Updated: May 31
“Shut up and adjust,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey told ACC reporters last month when asked for comment on the challenges of navigating today’s college basketball ecosystem of immediate transfer eligibility and NIL.
“This is the world we're in. Last time I checked, we make pretty good money,” Brey added.
Mike Brey will see $1.7 million in salary this coming season. He’s well compensated for the stressors of a job that’s growing more difficult each season. Even within his own conference, Brey might even be considered a bargain. Mike Young $2.8 million. Tony Bennet $3.1 million. Newly minted Jon Sheyer? $7 million.
The job is hard, but as Don Draper said, “that’s what the money’s for.”
What about the coaches that occupy that same world of NCAA basketball, replete with Brey’s same challenges, but don’t see seven figure salaries—or even six figure salaries?
Welcome to the nightmare that is modern basketball for coaches at the Division II level.
Not a Fad but a Function of Modern Recruiting
Ryan Hawkins didn’t seem to mind the fact that he was signing onto an almost entirely new Creighton roster. The team he was joining was fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance albeit their 2021-2022 outlook was going to be drastically different. The Blue Jays needed to replace the majority of their scoring production and replenish almost 80% of their minutes.
Hawkins was no stranger to winning before joining the Blue Jays. The 6’8” forward won back-to-back Division II titles at Northwest Missouri State, so when Creighton coach Doug McDermott came looking to reload a roster gutted by graduation and the NBA Draft, Hawkins obliged.
“I felt like this could be such a great opportunity for a lot of personal growth and a chance to step outside of my comfort zone,” Hawkins told NCAA’s Mike LoPresti. “I would look back in 10 years and thank myself for making this decision [jumping from DII to DI].”
Creighton, and other high-major programs, can attest that players transferring up like Hawkins won’t be a fad, and instead, commonplace. Division II is lush with high-level talent (attn. Max Strus of the Miami Heat, formerly of DePaul via Division II Lewis University) and the temptation of immediate eligibility and NIL money makes keeping this talent at Division II even more difficult.
This spells trouble if you’re coaching at this level. Good luck keeping your best players year after year.
Same Challenges. A Fraction of the Resources.
Augusta College Head Coach Darren “Dip” Metress, a former CVAC Coach of the Year, noted that there was “no doubt” the player movement era has transformed the landscape of the sport.
“I have been a head coach for 26 years to say it has evolved is an understatement,” Metress said.
The past season Metess guided the Jaguars to a 28-3 record, taking Augusta College to the Division II title game against eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State. The exposure that comes with success atop the Division II polls is countered with additional opportunities for players to be seen--and then poached for Division I programs looking to fill holes.
Take for instance, Nova Southeastern of Fort Lauderdale whose 28-0 record landed them in the Division II Elite Eight where star forward Sekou Sylla scored a team-high 17 points in a loss to Black Hills State (S.D.).
Just weeks later, Sylla, the Division II Player of the Year, is in the portal en route to Towson, where as Coach Pat Skerry told the Baltimore Sun, Sylla will “immediately impact our squad.”
Of course he will.
Division II is just the latest talent pipeline for schools atop the sport.
Will Sylla have the same impact at Towson that Hawkins had at Creighton? That remains to be seen. But collective message remains the same: player movement has hit Division II the hardest.
The Division II ranks are rife with talent and high-major Division I programs will come looking for more. Sure, this is a blessing for the highest reaches of the sport, but those programs at the DII strata aren’t nearly as fortunate.
Nearly a One-Way Street
According to data released by the NCAA, 77% of all players in the transfer portal last season transferred “up” or remained within the Division I level. As of late-May, the current transfer count was 1,692, just shy of last season’s 1,723.
The portalling is still far from finished as 236 players tested the waters during the late spring period of June and July of 2021. All of this player movement translates to something close to a one-way street for Division II basketball where talent is often leaving for Division I and very few coming “down” to Division II.
“This vast movement of players doesn’t really suit me as a coach,” said James Crutchfield, head coach at Nova Southeastern. “I truly enjoy having players in the program for 4 or 5 years. The job is becoming less about player and team development and more about roster management.”
Crutchfield admitted that he’s “not opposed” to the player autonomy era and the freedom of movement, but as Crutchfield’s associate head coach Jordan Fee noted, “there’s no hesitation” for players who might be on the fence about transferring to the Division I level since players are now automatically eligible to play.
“We no longer have the draw we might have had with a DI transfer who is against having to sit a year when transferring to another DI institution,” Fee said.
In previous years, Division I talent would be enticed by “dropping” a level to the Division II ranks so to avoid sitting out a year. Prior to 2019, this was a seismic advantage for programs like Nova Southeastern.
“It's definitely something that we're trying to stay ahead of and navigate,” Washburn (Kansas) head coach Brett noted. Ballard, a former Kansas Jayhawk guard turned assistant who also served at Tulsa and Wake Forest, is positioned in the unenviable position of assembling a roster amid an era of roster instability.
“We still believe in trying to build from the ground up and bring in quality high school players as the core foundational group of our roster,” Ballard added. “But we also know that taking the right transfer who fits into our culture can be beneficial.”
Programs like Washburn and Nova Southeastern will have no choice but to assemble teams via transfers in coming years which has made their work as head coach even harder.
“I think the impact of the one-time transfer exception is pretty obvious,” Fee added.
This isn’t the job that Division II coaches signed up for.
They’re not paid at the level of names like Brey, Bennet, Young, or Sheyer. Most Division II coaching staffs offer just 1-2 paid positions and the rest of the seats are often filled with volunteers. Division II can’t offer chartered travel or NIL compensation and survey data shows head coaching salaries range from $60,000 to $110,000 at the highest levels of Division II. Sure, the co
urt still measures 92’ long and the hoop 10’ high, but behind the curtain the jobs couldn’t look any more different.
Established names like Mike Brey are now the face of college basketball following the exodus of Mike Krzyzewksi, Jay Wright, and Roy Williams. This means coaches like Mike Brey, one of the sport’s longest tenured figures, now carries one of the largest microphones when addressing the macro issues facing the sport. When he speaks, the masses listen.
Next time, he should consider a tinge of sympathy when speaking. Those below him are listening.