Mid-American Conference salaries signify increased importance of basketball

Head coach Rob Senderhoff walks off the court in the MAC center on Jan. 2 after Kent’s 90 to 65 win over Shawnee State. Photo by Matt Hafley.

Nick Shook

The Mid-American Conference lost one of its rising stars of the coaching ranks following the conclusion of Ohio’s run to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament as head coach John Groce left the Bobcats in late March to be the head coach at Illinois.

Illinois hired Groce away from the MAC for a substantial increase in pay. Groce signed a five-year contract that will pay him $1.4 million per year, plus incentives — a significant increase from his $300,000 guaranteed pay, including $250,000 in base salary, according to his contract with Ohio.

The Bobcats responded to the departure of Groce with a major hiring of their own.

Ohio lured Jim Christian, Texas Christian University head coach, away from the Big 12 conference for a yearly base salary of $425,000, making him the highest-paid coach in the MAC.

Christian’s hiring changed the rules of the game in the MAC.

Flashes head coach Rob Senderoff makes $225,000 per year in base salary alone, which ranked him as the fourth-highest-paid coach in the MAC heading into the 2011-12 season.

This is no longer the case (he dropped to eighth place) after Ohio, Central Michigan and Miami hired new coaches following the conclusion of the season.

Central Michigan hired Keno Davis, former Drake and Providence head coach, for a base salary of $300,000, and Miami signed John Cooper, former Tennessee State head coach, for $250,000 per year. The salary for Mark Montgomery, Northern Illinois head coach, increases from $75,000 to $300,000 July 1.

“I think in general, any time there’s a new hiring in any league, when you replace a coach, the universities end up trying to invest more money in the new coach,” Senderoff said. “Then obviously when coaches have success or opportunities the universities try to keep those coaches at their schools by [adding incentives] with higher salaries or more years in their contract.”

The hiring of new coaches at a higher salary signifies not only a change in the state of the conference in college basketball, but also a change in the priority of the sport at various universities.

“At different times, they make a decision to place a different emphasis on the program,” Athletic Director Joel Nielsen said. “Now I know Ohio is already up there, but they might be trying to say ‘we’re making even more of an emphasis on the program.’ I think Central Michigan might be saying ‘we’re going to make an emphasis. We’re going to emphasize men’s basketball.’”

“It sends a great message,” said Tom Wistrcill, University of Akron director of athletics. “Basketball is very important to the MAC, and I think the higher the bar is raised, the better because it shows we’re going to be committed to keeping the best coaches here. I would say that’s a great thing for our league to be investing in our basketball program.”

Laing Kennedy, Kent State’s athletic director before Nielsen, acknowledged how these recent hires can affect the MAC.

“In a way, it’s a challenge,” Kennedy said. “Do we have to match that? We have to make a statement and continue to make a statement with Coach Senderoff and our men’s basketball program to continue at a championship level.”

The process of determining a salary of a new head coach includes considering the experience of head coaching prospects. A former assistant that is in his first head coaching job, Senderoff doesn’t command the salary of coaches such as Davis.

Keith Dambrot has turned down multiple job offers during his career at Akron in order to stay with the Zips, a program that he has built into a perennial contender. Dambrot most recently rejected a rumored job offer from Duquesne, in which he would have been paid close to $600,000 per year, much more than his $320,000 base salary at Akron.

“We’re always in contact with our coaches,” Wistrcill said. “Keith and I have a really good relationship. We talked about what was going on at Duquesne and what was going on here and in the end he made a decision on what was going on here. He knows we can be competitive and we were fortunate he stayed here with us.”

Akron and Dambrot will likely negotiate a new contract within the next month after the Zips, regular-season MAC champions, came within a free throw of winning the conference tournament and appearing in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve had many discussions,” Wistrcill said. “He’s certainly earned it in his years here to be one of the highest-paid coaches in the league.”

With an increase in annual salary across the conference, it is clear to coaches and administrators that basketball is a priority in athletics, and that is not about to change.

“I think it says a lot about our league that a team that wasn’t overly dominant like a Butler in the Horizon League, can go into the tournament and beat a very good Big Ten team and turn around and beat South Florida, who is a strong Big East team,” Nielsen said.

“I just think it’s great for the league that we’re starting to step things up and invest in basketball,” Wistrcill said. “We need those programs to get stronger. That’s good for the conference.”

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].