By Kevin Sweeney
Two weeks ago, Nate Oats was talking about Buffalo being on the right track towards shedding the mid-major status.
“We’re not there yet. But we’re climbing in the right direction for sure,” Oats said in an interview with John Wawrow of the Associated Press before Buffalo’s NCAA Tournament game. against Arizona State.
The Bulls certainly didn’t look like a mid-major that night, absolutely dismantling the Sun Devils and former UB head coach Bobby Hurley in impressive fashion.
Shortly thereafter, Buffalo saw its season end in blowout fashion at the hands of Texas Tech. Despite that loss ending the careers of a trio of stars in CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, and Jeremy Harris, the future looked bright. Oats had plenty of talent in the pipeline, whether it be promising youngsters Jayvon Graves & Jeenathan Williams, transfers Antwain Johnson and Gabe Grant, or a loaded JUCO recruiting class that featured a pair of top-25 recruits. Furthermore, Oats signed a long-term contract extension during the MAC Tournament that would bump his salary to more than 800k per year. Buffalo had done everything to show Oats it was committed to building a power, and Oats had said all the right things about wanting to build something at UB.
Then, just like that, Oats was on a plane to Tuscaloosa as the new head coach at Alabama. The same Alabama school that has one NCAA Tournament win in the last decade, while Buffalo has two wins in the last two years under Oats.
Oats didn’t leave for a blue blood, but rather a football school with aging facilities. Even still, Alabama is without a doubt a better job than Buffalo, one with far more money in a better conference and higher upside.
It’s the latest clear statement that successful mid-major coaches leaving is a matter of when, not if.
Nate Oats wasn’t the elusive “next Mark Few”. Neither was Shaka Smart, Dan Hurley, Archie Miller, Steve Prohm, Kermit Davis, or any other hugely successful mid-major coach.
No mid-major can match the money, resources, and other advantages of the high-major level. Alabama basically tripled the record compensation package Buffalo had put together for Oats. How many of the Buffalo fans calling their former coach “Snake Oats” would turn down a job that tripled their salary and had higher prestige in their profession?
Despite the continued success of mid-major teams against the nation’s elite in the NCAA Tournament, inequality between the “haves” and “have nots” of college basketball has never been higher. TV revenue for the biggest conferences has continued to spike while mid-majors battle to balance a budget. Would Mark Few have stayed at Gonzaga in today’s climate? We may never know, but I do know the gap was larger now than it was then.
So as Nevada head coach Eric Musselman’s name continues to swirl as a “strong candidate” at Arkansas, no one should be surprised. Nevada has shown their commitment to building a power, putting together a reported $1 million per year package along with increased commitment through things such as increased charter flights, more staff members, and facilities upgrades. The Pack built about as talented a roster as is possible at the mid-major level this season, with high-profile transfers abound along with a 5-star recruit in Jordan Brown. Still, it wasn’t enough to put together a true national title contender, with Nevada folding down the stretch and seeing their season end in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Realistically, the ceiling is lower at Nevada than it is at Arkansas. How much better a roster can Musselman put together in Reno? It took him three years of relentless work to land Brown, the highest-profile recruit of his tenure so far. Now, he’s working to land Kyree Walker, another highly-touted prep product. That said, it’s much harder to sell an elite recruit on Nevada than it is on an SEC school like Arkansas. Throw in the bigger budget for recruiting, the huge fan support, the exposure an SEC school gets, and much more, and a place like Arkansas is clearly a better job than Nevada.
The only way to keep a coach like Musselman or Oats long-term is to even out the money (or at least get close– see what the Koch brothers are bankrolling for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State) AND to have a coach who wants to stay forever.
Both Buffalo and Nevada have done almost everything right. They have good athletic directors, supportive administrations, and boosters who have tried to step up. Unfortunately, it looks like neither could do quite enough.
That’s how it is at this level. Accept it.
Hope and pray you can find your Nate Oats, who elevates your program to new heights. Those NCAA Tournament wins and big-time regular season upsets over West Virginia and Syracuse brought Buffalo basketball into the spotlight in a way it had never been before. It likely brought in millions of dollars worth of media exposure for the school, and engaged a fanbase in ways never seen before at UB. Hope that finding your Nate Oats helps you land a higher level of candidate when your Nate Oats leaves, and that new coach continues to build your program up. Eventually, maybe you exit mid-major status like Butler or Xavier has. Even then, you might not be in the clear to keep your coach forever. But the goal has to be to continue to build.
Eric Musselman brought Nevada back from being at the bottom. His 4-year run brought the program new life. If he leaves for Arkansas, it isn’t a criticism of Nevada. It’s a fact of life at this level.