A Mid-Major Dilemma

Saul Phillips leans back with ease in his swivel chair and extends his right arm toward the shoulder of his daughter, Jordan, or Jojo, as he calls her. Phillips’...
Maddie Schroeder

Saul Phillips leans back with ease in his swivel chair and extends his right arm toward the shoulder of his daughter, Jordan, or Jojo, as he calls her. Phillips’ hand lands gently on the 12-year-old, but his hand and expression tenses as he discusses his future as the coach of the Ohio men’s basketball team. Less than two years ago, Phillips left his head coaching job at North Dakota State University for the same position at Ohio University, a move that boosted Phillips’ annual base salary from $175,000 to $550,000.

As he leads the squad into the 2016-17 season, Phillips is determined to help Ohio work toward his ultimate goal for the team.

“I want [Ohio] to be an elite mid-major program,” he says. “… What I’m interested in doing is building a long-term project here.”

Several mid-major coaches took on similar projects over the last decade and succeeded, such as Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. Both men made five NCAA Tournament appearances each during their six years at Butler University and Virginia Commonwealth University, respectively. Both men also left the mid-major scene to coach at a higher level. Stevens was hired to coach the Boston Celtics during summer 2013, and two years later, Smart signed on to lead the Texas Longhorns. The trend of basketball coaches leaving for higher-paying jobs with more prominent teams is all too familiar at Ohio University. Although Ohio hasn’t come close to the sustained mid-major success achieved by Butler and VCU, the Bobcats lost their last two basketball coaches, John Groce in 2012 and Jim Christian in 2014, to jobs at one of the Power Five conferences in the NCAA, which include the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and PAC 12.

Similar to Groce and Christian, Phillips coached the Bobcats to success during his second season as he led them to a regular season in which they finished second in the Mid-American Conference. Despite losing in the MAC Tournament semifinal on March 11,  Phillips has set the Bobcats up to be one of the best teams in the MAC this year. Ohio returns with all but one player from the 2015-16 team, which led the MAC in points per game as well as 3-point and free throw shooting percentages. Plus, 2016 MAC Player of the Year forward Tony Campbell returns for his senior year at Ohio, while redshirt junior point guard Jaaron Simmons is back after averaging the third most assists per game in the country last season.

For Ohio, all of those factors add up to a chance of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. It also means that well-known teams that are looking to hire a coach will be focused on Phillips.

But when Phillips contemplates the notion of Ohio as just a pit stop to help him land a more prominent coaching job, he sees the answer sitting to his right. He wants Jordan and his two sons to graduate from Athens High School, which indicates another 12 years of coaching at Ohio before Phillips’ youngest son, Ben, graduates.

“Boy by that time … you might not want me here anymore,” Phillips says with his trademark suspicious smirk.

As he thinks about his family, Phillips’ grip on Jordan’s shoulder tightens. He simply can’t fathom the idea of moving her, his wife, Nicole, his two sons from the comfortable life they’ve created together in Athens. His dilemma is a recurring theme in today’s college basketball landscape. Coaches who have the potential to turn or have turned a mid-major school into an elite college basketball program usually have to decide between a multi-million-dollar coaching position at a bigger school or staying at the same school in a community they call home.

Although Phillips planned to commit long-term to Ohio, he was not prepared for the news that shocked his family in May 2015. Two months after Phillips’ first season ended, Nicole was diagnosed with breast cancer. That summer, she and Phillips relied on a support system of family and friends in and around Athens to help care for her and their children while he was on the road recruiting for the upcoming season.

“If we had just moved to town, who in the heck’s going to come over and drain her drainage tubes when I’m out of town?” Phillips asks in exasperation. “She had good friends [here] that would do it. It’s easy to look at sports just as the business side of it, but there’s real emotion and real family issues that go on with moving.”

Two months later, Nicole was declared cancer-free after having a mastectomy to remove her left breast. But the possibility of a recurrence is always there, and Phillips can’t imagine taking a new job where they would be away from the people who cared for his wife.

Suddenly, Phillips jolts forward in his chair, remembering another reason he wants to coach at Ohio for another dozen years. He talked about it before with Stevens and Smart, and both men gave him the same reason for staying at their schools for six years despite offers to leave sooner.

“You get to a level where, ‘I’ve got things the way I want it,’” Phillips says. “OK, I might be able to make a little more over here, but it’s starting all over again, and I’ve got to get a whole different group of people to understand my vision.”

But in order to stay, success on the court is crucial. That is nothing new to Phillips. At North Dakota State, he led the Bison to two NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2009, North Dakota State became the first team in nearly 40 years to make it to the NCAA Tournament in its first year playing Division I basketball. The second tournament appearance was in 2014 when the Bison won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game by upsetting No. 5 seed Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime. That same season, the Bison went undefeated in the Summit League regular season and tied a school record for wins with 26, the second time they accomplished 26 wins under Phillips.

