Keep the Pack intact, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Eric Musselman and Cam Oliver should stay right where they are.

Dollar signs. The possibility of national and world championships. Rubbing elbows with Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The lure of competing at the highest level. Millions of adoring fans. No annoying recruiting trips. No irritating classes. Shoe contracts. Endorsement deals. Did we mention dollar signs? All those things and more are trying to lure Musselman and Oliver out of Nevada right now.

Well, it’s time the Nevada Wolf Pack coach and sophomore center head to a quiet place, take a deep breath, smell the sagebrush and appreciate their current surroundings. Once they clear their head of all those tempting dollar signs they will no doubt come to the realization that north Virginia Street is a pretty good place to be right now. Musselman and Oliver simply need to buy in to the Jim Harbaugh school of positive thinking, turn and look at each other and declare, “Who’s got it better than us?” And unless they are already walking around town with sunglasses sporting huge dollar signs on each lens, the only answer they can realistically come to is, “Nobody.”

They need to stay.

The dollar signs can wait.

For all we know, Musselman and Oliver have already decided to come back to Nevada for the 2017-18 season. For all we know they are just basking in the glory of winning a Mountain West regular season and tournament title and going to the NCAA tournament. For all we know they are just sitting back and enjoying seeing their name connected to the NBA and big-time college basketball programs. Yes, Wolf Pack fans have sweaty palms are biting their fingernails and losing their hair over the thought of one of them or both leaving soon. But that’s not Musselman’s or Oliver’s fault. Don’t hate them because they are good at what they do.

Of course, it would be nice if they both came out as quickly as possible and said, “Don’t worry, loyal Wolf Pack fans. I know that Nevada has made me what I am today and my total focus right now is to win more Mountain West titles and go to more NCAA tournaments. I am grateful for all of your support and I’m not going anywhere right now. Home means Nevada.”

But we haven’t gotten that yet. All we’ve gotten are the thousands of posts on social media that remind us that Musselman and Oliver might leave town. So the fingernail biting and sweaty palms continue.

Wolf Pack fans know that Musselman is the best kept secret in college coaching and should be off somewhere winning Pac-12, ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big East or Big-12 titles. Wolf Pack fans know that Oliver was sent here by higher beings from another planet and can hoop with the LeBrons, Draymonds, Boogies and Biggies of the world.

We’re here to remind both Musselman and Oliver to be careful. Don’t be blinded by the dollar signs. The NBA draft, after all, is littered with hollowed out carcasses of wide-eyed young men who should never have been drafted in the first round. Power Five Conference graveyards are also filled with the careers of coaches who overstepped their comfort zone.

Stay at Nevada and be safe and successful.

Oliver’s situation is much more defined than what Musselman is facing. If some NBA organization is willing to draft Oliver in the first round, it would be foolish for him to stay at Nevada. Luke Babbitt did it. JaVale McGee and Kirk Snyder did it, too. And nobody blamed them. When somebody offers you a guaranteed seven-figure salary, you take it. They will teach you that in any Economics 101 class.

But Pack players have been known to leave for the NBA draft’s second round, despite the fact that second round contracts are not guaranteed. Ramon Sessions (2007) and Armon Johnson (2010) both did it. It worked out into a long NBA career for Sessions. Not so much for Johnson, though he did get on the floor for 47 games in the NBA over two seasons. It scares Pack fans that Oliver, who is now the father of a four-month-old son, might do the same.

But he shouldn’t.

Oliver knows, and Musselman will remind him, that he still has so much more to accomplish at Nevada, both on and off the court. He can be the Mountain West’s Player of the Year. He can become an All American. He can lead a team to the Final Four. He can become a NBA lottery pick. All he has to do is let nature run its course and be patient. The NBA isn’t going anywhere. The NBA will always fall in love with a 6-foot-8 freight train that can shoot the lights out, rip the rim off the backboard and run the floor like a pickup truck. The only thing that will change in the next year is that he will become a better player.

Oh, and one other thing. Wolf Pack fans will fall even more in love with him if he stays and adds banners for the rafters of Lawlor Events Center. Oliver might never find a group of fans that will adore him, honor him and fawn over him the way Wolf Pack fans do now. And he will likely never find another coach who will care for him, nurture him and teach him the way Musselman will. That’s just the nature of professional basketball.

The same goes for Musselman. It took him nearly three decades to find a situation like Nevada. He shouldn’t give it up after two short years.

The 52-year-old boy wonder has been around coaching long enough to know that great situations don’t come along often. And while Nevada might not have the dollar signs of a lot of other places, it has most everything else. The northern Nevada community simply adores him. He’s the rock star of the program. He can do no wrong. That doesn’t happen often in college basketball. It never happens in professional basketball.

