It’s fine by me to keep talking about basketball, even though Tuesday’s press conference raised eyebrows instead of what I’m sure was the intended alternative. Rick Barnes, perhaps honest to a fault in this case, said he’d probably be the coach at UCLA if the Bruins worked out his buyout from Tennessee.
They didn’t, and he’s still the coach at Tennessee for somewhere north of $4.5 million per year. That makes him the third-highest paid coach in college basketball at the moment. UCLA is on a short list of programs with the kind of opportunity to steal a coach from a place like Tennessee. But with the Vols paying this much money, now they’re on that list too.
With new territory comes new expectations: what kind of return should one expect on this kind of investment?
Tennessee, as you know, has never been to the Final Four and has one Elite Eight appearance. The Vols do have five Sweet 16 appearances since 2007; only a dozen programs have more in that span. But there is obviously both room for a postseason breakthrough, and the expectation that such a thing will happen.
As for the tournament itself, there are a couple of ways to look at it in Tennessee’s history:
- Since expansion to 64 in 1985: 14 appearances (40%)
- Since Jerry Green’s arrival in 1998: 13 appearances (59.1%)
- Since Bruce Pearl’s arrival in 2006: 9 appearances (64.3%)
This is who the Vols already are; since Pearl they’ve made the tournament roughly two out of three years, and the Sweet 16 one out of three.
Here is the company Tennessee has paid to join, using the top salaries from the USA Today database and each team’s track record over the last decade:
Reaching beyond this last decade, Izzo won a title in 2000 and Self in 2008, giving each of these eight programs a national championship this century, all won by the current coach other than Chris Mack at Louisville. It’s not a prerequisite for a Top 10 salary: in addition to Mack, Bennett was the fourth-highest paid coach before winning his a week ago. But it’s certainly an impressive group, which includes every championship program since 2003 (Syracuse, where Jim Boeheim only makes $2.7 million) other than Florida (who lost Billy Donovan to the NBA) and UConn (who lost Jim Calhoun to retirement).
This group makes the NCAA Tournament 90% of the time. It became an every year expectation for the Vols under Bruce Pearl, and Barnes – who made the tournament 94% of the time at Texas – is recruiting well enough to build the same expectation at Tennessee.
This group makes the Sweet 16 more than half the time. The bluest of these bloods – Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, and North Carolina – have all been at least six times in the last decade. Virginia has been three times in the last six years under Tony Bennett. Villanova somehow only went twice, but cashed it all in both times.
Seven of these eight teams made the Final Four at least twice in the last decade. And the eighth is the team who just won it all.
If this feels like too big of a jump from where Tennessee is as a program right now, here are the next three highest paid coaches:
(Not included: Utah’s Larry Krystowiak, also at $3.57 million, being paid for a bigger jump than Tennessee is looking at.)
These three programs make the tournament 73% of the time and the Sweet 16 36.7% of the time, basically what the Vols have done since Pearl. If Tennessee had a single Final Four breakthrough, its program would clearly belong in this tier already; the Vols were already paying Barnes $3.25 million, so Tennessee wasn’t far off.
This comparison suggests this is what the Vols are paying for: an expectation to be in the NCAA Tournament every year, to be in the Sweet 16 more often than not, and to break through to the Final Four. Tennessee’s recent history – both since Pearl and in the last two years under Barnes – already gave the Vols all the pieces to belong in that next tier, minus the Final Four appearance. Now the Vols have paid their way into the top tier. Barnes knows how these expectations work, having seen both sides of them at Texas. In a sense, so did Fulmer at Tennessee. And all parties involved should be excited to have them in our lives.