Nate Oats has players to coach and a season to finish, so it was no surprise after UB cruised to another win Saturday that he was concerned with more pressing items on his agenda than his own future. He showed no interest in joining the list of college coaches getting interrogated these days.
Oats has worked his way into an enviable position. He's coaching the best team in the Mid-American Conference, confirmed again in the Bulls' 108-82 pounding of Ohio before 6,198 fans in Alumni Arena who have grown accustomed to winning. UB has all but locked up the top seed for the conference tournament.
Now the university needs to lock up Oats, who will be getting the massive raise he deserves whether or not he remains in Buffalo. The university has reached out to his agent in an effort to get negotiations rolling. Oats believes this is the best team he has ever coached, and it could be better next season.
The hard part could be keeping him.
"It’s like I say to the players: 'Let's control what we can control,' " Oats said. "I'm 100 percent thinking, 'Let's forget about it until after the season.' I love the group I've got. I haven't coached a group this good in my entire coaching career. And they're going to be really good. That stuff takes care of itself."
In his first season, Oats was the lowest-paid coach in the MAC at $250,000. His salary was bumped to $350,000, a reward for guiding UB to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. If the Bulls return next month for the third time in five years, he could be in high demand in a market with opportunities galore.
Talk about perfect timing.
For the past two years, the FBI has been conducting a massive investigation into a widespread corruption in college basketball. Allegations include players and their families receiving money and other benefits from numerous programs that were trying to recruit players to Division I programs.
Rick Pitino was fired by Louisville, one of the schools named in the scandal along with Oklahoma State, Auburn and USC. Yahoo! Sports reported Friday that more than 25 players and 20 schools – including powerhouses like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State – could be involved.
The investigation is ongoing, and there's no telling where it will end once the dominoes start falling. ESPN reported Arizona coach Sean Miller was heard on wiretaps talking about paying $100,000 to secure a recruit. The university announced it was pulling Miller from his coaching assignment Saturday against Oregon.
This is already ugly, folks, and it could get much worse. How does it affect a school like UB, which is presumably light years from the aforementioned racket?
For every coach who loses his job for any reason, an opportunity opens for someone else to replace him. We could be talking about a serious vacuum once the federal investigation is complete. Oats and successful coaches like him from mid-major programs could be in line for big money that comes with filling them.
Buffalo still hasn't hired an athletic director to replace Allen Greene, who left for Auburn and could be looking for a new basketball coach. Bruce Pearl has been coaching under a cloud all season after assistant coach Chuck Person was removed amid the FBI investigation. Greene may need to replace Pearl.
Would he turn to Oats? If he hired somebody else, would Oats replace that person?
People don't want to talk about contracts at this time of the year with the regular season coming to a close and the conference tournament around the corner. It can be uncomfortable, but it needs to be addressed ASAP. This is precisely the time it should be discussed given the uncertainty in college hoops.
Buffalo can't have it both ways. If the university wants sustained success, it needs to keep the coach primarily responsible. It should be proactive with Oats and get him locked up before another school steals him away. University President Satish Tripathi cut four sports last year to save $2 million. He has the power to make the decision.
My advice: pay the man.
UB has won more conference games over the past three years than any team in the MAC and has made inroads with Buffalo's stubborn fan base, but Oats remains the conference's sixth highest-paid coach. He could triple his money in a power conference and more than double his income in a stronger mid-major.
"He's in the middle of the pack right now," said Kathy Twist, the interim athletic director at UB. "We would like to see him probably in the top three, something like that. We want to keep Nate. We'll do everything possible. It's always a balance of what they ask and what we can provide. We're going to keep working on that and do our best to keep him."
What's the magic number? Well, that's the magic question.
UB should know Atlantic 10 coaches are making around $1 million per season depending on variables such as experience, tenure and success. Dayton reportedly was willing to pay Archie Miller about $3 million before he left for Indiana. Mark Schmidt is believed to make about $900,000 at St. Bonaventure.
Last season, Keith Dambrot made about $465,000 while coaching at Akron. He left for a seven-year contract worth $7 million with Duquesne. Akron replaced Dambrot with John Groce, whose is collecting about $350,000 this season from Akron while still drawing a paycheck from Illinois.
In two years, after his contract with Illinois expires, Groce will collect about $700,000 from Akron. Ohio coach Saul Phillips, whose team lost by 26 points Saturday, is also making about $550,000. Kent State coach Rob Senderoff is pocketing $385,000 this season under an agreement that was reached three years ago.
Money may not be Oats' top priority, but it matters. "Obviously, it does," Oats said. "Usually people don't turn down money without a good reason."
In the five years Oats has served as head coach or top assistant, UB has averaged 20 wins per season and had a winning record in the conference every year. UB has built a strong program that has the potential to corner the local market in college basketball, but winning comes at a price.
It wouldn't be wise for the university to alienate him the way former AD Danny White did Bobby Hurley three years ago after he guided the Bulls to the Big Dance for the first time in program history. White completely bungled the situation and was fortunate Oats was prepared to take over the job.
Hurley wanted to be the highest-paid coach in the conference and was looking for about $700,000 per season. White offered him $651,000 – $1,000 more than the next highest-paid coach – and pouted when Hurley visited DePaul on what amounted to a fact-finding mission.
Rather than lock him into a long-term deal, White allowed Hurley to attend the Final Four without a contract extension. Arizona State showed interest and hired him for $1.4 million per season. ASU gave Hurley an extension this season after a terrific start. Now, he's making $2.2 million per year.
The money is out there. The last thing UB needs is Oats going to the Final Four without a contract, especially if there's a run on coaches getting fired. UB can either pay him what he deserves or be prepared to buck up for his replacement. The moment the season ends, they would be wise to present him an offer.
One way or another, he's getting paid.