Musselman has a dream job in Nevada. And he made it that way. Yes, the dollar signs are a bit smaller than he would get at, say, LSU or Cal. The $30,000 in bonus money he’ll get this year for winning the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles as well as getting to the NCAA tournament are nice. He’ll also get a revenue enhancement bonus that could reach six figures based on Pack attendance which reached a school-record 8,922 fans a game this year. But even when you add that to his $300,000 base salary and the $100,000 he gets for media appearances, it doesn’t quite add up to the $2 million or so he’d likely get at Cal or LSU.

But what’s money have to do with it when the fans, administration, media and community love you? Leaving Nevada is great for the bank account but it’s not always the best thing for your career.

Trent Johnson left Nevada the first chance he got after taking the Pack to the Sweet 16 in 2004. He went to Stanford and had sustained success, going to three NCAA tournaments in four years. But he continued to chase the dollar signs, leaving Stanford for LSU. That’s when it all started to go south for Johnson. In his final eight years in coaching, four at LSU and four at TCU, he went to one NCAA tournament and had a record of 117-143. He lost 20 or more games in five of his last seven seasons.

If he wanted to, he could still be coaching at Nevada. He was as respected as any coach who ever drew up a play at Nevada. But Nevada was always nothing more than a stepping stone for Johnson.

Mark Fox left Nevada after five seasons and three NCAA tournaments. He is, without question, the most successful head coach in Wolf Pack history, winning 74 percent of his games. He never got the Pack back to the Sweet 16 but his teams were always in the hunt for the NCAA tournament and that’s all you have to do at Nevada. He, too, could still be coaching at Nevada if he wanted to.

But, like Johnson, Nevada was just a stepping stone for Fox. He left after the 2008-09 season for Georgia and has gotten to fewer NCAA tournaments (two) in eight years in the Peach State than he got in five years (three) at Nevada. Fox averaged 25 wins a year at Nevada and lost fewer than 10 in a season three times. At Georgia he’s averaged 18 wins and never lost fewer than 12 and his athletic director this year had to calm rumors that he was going to get fired.

It’s not likely Johnson or Fox regrets ever leaving Nevada given the money they made elsewhere. But that money comes with a steep price. You can get a bigger paycheck, a fancier office and a bigger car to drive around town if you leave Nevada. But you might not get as many victories, NCAA tournament appearances or adoring fans.

This - coaches leaving for bigger paychecks - is a relatively new phenomenon at Nevada. No other Wolf Pack head coach other than Fox or Johnson has ever left Nevada to become a head coach anywhere else. Nevada was always the place where head coaching careers came to die. See Len Stevens, Sonny Allen, Pat Foster, Jim Padgett, Jim Carey and Jack Spencer over a span of four decades (1959-99). Johnson and Fox changed all that. They are the reason why rumors start to swirl around Pack coaches any time they experience any sort of national success.

Those rumors are now swirling around Musselman. And Pack fans are nervous. We’re here to remind Musselman that he doesn’t have to leave. Not yet. Not now.

The Wolf Pack - not LSU or Cal - just might be his best chance of getting to the NCAA tournament not only next year but in the foreseeable future. This Wolf Pack party, after all, has only just begun. The fans came back to Lawlor Events Center this year and never left. The team won 28 games and its first Mountain West championship. It went back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. And they are not even close to hitting their head on the ceiling.

The Wolf Pack loses a ton of heart and leadership, not to mention 179 3-pointers and 1,170 points, with the departure of seniors D.J. Fenner and Marcus Marshall. But the roster will be twice as deep next year. Cody Martin and Caleb Martin, twin 6-foot-7 brothers who have combined to start 55 games in two years at North Carolina State, will jump in and out of the paint and help Oliver and Jordan Caroline. Kendall Stephens, a 6-7 guard, comes in from Purdue where he started 32 games in three years. Hallice Cooke, who has played in 64 games (18 starts) for Oregon State and Iowa State in two years, also joins the mix in the backcourt to help replace Fenner and Marshall.

Musselman felt comfortable enough to play just six players in the Pack’s 84-73 loss to Iowa State last week in the NCAA tournament. He will have more options next year than a tricked out Ferrari.

All of that talent, as well as some contract penalties, might convince Musselman to stay another year. He has three years remaining on his original contract and would have to pay Nevada $300,000 (his base salary) for each of the remaining years on his deal if he left. He’d also have to pay Nevada $250,000 if he left before Sept. 1, 2017.

So it would take an amazing situation for Musselman to leave now.

He already has an amazing situation at Nevada. Next year promises to be the best Pack party yet. So why would Oliver and Musselman even want to leave all of the above just when it is getting good? Who’s got it better than the Wolf Pack? Well, nobody. As long as Musselman and Oliver stick around.


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