The man who initially brought Phillips to Ohio had similar success in basketball. Before becoming the Ohio athletic director in the spring of 2008, Jim Schaus ran the athletic department at Wichita State from 1999 to 2007 and made an enormous impact on its basketball program. Success on the court didn’t happen immediately, though. Schaus began his work at Wichita State knowing it would be a long-term project, similar to the one now underway at Ohio. No matter which school he’s at, Schaus begins each project the same way.

“To build programs, … personnel, facilities and operating budgets are the key areas of investment,” Schaus says.

During his first year at Wichita State, he hired Mark Turgeon to coach the team. With direction from Turgeon and Schaus, Wichita State’s basketball program rose to national recognition. The investments Schaus made started working for the Shockers during the 2005-06 season as they made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988 and advanced to the Sweet 16. They followed that season up by earning a top 10 national ranking in the week six Associated Press Top 25 Poll for the 2006-07 season.

After that season, Turgeon signed on to coach at Texas A&M University and left Wichita State’s basketball prominence in question. Schaus wasted no time rebuilding the program and hired Gregg Marshall to replace Turgeon in 2007. The Shockers’ status as a basketball powerhouse returned during Marshall’s fifth season, but unlike last time, Schaus didn’t stick around to see the end product; he left to become the Ohio University athletic director in spring 2008. In the 2011-12 season, Wichita State made it back to the NCAA Tournament and has been there every year since, advancing to the Sweet 16 twice and the Final Four once in 2013.

Meanwhile, Schaus was busy building Ohio’s basketball program. Less than four months after he was hired, he brought on John Groce to coach the Bobcats. Within four years, the team played in the same 2012 Sweet 16 tournament as Wichita State.

Phillips knew exactly where he wanted to be after watching Schaus hire three different coaches who made it to and succeeded in the NCAA Tournament.

“[Schaus] has built that before and that had everything to do with me wanting to be here,” Phillips says. “They’re clearly not dreaming small.”

That big-picture thinking includes winning the MAC regular season and tournament on a regular basis, then making the NCAA Tournament and winning there, too. And Schaus believes that type of success is possible with Phillips.

“[Phillips] is an outstanding coach, person and leader,” Schaus says. “He has built programs before, and he will do so again.”

If Phillips is able to build Ohio into a program similar to Wichita State’s, the Bobcats would have leverage to schedule aggressively enough to get at-large looks into the NCAA Tournament, instead of having to win the MAC Tournament to get into the big dance.

In order to get to the point where Ohio can schedule those kinds of games, the Bobcats would need to earn several years’ worth of solid Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rankings. RPI is a measure of a team’s strength of schedule and how the team does against that schedule. Beating an Ohio team with an RPI of 50 or lower would make the Bobcats more appealing to play because a win over them would increase their competitors’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament later in the season. As of April 16, the only MAC team inside the RPI top 50 was Akron at 44, while Ohio ranked well behind at 86.

For a program such as Wichita State, reaching that level of success to break into the RPI top 50 took more than a couple of years. Under Schaus, it took the Shockers over half a decade to reach the NCAA Tournament and earn a national ranking, which is why he reiterates that the first step to building a program is time. After Coach Turgeon left, it took another four years for the program to go back to the tournament.

Winning consistently to reach college basketball’s biggest stage is no small feat, and Phillips, like Schaus, knows how much time is required to get there.

“It took me seven years to build exactly my vision of what I thought North Dakota State could be,” he says before shifting his focus to Ohio. “… We’ll get there, but it’s a long process.”

One player who won’t be there as the process unfolds is 2016 graduate and forward Treg Setty. After several one-on-one conversations with Phillips throughout their two years together, Setty believes his coach will stay for years to come and understands why Phillips wants to.

“It’s harder to stay at a place and build a quality program that sustains over time than it is, say, to win an NCAA Tournament game, get on the map and then go to a school like an Illinois, like a Boston College, where it’s more difficult to sustain that level of excellence,” Setty says. “… If anybody were to create longevity in one program it would be Coach Phillips, for sure.”

But there’s still another reason Phillips wants to stay at Ohio. He is among the community of people who love Athens, and his personality perfectly fits the town.

“For someone who is as outgoing and people-friendly as Coach Phillips is, I think Athens is a place that’s very fitting,” Setty says.

On and off the court, Phillips is Athens: vivacious, welcoming, quirky and captivating. And above all, he exudes an unwavering happiness, a reflection of Athens and the students who call it home.

“[Athens] is a great — not good — great American college town,” Phillips says confidently. “… Everybody in Athens loves Athens, and that’s infectious.”

 

 

 

 

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