Canzano: Price for fielding a winner in the Pac-12 gets real
Coaches must find a way --- or make one.
Kyle Smith described himself as a “free-market capitalist” on Tuesday during a fascinating radio interview in Seattle.
I suppose all major-college coaches need to think like one these days.
The Washington State basketball coach watched TJ Bamba jump in the transfer portal and land at Villanova. Then, he saw DJ Rodman — who previously said he was staying for another season in Pullman — bolt to USC.
Smith, speaking with “Puck & Jim” on 93.3-FM, said he’s not worried. He’ll find a way to build his roster and develop players, but he’s being pragmatic and realistic about the challenge of retaining players.
“Unless things change significantly and some Coug alums and businesses step forward we’ll probably be in this boat,” he said.
We’re all adjusting to what amounts to unrestricted free agency in major college athletics. Every player is on a one-year contract. The transfer portal has become a revolving door. And the money involved is rapidly escalating.
Smith said Tuesday: “It’s the wild, wild west out there.”
Last spring, I learned that the Cougar Collective — WSU’s primary NIL collective — gave quarterback Cam Ward a $90,000 package that included housing, the use of a truck, and $50,000 in walking-around money.
A year later?
The market is off the rails. Radio co-host Jason Puckett asked the WSU basketball coach how much it would take to field a competitive Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball team. Smith paused, admitted he isn’t supposed to know, then answered.
“A million to a million five,” he said. “That would be a top-60 team.”
Smith’s interview is worth your time. It’s not often that we hear a college coach talk so openly about the ground shifting beneath his feet. Smith, 53, sounded like a guy who is at peace with it. But also, desperate to figure out how to keep up without the deep resources of a program such as USC.
“The purple and gold seem to be doing pretty well,” he said.
A minute later, Smith offered: “It’s a ridiculous amount of money that is being thrown around.”
There’s no salary cap. Boosters are essentially buying players for their favorite schools. NCAA president Charlie Baker is scrambling about, trying to figure out where guardrails might be applied. To compound matters, agents have followed the trail of money.
Smith shared a story during the interview about a player who told him that an agent had helped engineer a NIL deal. The agent took a 20 percent commission.
“Goodness gracious,” Smith joked to the player, “I’d have done it for four percent.”
I suppose it’s better to laugh than cry if you’re Smith. He’s faced with the task of recruiting under-the-radar players and developing them. Then, once they blossom, he knows he’ll have to hold onto the talent with both hands amid a tornado of financial opportunity. Agents instruct the player to get in the portal, then hunt for deals and leverage.
“It’s overwhelming when they get in there,” Smith said.
Do you blame the players?
“You’re 22 and your salary is going to be tripled,” he said.
I called Dennis Erickson after listening to the Smith interview. Erickson was head football coach of the year for three different Pac-12 schools. He knows high-level college coaching. I got about 15 seconds into the phone call before Erickson started in on how absurd college athletics looks to him right now.
“It’s the NFL,” Erickson said. “The whole f***ing thing is about money. I don’t blame the players. It’s been created by the NCAA and presidents and whoever runs that organization anymore. But what are we teaching? College football is about students, the university, the alumni and all those different things that make college football fun.”
Erickson said the “fun of coaching in college isn’t like it used to be.” He pointed out that you can still find college football the way he remembers it in conferences such as the Big Sky Conference. His son, Bryce, is on the staff at Montana.
“You’ll lose a kid occasionally there, which is fine,” he said. “But you’re not paying guys because you can’t afford to do it. You go to those games and it’s about rivalries and students.”
Erickson and I talked about his stint as an assistant for Kyle Whittingham at Utah. Erickson also served as the head coach at Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington State.
The Beavers lost only five players to other schools in the transfer portal this offseason. To date, Utah has lost only six. But they’re outliers operating in a system that looks suspiciously like a revolving door.
Erickson said: “It’s culture at those places. They’re the same type of program. Kyle’s been there a long time and is very solid. The guys he recruits aren’t going to leave. Jonathan (Smith) has built his program that way as well.”
You either find a way — or make one.
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I began to lose interest in college teams and players two years ago and that loss of interest is accelerating. If the whole college sports thing is all about money, I can find better uses with deeper civic purpose for my funds.
Love me some Dennis Erickson but I’m gonna call BS. “About f-ing money”??
No sh##, dude. Just like your agent for years and years negotiated to get you the best deals possible to coach a bunch of kids who the majority came from such poverty they ate better in the school cafeteria than they had their whole lives. Let’s get real about this: a lot of this is race. I’m black I’ve seen it my whole life. Nothing frazzles some people more than seeing young black men making more money than them. Nobody says anything about high school players taking money skipping college and going to the minor leagues when they are white kids playing baseball. Like, EVER. Never an issue. Pay a 18 year old black kid money to skip college and go to the NBA it’s a societal ill. Now NIL is the same issue. All these fans who live in a society where they embrace and applaud free market and capitalism have a different set of rules when they are getting boat raced at the bank by young black athletes. I HATE to even use race because I know that triggers a certain crowd and of course not nearly everything is about race but THIS is absolutely about the optics of young black men squeezing white America for every dollar they can get for their value and the bullsh#t pushback.