Nate Oats and Eric Musselman, the two coaches squaring off in Bud Walton Arena tonight when No. 20 Arkansas hosts No. 8 Alabama, couldn’t have followed more different paths to their current positions.
Musselman came down to college ball after decades in the pros, honing his craft in the CBA, NBA and G-League. Most college coaches aren’t so lucky, but Musselman had the benefit of a longtime NBA head coach as a father.
Oats, meanwhile, worked his way up from the prep ranks. He spent 11 years at the helm of a Detroit metro area high school after a few years at smaller colleges in Wisconsin.
Despite Musselman’s more prestigious past and seniority (At 56, he’s 10 years older than Oats), Oats has so far made a slightly bigger splash in the SEC. Both men are in their second years at their respective schools, but Oats’ 21-13 SEC record (63.6%) is superior to Musselman’s 16-15 (51.6%) record in the SEC.
Of course, those records include the 90-59 shellacking Arkansas absorbed in Alabama on January 16.
In leading Alabama to No. 1 in the SEC, Oats has been so impressive that Alabama’s athletic director isn’t waiting until after the season to show him some contractual love. Last week, Greg Bryne announced a raise of Oats’ salary from $2.45 million annually to $3.225 million. Oats also got a contract extension running through 2027.
Afterward, sports radio host Paul Finebaum explained why locking down Oats with a bigger buyout now — as opposed to waiting until the end of the season — was so important.
Finebaum pointed out that there could be some big job openings in college basketball in the next couple years. Perhaps at Syracuse, where the 76-year-old Jim Boeheim may retire. Or Duke, where the 74-year-old Mike Kryzyewski may leave.
“John Calipari may decide he’s had enough of the critics at Kentucky and go to the NBA,” Finebaum added. “North Carolina could open. Michigan State is a job that I’m sure Nate Oats has always coveted because of his relationship with Tom Izzo. You don’t need that going on in March after Nate Oats gets to the Elite Eight or the Final Four.”
Finebaum’s pretty spot on here. There are an unusually high number of “blue-blood” programs with potential openings in the short term.
Hog fans should pay attention to the shifting landscape, because the same logic that Finebaum applies to why Bryne needed to lock down Oats also applies to Musselman.
Since that Alabama loss, Musselman has led Arkansas to seven straight SEC wins and has Arkansas playing as well as it ever has in the 21st century.
With his increasingly proven ability to integrate new transfers with holdovers and incoming freshmen at a high-major level, there’s no reason to expect Arkansas’ upward trajectory to level off soon.
Perhaps Musselman isn’t quite as attractive as Oats to elite programs because he’s a decade older and Alabama is perceived to be a stronger program on the national scene.
In fact, while Arkansas’ NCAA championship odds are listed at around +7167, Alabama’s NCAA Championship odds are listed as nearly three times higher at +2133.
But that’s no reason to think Musselman is safe. In fact, if Bryne’s move really confirmed Oats will stay at Bama for at least a few more years, then when those bigger jobs open up the pool of great coaches who aren’t essentially locked down will be smaller.
To ensure Musselman isn’t poached away, Hunter Yurachek has a decision to make.
Should he wait it out longer and keep Musselman on his current $2.5 million salary, which is tied for the lowest in the SEC? (Vanderbilt coaches’ salaries aren’t publicly disclosed.) Or should he show Muss the money before a potential Sweet 16 run that could make him a much bigger national star?
No doubt, Yurahchek sees both sides of the coin. There’s much to be said about showing more of a commitment early on to ward off potential suitors, but there’s also the overhanging spector of what happened with former Razorback football coach Bret Bielema in 2014.
Bielema finished strong in his second season, blowing through Ole Miss, LSU and Texas. Yurachek’s predecessor, Jeff Long, was so smitten with the seemingly upward arc of the football program that he gave Bielema a hefty extension and raise.
In hindsight, Long’s display of commitment was too early. It would have made more sense to simply wait another season or two and make sure Bielema could keep it up.
Has Musselman already shown enough to warrant the kind of raise that Hog fans wished Long never made?
We’ll know a lot more after tonight’s game.