The below article originally published in the June issue of Arkansas Money & Politics
When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Razorback athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than the ASU Red Wolves.
There is one place Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground: each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year — his first on the job — he would have owed the U of A $3 million. Three million is also what the Red Wolves’ new coach Blake Anderson would pay to leave ASU during his first year. This symmetry is all the more striking because Bielema’s and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year, Anderson makes $700,000.
Conversely, if they leave at the behest of the schools, the coaches can look to pocket some walking-away money.
It’s all a matter of strategy and context, a common game played by universities across the country. Still, fans can be certain of one thing: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary.
In the biggest conferences, a $3 million buyout provision isn’t all that large. In a conference as relatively small as ASU’s Sun Belt, though, this kind of number is almost certainly unprecedented — much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole.
“When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir said, “you learn a little bit.”
Since 2010, ASU has hired four different coaches. The first — Hugh Freeze — had a first-year buyout of $225,000. For his successors, that figure jumped to $700,000, then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.
Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches typically signed one-year contracts, which would roll over to the next year if they did a good job. Things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. As multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” U of A athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”
In business terms, the institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset — the head football coach — that can either add or lose a great amount of revenue. Perversely, either one makes the coach more likely to leave. A chronically underwhelming coach is likely to be fired by the school, while star performers are lured away by institutions with more elite programs.
Buyout contracts therefore typically work in two ways. If a university fires the head coach “at its convenience,” legalese often translated to “too many games were lost,” the school usually gives the coach a ton of money to go away. Bielema, for instance, would be paid $12.8 million if he were fired in this context in his first three seasons. For Anderson, the number is $3 million if he’s let go in his first year. The University of Central Arkansas’ Steve Campbell would be paid $7,000 a month for the remainder of his contract ending Dec. 31, 2017, if he were fired; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Monte Coleman would get his annual base salary of $150,000 paid to him over 18 months.
In the 21st century, major college coaches’ salaries — and attendant buyouts — have grown hand-in-hand.
It’s March, which means basketball fever is spreading through Arkansas. Interest in the high school state tournament is extra high this year as the state enjoys a high school basketball golden age thanks to headliners like junior KeVaughn Allen and sophomore Malik Monk. Both highly recruited shooting guards are accomplished beyond their years. Last year, Allen helped lead North Little Rock to a state title as a sophomore and picked up Finals MVP along the way. Monk, ranked by some outlets as the best shooting guard in the nation in his class, may one-up him. Despite two late season losses, Monk has helped turn Bentonville into a powerhouse for the first time in a long time while racking up obscene box scores. (Who else hits 11 of 12 three-pointers, as Monk did in one January game?)
Allen and Monk, who both stand around 6-3, aren’t the first sophomore wing players to dominate the local high school scene. In the early 1970s, another great high school golden age was tipping off and Little Rock native Dexter Reed was in the thick of it. The 6-2 guard went on one of the most devastating tourney tears of any era to lead Little Rock Parkview to its first state title.
In 1971, Parkview had only existed for three years. All the dynastic names affiliated with the school now — Ripley, Flanigan, Fisher — were still far off in the future. These ‘71 Patriots finished their regular season with a 15-12 record, but caught fire in the state tournament at Barton Coliseum, knocking off Jacksonville, McClellan, Jonesboro and finally, Helena. Through those four games, Reed averaged 27 points including 43 to secure the Class AAA title, then the state’s second largest. Ron Brewer, who regularly played pickup ball with Reed in the 1970s, said his friend was among the best scorers in state history: “He was like a choreographer out there, just dancing and weaving and getting the defense all discombobulated. And when it’s all said and done, he just destroyed you. He destroyed you by himself.”
Reed was a different kind of player from Monk and Allen but effective in his own way. The new schoolers are both extremely explosive athletes with deep three-point range. Reed didn’t play above the rim, and he didn’t see much reason to shoot 21-footers in his three point shot-less era. “I wasn’t the best of shooters,” he says. “I was more of a scorer. I could get by people, you know — I tried to be like Earl the Pearl.”
