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Oklahoma State basketball: Why Travis Ford's contract has been a burden for him and OSU

by Berry Tramel Published: March 29, 2014

STILLWATER — Mike Holder admits he made a mistake. Admits that giving Travis Ford a 10-year contract hasn’t worked out.

Such largesse rarely does. “Ten years is a long time,” said Holder, OSU’s athletic director.

In September 2009, OSU announced a contract extension for its basketball coach that in effect created a 10-year contract. Good through 2019. Escalating salary. All kinds of perks. No buyout for the university, and a stiff buyout ($3 million) for Ford, should he jump to another job.

Almost five years later, that contract is an albatross, preventing OSU from a coaching change it likely otherwise would make. And while that contract probably has kept Ford employed, it’s also been a burden.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t good for him or us,” Holder said.

To whom much is given, much is expected. Give a coach a 10-year contract, and the minimum you’d expect would be an NCAA Tournament victory or five, an energized fan base, a Big 12 contender.

Hasn’t happened. The Cowboys are 0-for-March Madness since Ford signed that contract.

Marcus Smart’s arrival and success rallied the masses, and Gallagher-Iba Arena sizzled again much of last season, and when Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash announced they would return for the 2013-14 season, OSU hoops seemed destined to return to the glory of the Eddie Sutton years.

But this season went splat, with injuries, discipline issues, Smart’s suspension and close losses souring the season. OSU rallied to make the NCAAs, but a first-round loss to Gonzaga sent the Cowboys home early in a year that was billed as Final Four or bust.

Players are bewildered at what went wrong, fans are fed up, the entire vibe around Cowboy basketball is toxic and Ford has five years left on that contract.

OSU is bound to Ford for $2.25 million in 2014-15 and $2.4 million each of the four seasons after that. That’s $11.85 million over five years.

That’s why Ford remains the coach. Holder won’t touch the question of whether Ford’s contract is saving his job — “Who knows? You can hypothetical yourself to death,” Holder said — but almost $12 million is a lot of money. OSU wouldn’t have to pay him off in one lump sum, unless there was a negotiation, and any money Ford made from a subsequent job (basketball or not) would be deducted from OSU’s obligation. But still, if Ford found a job for $1 million a year, that’s still $1.4 million per year OSU would owe from 2015 through 2019.

That kind of money doesn’t grow on the trees lining Theta Pond.

Sure, OSU might find some boosters willing to pony up the commitment to make it possible, that’s still a lot of money that could be used for good a lot of places. And while Boone Pickens could write a cashier’s check, Boone so far hasn’t thrown around his money for bailouts. Or for basketball. Remember Boone’s initial goal: turn OSU into a football school.

Besides, Boone likes Ford and wants him to succeed. Heck, a lot of us like Ford and want him to succeed.

But Ford is walking around in a suit of armor. That contract protects Ford, but it also constricts him. Defines him. It’s a point of controversy. It’s a magnifying glass for what Ford hasn’t accomplished, at a school that won 22 NCAA Tournament games from 1991 through 2005 but has won just one since.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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