Men's Basketball, WVU Sports

COLUMN: Why are mid-major hoops coaches the current trend for bigger hires? Wren Baker has some thoughts

MORGANTOWN — Let me throw out some names to you really quick.

Michigan, maybe as traditional a university there is in the U.S. outside of the Ivy League schools. It also has the financial resources not equaled by some countries in this world.

Louisville, which is located in the state of Kentucky, where basketball is a religion. It, too, has great tradition, national championship banners hanging in the rafters and a pretty big checkbook.

Vanderbilt, which is part of the mighty SEC that the rest of the sports world can’t stand. It just means more, we are told by the conference’s motto. It just means a lot of money going to those schools is what the rest of us think.

The list goes on. Oklahoma State, again, a lot of financial resources, great facilities and good sports tradition from Barry Sanders to “Big Country” Bryant Reeves.

And then there is West Virginia University.

Now, there are those outside of the state’s borders who may believe the Mountaineers shouldn’t be in the same category with any of the other schools listed above, but over the last few weeks, WVU shared one distinct common attribute:

They all needed a men’s basketball coach.

And did you see what happened and just how interesting it all may be?

One by one those schools all went in the same direction in that none of them went after the next big thing or the big-money name.

They didn’t go after any NBA assistant coaches. None of them hired a guy with previous ties to the school. They didn’t go after John Calipari or try to talk Roy Williams or Jay Wright out of retirement.

They all went the route of the up-and-comer, a head coach at a smaller mid-major school.

All of them are official, except for Oklahoma State, which is reportedly getting set to sign Steve Lutz from Western Kentucky.

Dusty May, formerly of Florida Atlantic, is now at Michigan. Pat Kelsey, formerly of the College of Charleston, was hired at Louisville. Mark Byington, who was at James Madison, is now coaching at Vanderbilt.

And WVU may have got the best in show of the entire bunch, hiring former Drake head coach Darian DeVries, who is 150-55 in his six seasons with the Bulldogs.

Let’s be honest here. None of them have had the type of recruiting success that most Power Five assistant coaches have on their resumés.

Most future pros do not consider Drake or James Madison. Most top-notched transfers in the portal do not have any serious discussions with those schools.

So why not a hot-shot assistant from Kentucky, Duke or any of the blue bloods?

And why are these head coaches from schools that few even know what conference they’re in become so popular?

Those are the exact questions we asked WVU athletic director Wren Baker.

“There’s always a risk when you hire a (Power Five level) assistant,” Baker said. “The job has become so much harder and so much more complex today with the transfer portal and NIL. There’s probably more weight given to the people who have actually managed the portal and NIL, right?

“If you’re an assistant, you don’t really know (as an athletic director making a hire) how much they actually managed those. That’s probably part of it.”

Did Baker take a look at some top-level assistants from bigger schools? You bet.

In fact, through his process that included one spreadsheet on top of another and then another, he honestly at least glanced at all assistant coaches from every school in the country.

“There are times when you’re willing to take that risk,” Baker continued. “But there are times when you feel like when your program needs someone a little more experienced.”

The No. 1 factor in it all, Baker said, was head coaching experience.

That was important, in WVU’s case, because the program was coming off a very difficult 9-23 season and a last-place finish in the Big 12.

The next coach would basically be following in the footsteps of Hall-of-Fame coach Bob Huggins, even though Huggins did not coach last season.

“When you look at how important this hire was going to be to the athletic department’s health as a whole, I put a value on experience,” Baker said. “That’s probably why we wound up where we did.”

Now, would the athletic director at Michigan or Louisville tell you the same thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s the one thing they would all agree on: Saving some money, because the mid-major coaches aren’t as expensive as the big names already out there.

In WVU’s case, the school is basically going from paying Huggins an average salary of $4.15 million — that would have dropped to $3.15 million due to Huggins’ missteps last summer if he had coached the 2023-24 season — to now paying DeVries an average salary of $3.05 million if DeVries qualifies for the one-year extension in his contract.

Baker said some of that saved money will go toward paying a higher salary for DeVries’ assistant coaches.

Most of it, as well as any other money that can be saved through additional funds earned through TV deals and the likes, will be put into an account for the changes that are coming.

You already know what those changes are. So does Baker. College athletes are about to get paid.

“I want our coach to feel secure,” Baker said. “But I don’t want that security to be so much that it puts us in a (bad) place, especially moving into the future.

“When there is a revenue share with student-athletes, and it’s going to happen, there’s going to be increased benefits for student-athletes. I didn’t want to put us in a place where we’re not prepared to do that.”