Reed won another title as a junior and by his senior year was a second-team Parade All-American who had hundreds of scholarship offers. The University of Arkansas was an early favorite. Reed had grown up a Razorback fan, and many in his inner circle wanted to see him play for coach Lanny Van Eman. Among those was local coach Houston Nutt, Sr., who had taught him the game’s fundamentals. “He had a lot of influence on me,” says Reed, who as a boy had sold popcorn at War Memorial Stadium with Houston Nutt, Jr.
Memphis State University, fresh off a national championship appearance, also entered the recruiting picture. Reed’s parents liked the fact that its campus was more than an hour closer to their home than Fayetteville. Other factors tipped the scales Memphis’ way. For starters, the Tigers played in an arena that didn’t make Reed uncomfortable. One area of the Hogs’ Barnhill Fieldhouse where the football team worked out was covered in sawdust. “I had sinus problems, and I’d be coughing there during summer basketball camps,” he says. Moreover, Reed’s older brother already attended the UA but had had trouble socially acclimating. Reed’s brother told him to strongly consider a larger city as Fayetteville was then a small town and there “wasn’t but a handful of black kids.”
Dexter Reed chose Memphis State and as a freshman immediately made a splash, racking up more than 500 points and leading the Tigers to a 19-11 finish. A serious injury to his knee ligaments the following season diminished his quickness, but he bounced back to average 18.8 points a game as a senior and landed on two All-America teams.
One highlight his last year was a return to Little Rock to play a surging Hogs program under new coach Eddie Sutton. As Sutton’s first great Hogs team, that 1976–77 bunch only lost one regular season game. On Dec. 30, 1976, a then record crowd jammed into Barton Coliseum to watch Reed, the greatest scorer Little Rock had ever produced, square off against Hog stars like Brewer, a junior, and sophomores Sidney Moncrief and Marvin Delph. They were all friends and ribbed each other in advance of Reed’s only college game in his hometown. Brewer recalls, “Me, Sidney and Marvin kept saying ‘You can come back all you want, but you ain’t gonna win this one.’ And he single handily kept them in the ballgame.”
Arkansas led for most of it, with Reed guarding Moncrief and then Brewer. But Reed and the bigger Tigers finished strong, with Reed hitting free throws down the stretch to clinch a 69-62 win. “I didn’t really think it was that big to my teammates, but after it was over, they all came over jumping on me,” Reed says. As he left the arena, he recalled seeing some of the same people in the crowd who had watched him burst onto the stage seven years earlier as a Parkview sophomore. “It was like a time warp,” he says.
Fast forward to the present, and Reed still lives in Memphis, where he runs sign and flower shops and hosts a sports radio show every Saturday morning. His parents have passed, so he doesn’t make it back to Little Rock much anymore. But he still follows the Razorbacks, and he’s heard from friends and Memphis coaches about some of the state’s great high school guards like KeVaughn Allen. Reed is glad to know the tradition he helped nourish is in good hands. He concludes, “My heart has always been with Arkansas.”
An earlier version of this story was originally published in this month’s issue of Celebrate Arkansas.
I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, so I no longer expect to wake up on Christmas morning with treats stuffed in my stocking.
I do, however, believe in longtime Arkansas sportswriter Walter Woodie. And Woodie recently left an email in my inbox that made me smile as much as any snow-dusted Snickers bar from the North Pole could have.
He sent me the following game report from an Arkansas high school football final in 1990. I consider the game’s star, Basil Shabazz, to be an Arkansas version of Bo Jackson. This game represented his finest moment:
Here are some immediate impressions:
1. Texarkana quarterback Mike Cherry would end up as a highly touted freshman for the Arkansas Razorbacks. As Barry Lunney’s perpetual backup, however, he never could carve out consistent paying time. Houston Nutt, then a UA assistant, coached him at the start of his college career. In 1993, Nutt left to become head coach of Murray State. Two years later, Cherry transferred to that same Kentucky school and led Nutt’s teams to two conference titles.
