“Let’s Hold Our Horses.” Signing Eric Musselman to a New $5 Million Contract Would Have Been a Bad Idea.

Eric Musselman

Finally, it’s done.

Razorback fans let out a collective sigh of relief when news of Eric Musselman’s new contract was released today. 

Musselman, by far the most successful Arkansas basketball history over the course of his first two seasons with the program, isn’t going to Arizona, Indiana, Texas or any other place whose fans think of Arkansas as a mere stepping stone program.

Instead, he will get a raise from what had been a $2.5 million salary before the NCAA Tournament to $4 million a year. 

He also gets an extension. The new deal starts on May 1 and runs through April 30, 2026.

No longer will Musselman be the 13th-highest paid coach in the SEC.

I knew I didn’t have the 13th best coach in the SEC,” Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek said. “Eric Musselman deserves to be paid and he’s where he should be now.”

In the last few weeks, many following the program believed that Musselman should be paid even more.

They thought he deserved something closer to $5 million a year. after leading the Arkansas basketball program to the Elite Eight, heights it hadn’t seen since the mid 1990s.

The logic was sound if you look at the current market. 

Consider that only three college basketball coaches are currently paid $5 million or more per year.

Yet Eric Musselman has a higher career winning percentage than all of them except John Calipari. 

And when it comes to NCAA Tournament achievements since the 2015-16 season, Musselman’s achievements make Rick Barnes look like a slacker. They aren’t far behind Beard or Calipari, either. 

Highest Paid College Basketball Coaches (and Eric Musselman) 

John Calipari 

Team: Kentucky 

Annual Salary: $8 million 

Overall record: 742-230 (.763) 

UMass record: 189-70 (.730) 

Memphis record: 214-68 (.759) 

Kentucky record: 339-93 (.785)

NCAA Tournament appearances since 2016: 4

NCAA Tournament achievements since 2016: One Sweet Sixteen finish; Two Elite Eight finishes

 

Chris Beard

Team: Texas

Annual Salary: $5 million 

Overall record: Overall record: 208-85 (.710)

McMurry record: 19–10 (.655)

Angelo State record: 47–15 (.758)

Little Rock record: 30-5 (.857)

Texas Tech record: 112-55 (.671)

Texas record: 0-0 (.000)

NCAA Tournament appearances since 2016: 4

NCAA Tournament achievements since 2016: One Elite Eight finish; One national runner-up finish

 

Rick Barnes

Team: Tennessee

Annual Salary: $5.2 million in 2021-22 (up to $5.7 million in 2023-24)

Overall record: 727-387 (.653)

George Mason record: 20-10 (.667)

Providence record: 108-76 (.587)

Clemson record: 74-48 (.607)

Texas record: 402-180 (.691)

Tennessee record: 123-73 (.628)

 

NCAA Tournament appearances since 2016: 3

NCAA Tournament achievements since 2016: One Sweet Sixteen finish

 

Eric Musselman

Annual Salary: $4 million 

Overall record: 155-53 (.745)

Nevada record: 110-34 (.764)

Arkansas record: 45-19 (.703)

 

As it is, Musselman will get into the Top 10 highest paid coaches with this new contract. 

But the idea of him joining the $5 million club isn’t outlandish based on where he stacks up against the above three coaches, plus what he’s done so far this offseason replenishing a roster with three high-profile, Top 25 transfers. 

But Wess Moore, the longtime sports anchor and sports radio co-host in Little Rock, is glad that Yurachek didn’t agree to pay Musselman more. 

“You have to have room to grow,” he said today on “The Zone” on the Buzz 103.7 FM.

“Look, I like Musselman a lot, but let’s hold the horses.”

“Let’s not make him one of the highest-paid coaches already. Let’s wait a little bit. What if he has another good year or two? Then you’ve got to give him another raise at some point.”

Moore definitely thinks Musselman deserves the raise he got, but he also hits the nail on the head by bringing up the necessity to build in some “wiggle room” for future contract negotiations. 

This goes both ways. 

Yurachek likely doesn’t want to yet put Musselman in the Top 4 highest-paid college basketball coaches because a) it’s hugely expensive (even though the Razorback Foundation donors would probably cover it if necessary) and b) what happens if Musselman starts breaking into Final Fours on the regular? 

A future renegotiation based off a $5 million would need to jump Musselman’s salary into the $6+ million range. That would be more than double the $3 million salary of Sam Pittman.

As much as Pittman, the Arkansas football coach, loves Eric Musselman, and Musselman loves Sam Pittman — and both coaches share a great relationship with Yurachek — this wouldn’t be a good look for the athletic department overall. 

Optics matter in big-time college sports, and Arkansas cannot afford to appear to lean so heavily into being a basketball school with potential football recruits. It will always need football as a major revenue driver, no matter how good basketball gets. 

It will never be like Kansas or Kentucky. 

