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.
That contract makes life very uncomfortable. That contract represents what Ford was supposed to be but has not yet been.
“I thought we had a good young coach,” Holder said of his thinking five years ago.
In March 2009, Ford took his first Cowboy team to the NCAA Tournament, OSU’s first trip to the NCAAs since 2005. The eighth-seeded Cowboys beat Tennessee and then took top-seeded Pittsburgh to the wire before losing 84-76. Ford had taken Sean Sutton’s underachieving players and revived the spark in OSU hoops.
When that season ended, the biggest worry in Stillwater was keeping Ford away from his alma mater. Kentucky was looking for a coach, and Ford appeared to be a prime candidate. On April 1, UK hired John Calipari, but Holder wanted to be proactive. Wanted to make sure the Cowboys kept their man.
“Lock him up for the long-term,” Holder said. He considered Ford a rising star in the profession.
So contract negotiations began, and in September came announcement of the 10-year contract. The deal was stunning in its length.
In January 2012, after having taken OSU football to a 12-1 season, a Big 12 title, a Fiesta Bowl victory and within a whisker of the national championship game, Mike Gundy asked for the same consideration. He wanted a 10-year contract. Hard to blame him. Winning the Fiesta Bowl is no small thing in Stillwater.
But Holder, already realizing Ford’s contract was a mistake, bargained hard. Gundy settled for a seven-year contract and hard feelings.
Holder talks straight. And right now, he’s not talking like a guy who plans to eat that contract any time soon.
“It might still prove to be not such a bad decision,” Holder said. “I’m always optimistic.
“We certainly expected a better season than what we had. There are multiple reasons people are frustrated. I don’t think anyone foresaw it playing out like it did.”
Smart and Brown are gone. The talent level figures to be down in 2014-15, when the Cowboys will not be picked high in the Big 12 and when Ford will make $2.25 million.
“Travis is a highly motivated, dedicated guy,” Holder said. “He wants to win just as bad as anyone.”
That’s the thing to remember. For most coaches, and that certainly includes Ford, the job itself is more important than the contract. The chance to coach at a place like OSU, in a building like Gallagher-Iba, in a league like the Big 12, with players like Phil Forte and Michael Cobbins.
“The position itself is a lot more valuable than the compensation,” Holder said. “What a great opportunity to change people’s lives.
“Everyone wants Travis Ford to succeed. When we look back, my hope is the contract proves to be a good idea that works for everybody.”
But right now, that contract afflicts OSU basketball in many ways.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.