The Readers’ Choice Edition
This weekend, Arkansas’ hoops cognoscenti will descend on Hot Springs for the state high school championships. There, in Summit Arena, teams from each corner of the state will vie for the right to be called the best in 2011-12. Every few years, though, a team is so strong that its on-court competition simply isn’t stout enough to give a serious challenge. When that happens, the team ends up battling history instead, as its coach and fans stake a claim to being the best in state history.
What would happen if the top prep teams in Arkansas history actually met on the court to decide once and for all who truly is the best of all-time? If guys like Derek Fisher, Ron Brewer and Joe Johnson were magically transported to their 17-year-old bodies, and once again wore Patriots, Grizzlies or Tigers gear? It would be like Field of Dreams, but indoors and without so much corn.
I wasn’t able to summon otherworldly powers to actually make this happen, but I did the next best thing: talked to coaches and journalists who saw most of these teams play. With their insight, I created a list of contenders for the title of an all-time hypothetical tourney.
As you’d expect, it’s required that each entry won a state title. Some older teams actually won a couple state titles in the same year. After winning the state tournament against similar-sized schools, the team then tackled the winners of other classifications in a now-defunct “overall” state tournament that ran 1972-1992.
For the sake of simplicity, all teams play under modern rules. This means some of the older teams who’ve never seen a three-point arc will have to figure out on the fly how to defend three-point shots, or get accustomed to seeing crossover dribbles that decades before would have been deemed traveling violations. Admittedly, this gives the modern teams an advantage over the older teams. Although I would counter those older player have a built-in stamina advantage, given many claim to have walked to school uphill both ways.
I realize rule changes and differing styles of play make it extremely difficult to compare teams from different eras, but it’s better to have fun trying than never attempt at all.
You’ll likely disagree with some of my SYNC magazine picks [0307sportschart] for who who’d win different matchup in a single-elimination, all-time 8-team tournament. I welcome that debate. It’s all part of the fun. But on this blog, I’m no longer playing God. It’s time you decide who would win in the first round of an all-time tournament among twelve of the state’s top teams. Below are the eight teams out of those top dozen which don’t get a first-round bye:
Final Record: N/A (3 losses, all to Pearl High, a Memphis powerhouse)
Stars: Eddie Miles (6-5), James Nash, Theodore Hines
Coach: Arthur Calvin
Seniors won four consecutive all-black schools state titles; made finals of 1959 national tournament for all-black schools, lost to Pearl High in triple-overtime
Final Record: 30-0
Stars: Fred Gulley (6-1 guard), Cable Hogue (6-7 forward), Taylor Cochran (6-2 guard)
Coach: Barry Gephart
Finished season ranked No.8 in nation by Sports Ilustrated
Final Record: 34-0
Stars: Larry Grisham (6-3 power forward), Ralph Childs (5-11 point guard), Don Riggs
Coach: Troy Bledsoe
Averaged 77 points in first three state tourney games, a state record at the time
Final Record: 29-3 (Joe Johnson sidelined during only in-state loss)
Stars: Joe Johnson (6-7 “point center”), Hart (6-3 forward), Mark Green (6-2 guard)
Coach: Oliver Fitzpatrick
Won four state tournament games by record-setting average of 43.5 points
Final Record: 27-2
Stars: Sonny Weems (6-6 forward), Des McCoy (6-5 forward), Mark Mangum (5-9 guard)
Coach: Larry Bray
Didn’t lose after Thanksgiving weekend, average margin of victory = 23.4
1999-00 Little Rock Fair
Final Record: 31-0
Stars: Kim Adams (6-7 center) Dameon Ashford (5-11 guard), Anthony Rogers
Coach: Charlie Johnson
Opponents averaged around 40 points a game, roster included 14 seniors
1983-84 Little Rock Hall
Final Record: 27-4
Stars: Tim Scott (6-3), Allie Freeman (6-2 guard)
Coach: Oliver Elders
Elders said this team, the last of four consecutive state title winners, was the best he ever had
1974-75 Little Rock Central
Final Record: 27-1
Stars: Robert Griffin (6-2 guard), Barry Clark (6-7 forward), Houston Nutt (6-2 guard)
Coach: Eddie Boone
Defeated Sidney Moncrief’s Hall High warriors en route to overall championship
As a freshman all those years ago, Mitch Mustain went 8-0 at Arkansas and was one of the key figures in some of the controversy that enveloped first-year college coach Gus Malzahn and head coach Houston Nutt as the 2006 season wore on.
