WKU basketball spending more, winning less in recent seasons

Rick Stansbury gives his team directions during WKU’s 72-66 win over Florida Atlantic Saturday in Diddle Arena. The win helped WKU to improve to 9-9 on the year. 

Drake Kizer

A retractable garage door allows the WKU men’s basketball team to enter the floor through one of the four corner tunnels at Diddle Arena, but a revolving door has formed since Rick Stansbury was named head coach of the Hilltoppers on March 28, 2016 — in his nearly three and a half years at the helm, 16 players and six assistant coaches have left the WKU men’s basketball program.

As the 2019-20 season approaches, the narrative is the same for the Hilltoppers. Six players have left the program since the 2018-19 season ended with a loss in the Conference USA Tournament final. Former assistant coaches Marc Hsu and Nikita Johnson were voluntarily terminated to clear the way for new hires Phil Cunningham and Marcus Grant.

But as Stansbury has shuffled the faces on his bench, one constant has remained — with each new round of assistant coaches that the program recruits, the cost to obtain their services has steadily increased.

After spending less than $860,000 on Stansbury’s first staff, WKU is now on pace to spend over $1 million in his fourth year. Increased spending hasn’t yet proven to translate to an increase in winning or positive results on the basketball court.

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During the 2016-17 season, Stansbury’s assistant coaches were Chris Cheeks, Quannas White and Shammond Williams. Cheeks made $125,004, Williams made $120,000 and White made $110,004 in 2016-17, according to WKU’s 2017-18 budgeted salary information.

Stansbury had a $500,004 base salary in his first year at the helm, meaning $855,012 was spent on a Hilltop per squad that finished 15-17 overall, 9-9 in conference play. The season ended with a loss to Texas-San Antonio in the first round of the C-USA Tournament.

During the 2017-18 season, Stansbury’s assistant coaches were Hsu and Johnson. Ben Hansbrough was promoted from support staffer to a full-time assistant prior to the season, but he resigned in October 2017 after he was charged with driving under the influence.

Hsu made $200,004, Johnson made $85,008 and Hansbrough’s vacant slot was scheduled for a $50,004 salary in 2017-18, according to WKU’s 2018-19 Budgeted Salary Information.

Stansbury’s salary was once again $505,008 in his second year as head coach, but his base salary rose to $650,004 in January 2018 after athletic director Todd Stewart asked the Board of Regents to give Stansbury a $150,000 raise.

The team was scheduled to spend $840,024 on a new staff of three full-time assistants prior to Hansbrough’s unexpected departure, but it ended up spending $790,020 before and $935,016 after Stansbury’s mid-season salary bump.

The 2017-18 season’s sub-$950,000 price tag turned out to be an absolute steal for the Hilltopper program — the team finished 14-4 in conference play and reached the C-USA Tournament final.

Despite missing out on an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, the Hilltoppers received an at-large bid to the National Invitation Tournament and made a run to the semifinals. WKU fell to eventual NIT runner-up Utah but finished the year at 27-11 overall.

During the 2018-19 season, Stansbury’s assistant coaches were Hsu, Johnson and Hennssy Auriantal — the legal guardian of rising sophomore Charles Bassey. Hsu made $200,004 and Johnson made $85,008 in 2018-19, according to records provided to the Herald.

Auriantal originally made $200,004, but according to records provided to the Herald, he received a $4,008 raise in December 2018. Auriantal’s salary was then $204,012, effective Jan. 1.

According to handwritten notes included in records provided to the Herald, $154,008 of Auriantal’s salary is funded through private donations, meaning he’s paid that amount in addition to the $50,004 salary that was originally slated for Hansbrough in 2017-18.

After the arrival of Bassey, the 2018- 19 season came with heightened expectations. As the expectation to win increased, the season’s cost did too — including Stansbury’s $650,004 base salary, the program spent $1.135 million before and $1.139 million after Auriantal’s midseason raise.

Investing $1 million in the 2018-19 season didn’t prove to be particularly fruitful for WKU, as the Hilltoppers finished the year 20-14 overall and 11-7 in C-USA play. The team advanced to the C-USA Tournament final again but fell short for the second consecutive year. Due to a lacking resumé, WKU’s season ended without an opportunity to play in a postseason tournament.

During the 2019-20 season, Stansbury’s assistant coaches will be Auriantal, Cunningham and Grant. Cunningham will make $165,000, Grant will make $115,008, Aurintal will make $204,012 and Stansbury will have a $650,004 base salary, according to records provided to the Herald.

That’s a total of $1,134,024 to be spent in Stansbury’s fourth year as head coach of the Hilltoppers.

Cunningham and Grant will make $280,008 compared to $285,012 set aside for Hsu and Johnson — a difference of just $5,004.

But Cunningham took a much more significant pay cut to come to WKU as an assistant coach, according to an archived list of salaries for the coaches in the 2017 NCAA Tournament published by USA Today. Cunningham made $289,364 in school pay with a max bonus of $229,500 during the 2016-17 season as head coach at Troy.

Cunningham, who will serve as Stansbury’s associate head coach, led Troy
to an 80–111 mark and its second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance over the last six seasons.

Cunningham and Grant — a former associate head coach in his own right — will be tasked with helping Stansbury accomplish the same feat on the Hill.

WKU President Timothy Caboni told the Herald on Friday that he expects the Hilltoppers to get back into the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2013 this season.

“Right now, in Conference USA, we’re a single-bid league,” Caboni said. “That means the way you go to the tournament is to win the league, and so that’s the expectation.”

The 2019-20 roster might be Stansbury’s most talented collection of experienced players yet, and the program has invested heavily in an experienced coaching staff to guide them. It remains to be seen whether or not betting the farm will yield an ever-elusive C-USA Tournament crown.

Sports Editor Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.