By Kevin Sweeney
When UT-Arlington fired head coach Scott Cross in stunning fashion earlier this Spring, I went on a rant (to put it kindly) blasting their decision. UTA Athletic Director Jim Baker reportedly had clashed with Cross on multiple occasions about Cross’s inability to turn the Maverick program into “The Next Gonzaga”. My criticism was simple– becoming the next Gonzaga, Xavier, Butler, or Wichita State takes more than simply an elite coach. Obviously, those programs needed their Mark Few, Pete Gillen, Brad Stevens (or Barry Collier) or Gregg Marshall to ascend to the level that they are at now, but it takes a top-to-bottom effort, from the president of the school all the way down to the fans, to build a program and a culture with staying power at the elite level of college basketball.
Nevada has found their elite coach. Now, can they establish themselves as the next elite mid-major program? Yesterday, in the aftermath of the Jordan Brown commitment, I saw yet another reason why I believe they will.
The hashtag #RiseAndShinePack was all over my Twitter feed yesterday morning, as coaches and their wives shared videos of themselves celebrating landing the McDonald’s All-American Brown.
It was a fun, humorous way to celebrate the news, while also engaging the entire fanbase to tweet out how they celebrated the news. It was the latest great marketing play by the Wolf Pack as they become the new “sexy” name in college basketball.
From the embrace of Twitter to their wide variety of jerseys to the big raise and contract extension Musselman received after last season, Nevada is doing everything right on the path to continued success. Between the fun brand of basketball that the Wolf Pack play and the variety of efforts to connect with the fanbase, ticket sales have spiked, as have donations to the program. Those increases in revenue without a doubt play a big role in Nevada’s ability to pay Musselman, who received a raise from his $400k salary to over $1 million after winning the Mountain West title in 2017.
Obviously, Musselman’s time in Reno may not last forever. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has struggled to live up to the program’s lofty expectations, and a program with the facilities, money, and pedigree like UCLA may prove enough to draw Musselman away from Reno should that job open up. Without a doubt, his name will be mentioned in connection with every major job opening for as long as he remains the Pack’s head coach. However, Nevada is positioned to capitalize on this run of success in a way that other programs that have flirted with national prominence (including this very same Nevada program just 10 years ago).
The biggest factor in college basketball remains money, and Nevada still needs work in that area. Not only do they lag far behind the powers I mentioned before, but they lag behind much of the Mountain West in basketball spending as well (though that number doesn’t factor in the significant raise for Musselman).
That said, with ticket sales rising drastically and potential for significant NCAA Tournament revenue coming down the road, the time seems right for the Wolf Pack administration to ramp up spending. They’ve already invested in a brand-new practice facility, thanks in no small part to a $1 million gift from Pack alum Ramon Sessions. Still, that top-to-bottom commitment from everyone from the biggest figures atop the university to boosters to even the Wolf Pack fans who follow me on Twitter.
Potentially replacing Musselman is possible– Nevada AD Doug Knuth has made strong hires in football, women’s basketball, and men’s basketball all in his relatively short tenure in Reno. Butler and Xavier have consistently lost their coaches to bigger programs but have a culture of hiring great coaches and not missing a beat.
The one hurdle that can’t be overcome long-term is money. If Nevada hopes to be the next Gonzaga, they must avoid the same mistakes that countless other programs have made.