In early March, Hunter Yurachek said he’d already begun informal talks with Musselman’s agent about updating Musselman’s contract.
After coaching Arkansas to its 10th straight SEC win in early March, Eric Musselman was well on his way to becoming one of the hottest coaches in the nation.
He was leading a Razorbacks basketball team that was doing things the program hadn’t seen since that last glorious decade of the 20th century: a Top 12 ranking, a top 25 matchup in Bud Walton Arena and an elite team on multiple statistical fronts.
But the success also highlighted an emerging disparity. Despite Arkansas’ newly recaptured lofty status, the salary of its head coach was tied for the lowest in the SEC (among public universities).
That disparity hit even closer to home when Nate Oats, Musselman’s main contender for SEC Coach of the Year, got a raise from $2.45 million annually to $3.225 million. Oats also got a contract extension running through 2027.
It was warranted.
Through the last week of SEC season play, Oats had led Alabama to a record of 36-21 in his two years in Tuscaloosa. That includes a regular season SEC crown this season. By announcing the raise in late February, Alabama’s athletic director Greg Bryne didn’t wait until after the season to show him some contractual love.
Would Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek do well jumping the gun with Musselman, too?
Musselman, also in his second year with the Hogs, had an overall record of 39-17 at Arkansas. That includes a resounding late February win at Bud Walton Arena over then-No. 8 Alabama. However, even with the 10-game SEC winning streak, his SEC record (18-15) was still well below Oats’ (23-13).
Of course, there’s some important context here. Namely, injuries cost Arkansas two of its best players in the last two seasons — Isaiah Joe and Justin Smith — over significant stretches during conference play in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
In early March, Yurachek said he’d already begun informal talks with Musselman’s agent about updating Musselman’s contract. “My philosophy is that Eric and I will sit down together at the end of the season, when that’s over, and talk about what his contract looks like and what’s important to him moving forward,” Yurachek said. “His agent and I have talked behind the scenes about that.”
When it comes to offering Musselman a raise and extension, there may be some urgency at play, however.
Now Better Than Later?
In late February, 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. The heat is especially hot on Calipari, whose Wildcats lost 15 of their first 23 games — by far his worst season at the helm of the sport’s most high-pressure program.
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.
He had Arkansas playing better than any point in the regular season since the mid-1990s. 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 for much of this season was perceived to be a stronger program on the national scene.
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 an important decision to make about how much of a raise to offer Musselman. And how much should the Hogs’ postseason performance play into his decision? A Sweet 16 run, after all, would make Musselman a much bigger national star.
No doubt, Yurahchek knows the possibility of poaching from deeper-pocketed suitors. 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 specter 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?
With every win tacked onto that SEC winning streak, the answer increasingly appeared to be, “Yes.”
In 2019, Musselman signed a five-year contract with Arkansas for $2.5 annually to run through April 30, 2024. That, however, will be extended to 2025 because the Razorbacks will make the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
There are plenty of other performance-based incentives too. Here are the main ones:
• $100,000 – Win the SEC regular season championship
• $100,000 – Win the SEC Tournament
• $25,000 – Win SEC Coach of the Year
• $50,000 – Win National Coach of the Year
• $100,000 – For an NCAA Tournament appearance
• $250,000 – For a Sweet 16 appearance
• $350,000 – For a Final Four appearance
• $500,000 – For winning the national championship
• $25,000 – Graduate 90 percent or more of student-athletes in academic year in which they exhaust eligibility
• $12,500 – Graduate 80 percent to 89 percent of student-athletes in academic year in which they exhaust their eligibility