the coaching ranks. While it was a stunning hire and one that still has a great chance of working out, this was the price Virginia Tech paid for the 38th best coach in the country that has never proven he can build a program from scratch. Look forward to seeing how this one turns out over the next few years.

Southern Methodist - Larry Brown

Steve Berkowitz of USA Today interviewed SMU president Gerald Turner for an excellent article a few months ago about the 2012 hiring of Hall-of-Fame coach Larry Brown. There are some great quotes in there from Turner, who currently is the co-chairman of the Knight Commission of Intercollegiate Athletics. If you are unfamiliar with the Knight Commission, the organization's goal (straight from its website) is "to ensure that intercollegiate athletics programs operate within the educational mission of their colleges and universities."

So how could Turner justify the school's significant pay increase to its reputable basketball coach? From Berkowitz's article, Turner is quoted as responding:

"I think all of us, if we could, would have the salaries in ranges that are less than they are. But as I told the board (of trustees for SMU): 'If we want to get a coach right now, the range as far as we could tell is about $2 (million) to $4 (million per year) -- and otherwise, we're going to sort of continue like we are.' So, at some level you face reality, but in the same context of facing reality, you try to do it in a reasonable way."

Riiight. SMU terminated Matt Dougherty's $635,000/year contract and hired Brown at what Berkowitz estimated as a $2.8 million annual salary with a few upfront bonuses. Not surprising for a coach who has held twelve jobs in thirty years.

Brown's a fun example, because as we all remember, he expressed genuine interest in Penn State's vacancy back in 2011, and Tim Curley seemingly brushed it off. Looking back now, it's ironic that David Jones' report claims Brown didn't require an exorbitant salary, yet the Mustangs nearly quadrupled their budget for Brown, utilizing the financial assistance of donors as Berkowitz's article states.

There was some truth to Brown's original intentions, however, as he has implemented a succession plan. But it certainly wasn't a cheap one, since SMU hired Tim Jankovich away from his head coaching position at Illinois State for a cool $800,000 per year. To recap, Pat Chambers is making $860,000, so SMU is paying nearly a full Big Ten head coach's salary for their coach-in-waiting to Larry Brown with no real announcement of when said transition will occur. That $800,000 is easily more than Penn State's entire budget for Chambers' supporting staff.

However, the bigger red flag for me with Brown was his past NCAA recruiting violations at Kansas. Who truly knows what his motives were to jump back into the college game, but would the hall-of-famer comply with Penn State's strict tolerance to following the NCAA's by-lines after being out of the NCAA for nearly 25 years?

The payoff of SMU's risky move seemed to be coming to fruition sooner rather than later, as Brown has quickly transformed the downtrodden Mustangs into a winner in just two years. Last season, his team broke through and won 27 games (second most in program history) before falling to Minnesota in the NIT finals. Expectations for 2015 are through the roof with the return of a promising core and the expected addition of a superstar recruit.

Brown made waves in recruiting circles last fall when he successfully took on all of college basketball for 5-star point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. 247Sports' #2 recruit in the country chose to stay close to Arlington, TX, home by choosing SMU over Kentucky and Kansas. He's likely to be a 2015 NBA lottery pick and would have been one of the best point guards in college basketball next year.

However, America won't get to see him at SMU or any other NCAA institution next season. News broke yesterday that Mudiay was going to pass on playing for a hall-of-fame coach and take his talents overseas to play professionally. The young player's statement suggested the move was to support his struggling family financially, but ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported this isn't truly the case:

Amateurism issues, not academics seem to be the purpose of this reported investigation. It should be interesting to see how the rest of this unfolds. Will it simply be a roadblock for Larry Brown or will it cripple SMU's plan for its basketball program?


Not many schools make these type of hires in college basketball. The Big Ten is the nation's best conference at the moment, but can you say Fran McCaffery, John Groce, Tim Miles, Richard Pitino or Chris Collins were big-name hires the last few years? Obviously Pitino and Collins have strong family ties in the basketball world, but none of those coaches were proven at the highest level of division-1 hoops before landing their gigs.

Right now, it's hard to acknowledge Pat Chambers doesn't have at least something brewing within his program. It is far from a sure-thing heading into year four, but is pulling the plug on him to make a flashy like this in the future worth the risk these two programs have taken? Certainly Penn State's financial situation has to be considered in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and Freeh report. What are your thoughts?