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More analysis of Musselman’s new contract here:

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On the flip side, it also makes sense that Musselman would want some negotiating leverage going forward as well. 

That’s why we see the new contract lay out a buyout structure that takes a $5.5 million nosedive after next season ends: 

“Musselman would owe the UA a $7.5 million if he took another job before the end of the 2021-22 season.”

“That buyout falls to $2 million through the 2023-24 season; $1 million through the 2024-25 season; and $750,000 through the end of the contract.”

A buyout of $2 million or less is much less of a financial obstacle to potential future suitors  than one of more than $7 million. 

Granted, boosters of elite programs that want (or don’t want) a coach bad enough can usually find a way to deepen their pockets to cover anything, but saving a few extra millions could matter.”

Yurachek knows that the rumors of programs like Indiana or Arizona going after Musselman will be an annual issue so long as Musselman is winning big.

He also knows that talk of “locking up” a coach is overblown.

In the end, given how straight up irresponsible boosters can get with letting millions fly, almost any coach can be poached any spring.

So you build trust, develop a good relationship, and then simply have faith. 

Perhaps that further explains why Yurachek said on Tuesday that the drop off in buyout money in Musselman’s new contract  “shows the level of trust I have that he wants to be here.”

“There’s also the $1.5 million retention after 5 years and I think that’s a good incentive to stay.”

Musselman, too, laid out a few reasons that are good incentives to stay — a great program, a great AD and friends in northwest Arkansas that he, his wife and daughter have made. 

Hunter Yurachek added that it’s goal  Musselman remains the Arkansas basketball coach “as long as he wants to be.”

Given the steep buyout drop after next season, it’s fair to wonder how long that will be. 

It’s also fair to point out that Musselman has done more in two seasons than most Arknasas basketball coaches ever do in their entire tenures. 

And, no matter what drama may go down in future years, fans are lucky to get to buckle up for a Season 3.

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The most unique part of Musselman’s new contract is a clause that would let him leave to coach San Diego (his alma mater) after April 2024 without paying any buyout. Apparently, including that was something of a farce that Musselman’s buddies dared him to do. 

Also, the promise of burritos was involved.

Watch here for more:

 

The below feature on Musselman’s contract situation originally published on March 4, 2021:

Eric Musselman vs Nate Oats  

After coaching Arkansas to its 11th straight SEC win, Eric Musselman is well on his way to becoming one of the hottest coaches in the nation. 

He is leading an Arkansas basketball team that is doing things the program hasn’t seen since that last glorious decade of the 20th century: a Top 12 ranking, a top 25 match-up in Bud Walton Arena and an elite team on multiple statistical fronts.

But the success also highlights an emerging disparity. Despite Arkansas basketball’s newly recaptured lofty status, the salary of its head coach is 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. 

After the last week of SEC season play, Oats had led Alabama to a record of 37-21 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?

After Urging Eric Musselman to Bounce, USA Today Goes Whole Hog on Disrespecting Arkansas Basketball

Eric Musselman Contract

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% or more of student-athletes in academic year in which they exhaust their eligibility
  • $12,500 – Graduate 80% to 89% of student-athletes in academic year in which they exhaust their eligibility

Musselman, also in his second year with the Hogs, has an overall record of 40-17 at Arkansas. That includes a resounding late February win at Bud Walton Arena over then-No. 8 Alabama. However, even with the 11-game SEC winning streak, his SEC record (19-15) was still well below Oats’ (24-13). 

Of course, there’s some important context here. Namely, injuries cost the Arkansas basketball team 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 Eric 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. 

Arkansas Basketball Poachers?

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. 

And don’t forget about the Hoosiers, where sources say Musselman is in the top six for next Indiana basketball coach:

Next Indiana Basketball Coach? Insiders Say Eric Musselman among Hoosiers’ Top Targets

 

“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.

Calipari’s seemingly tried-and-true method of using Lexington, Kentucky as a one-year layover for future pros isn’t looking so true any more.

SI.com’s Pat Forde refers to it as “increasingly ineffective and locally unpopular recruiting philosophy” in a profile of recruit Reed Sheppard.

Forde continues: “The young guys who view UK as an NBA stopover have stopped delivering Final Fours and national titles for Calipari, who last led a team to the Final Four in 2015 and whose current squad is putting the finishing touches on the school’s first losing season in 32 years.”

Meanwhile, Musselman’s method of mixing the old and new has fallen into strong favor.

“The path to college basketball national championships the past five years is to ‘get old and stay old,’ to use the term currently popular with coaches,” Forde wrote. “Old is 21 and 22; young is 18 and 19.” 

Kentucky, however, is far from the only blue blood program struggling, as CBS’ Gary Parrish details here:

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 Eric Musselman isn’t quite as attractive as Oats to elite programs because he’s a decade older and Alabama for much of this season has been perceived as 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 for Arkansas basketball, 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 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? 

With every win tacked onto that SEC winning streak, the answer increasingly appears to be “Yes.”

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