The couch in the Kent State basketball coach’s office is fit only for burning after an NCAA victory.
One of the Golden Flashes’ assistants doesn’t have a flat-screen television for watching recruiting and game-preparation video. He’s forced to peer at a monstrosity he couldn’t remove without help.
Yet this week, Ohio University matched Jim Christian’s reported $600,000 salary at Texas Christian to lure the former KSU basketball coach back to the Mid-American Conference.
The Bobcats’ administration recognized the value of last month’s Sweet 16 appearance and the fact that the program has arguably become the league’s best, with the University of Akron running a close second. The men at the top in Athens believe the Bobcats are on the cusp of becoming another mid-major powerhouse like Butler, Gonzaga and Virginia Commonwealth, so OU coughed up the dollars for Christian to keep that vision on track.
At Kent State from 2002-08, Christian compiled the highest winning percentage (.704) in league history. But to get him, OU reportedly guaranteed at least five charter plane trips for road games per season and renovations to the locker room at the 13,080-seat Convocation Center.
By putting its money where its dream is, OU also shone the spotlight on the haves and have-nots in the Mid-American Conference and the fact that once-mighty Kent State could soon be left in the dust. OU showed that UA cannot take coach Keith Dambrot for granted, especially with Duquesne nipping at his heels.
“The more people invest in our league, everybody has to either put up or shut up. They have decisions to make,” Dambrot said by telephone Tuesday.
“That’s kind of how football got started in this league. Marshall was the one everybody was chasing, so people started building indoor facilities, put more money into salaries and coaching staff. Maybe with OU doing what they’re doing, everybody else will ante up or the teams that don’t will get left behind.”
Dambrot lauded OU Director of Athletics Jim Schaus, who spent the previous nine years at Wichita State.
“Jim Schaus is a tremendous AD. He has a really good vision for what basketball can do for their athletic program,” Dambrot said. “Coming from Wichita State, they really understand high mid-major basketball.
“Jimmy Christian was a great hire that was out of the box. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jim, both as a coach and as a person. I’m happy for him. It makes our job more difficult, but it’s good for him.”
Dambrot was recently contacted by Duquesne, which is dangling a position with a seven-year contract and a salary in the $600,000 range, according to Colin Dunlap of KDKA (93.7 FM) in Pittsburgh.
Dambrot said Sunday night he was never offered the job by the school his father Sid played for in the 1950s and is not interested in leaving Akron. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua looks to be Duquesne’s top choice, but it appears Dambrot is still in the running.
Dambrot is reportedly making $350,000. So unless there are more upgrades in the works at UA, like the $500,000 spent for new players’ lounges for men’s and women’s basketball and a combined weight room that opened last summer, Dambrot could still be swayed.
“We’ve been ahead of the curve for the most part. We just have to continue to invest in our program,” Dambrot said, in reference to Christian’s hiring. “The thing OU has is the big-time arena. We don’t have that, but we can still be successful. We have to continue to invest and think outside of the box.
“That’s kind of what I pride myself on, getting more for less. Trying to maximize our potential and think outside the box, like our players’ lounge and things like that. Where you don’t have to make millions of dollars in investments, but it differentiates you in some ways. We were probably the first one to have our own academic person. We have to continue to do little things that differentiate our program.”
At Kent State, even the little things are a struggle. Flat-screen televisions aside, the Golden Flashes drove seven hours each way to James Madison. OU and UA chartered planes. (Dambrot said that runs about $30,000 these days.) KSU basketball coach Rob Senderoff’s $250,000 salary is the lowest in the league, and his assistants rank among those at the bottom of the MAC East.
Kent State is one of only 10 schools in the nation that has won 20 games at least 13 times in the past 14 years. It is one of only four — along with Kansas, Gonzaga and Creighton — to have won at least 10 league games in that span.
But now KSU is pumping its resources into the football program, deservedly so, and forcing the basketball program to scrape by. Begging for a handout from former basketball star Antonio Gates, a tight end with the San Diego Chargers, isn’t out of the question.
Senderoff can’t fault his close friend Christian for coming back to the MAC. TCU is making a jump to the Big 12, and Christian didn’t believe it had the resources to compete.
“I was the best man in Jim’s wedding. I was there for the birth of his first child,” Senderoff said. “I’m happy for him personally because it’s something he needed to do and it’s good for him.”
Good for Christian, not so good for MAC foes, especially the facilities- and/or resourced-challenged like Buffalo, Miami (which might have to increase its salary offer to replace the retiring Charlie Coles) and Kent State. It seems likely that if Christian stops by his old office when he makes his first trip back to the M.A.C. Center, he will be sitting on the same furniture.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.