We know the aftermath: Malzahn to Tulsa, Nutt out, Petrino in and Mustain gone to USC. Mustain had thrived in high school, then in college, under Malzahn but he never really worked out in SoCal. Aside from a start against Notre Dame, Mitch had pretty much faded into shades-wearin’ obscurity by last December.
Well, Mustain’s back. Not in the flesh, but in bullet form. His UA success – however fleeting – forms the base of a national recruiting pitch new ASU coach Gus Malzahn unleashed on ESPNU on signing day:
In this next video, you’ll notice in the following analysis that Mustain’s inclusion trips up ESPNU analyst David Pollack some, but it’s interesting to note that while Mustain’s playing days in the state of Arkansas are long over, he could still play a role in Malzahn’s ability to recruit future recruits.
Of course, ASU hopes to end up with QBs who pan out more in line with Malzahn’s latest star college quarterback, Cam Newton, rather than his first.
Gus Malzahn. Chris Paul.
The two names shall not, it is safe to say, be forever linked in the annals of history.
But last week, these two accomplished team leaders – one a college football coach, the other a pro basketball player – shared headlines across national news outlets as they changed teams.
On closer examination, they actually share much more.
1) Both specialize in quarterbacking teams to outstanding offensive success.
Malzahn, a former high school quarterback, developed into a high school head coach and offensive coordinator who specialized in turning quarterbacks into record-book smashing Godzillas. At each level – whether Springdale High, Tulsa University or Auburn – he helped that program’s offense set numerous records.
Paul plays point guard, the hardcourt’s quarterback equivalent, and he’s done it at extremely well.Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul averaged nearly 31 points and 10 assists a game. In five NBA seasons, Paul has put up numbers as impressive as any point guard in league history. Sure, he scores 20+ points but consider that his 9.9 assists per game average is third-highest all-time. Or that he’s the only player to lead the NBA in steals and assists in two consecutive seasons.
2) Their abilities burst into the national spotlight at Baptist schools.
Malzahn’s second head coaching job (1996-2000) was at the private Shiloh Christian School, which is closely tied to the First Baptist Church of Springdale. In 1998, the Saints set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and would win 1998 and 1999 state titles.
Paul attended the private Wake Forest University, which was originally founded by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. The school opened in 1834, with a focus on teaching Baptist ministers and laymen. In 2005, Paul left Winston-Salem, N.C. after a sophomore year in which he had earned first team All-America honors.
At age 24, Clark Irwin finally has a normal life.
The Little Rock native works fairly normal hours, has plenty of time for his wife and parents and occasionally catches NFL games on TV. In the last eight months, he’s even found time to shoot hoops at Cammack Village’s park, not too far from the Foxcroft neighborhood where he grew up.
So far, so good with this normal adult life stuff.
The way Irwin sees it, he jumped into it just in time.
Until February, Irwin had essentially coached under Houston Nutt for half a decade. Irwin spent three years seeing spot action as a backup Razorback quarterback and special teams player, but his real value was as an understudy to the coaches. He signaled plays to the offense and helped run passing drills with fellow quarterbacks Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain, both of whom were roommates at different times.
“I was getting my minor in graduate assistantship if you want to look at it that way,” Irwin says.
He officially took that position in early 2009 after following Nutt to Oxford, Miss., where Nutt had started head coaching Ole Miss the season before. There, Clark spent late summers and falls immersed in game planning, film study and practice seven days a week. “It’s almost like you can ever do enough,” he says. Game days – with the crowds, the adrenaline and the constant in-game chess match between coaches – were the most fun part of it all.
Everything seemed primed for Irwin to take the next step up the coaching ranks, to one day possibly follow in his mentor’s footsteps as a head coach himself.