QUIT STAHL-ING: Preemptive raises don’t help WKU athletics

WKU basketball head coach Rick Stansbury addresses the media after the semifinals of the NIT Championship against Utah on Tuesday night. WKU lost 69-64.

Matt Stahl

Editor’s note: This story previously implied that Todd Stewart hired former WKU basketball head coach Ray Harper. Former athletic director Ross Bjork was at the helm of the department when Harper was hired. The Herald regrets the error. 

No bones about it, this was a disappointing basketball season on the Hill. Rick Stansbury’s team failed to gel when it mattered, and several bad losses kept it out of the NCAA and NIT postseason tournaments.

It’s the second time in Stansbury’s three years the team has failed to make it past the Conference USA Tournament, and the team has failed to win either the C-USA regular-season championship or tournament title in three years.

When Todd Stewart and the university opted to give Stansbury a $150,000 raise in January of last year, it catapulted Stansbury’s salary to $650,000 per year. It was meant as a proactive move to keep him from jumping ship to another school in the midst of success.

Maybe they shouldn’t have been worried.

“There’s no question that there’s excitement around the program,” Craig Browning of the Hilltopper Athletic Foundation said at the Board of Regents meeting when the raise was given. “Objectively we can look at attendance, we can look at wins, we can look at exposure on a national stage, and all of those things are very clear facts. We do believe that a strong athletic program is a great window for the university. There’s a great value in the branding.”

According to the revenues and expenses reports that WKU sent to the NCAA in 2017 and 2018, shockingly, media rights are listed as having brought in $0 for the entire athletic department in both years.

The so-called “front porch” argument, which claims athletics is often the first impression one has of a university, makes sense, as it’s easy to understand the appeal of sports on campus. By no means am I against spending money on athletics.

However, just giving raises to keep someone from leaving seems a little bit out there. WKU is never going to be able to pay someone enough money to make them stick around if a school from one of the Power 5 conferences comes calling.

We’ve seen that happen. Jeff Brohm got poached by Purdue, and there was no possible way for WKU to come up with enough money or opportunity to keep him.

WKU just gave out another raise to athletic director Todd Stewart. It’s a 32 percent raise that adds $65,868 to his salary.

Does Stewart deserve it?

Sure, he’s had some great success with coaching hires. Brohm was phenomenal for WKU football and Michelle Clark-Heard did some incredible things with the Lady Toppers before splitting for the riches offered by Cincinnati.

However, he’s had just as many failures during his time. Stansbury hasn’t gotten over the hump, Mike Sanford was an abject failure and John Pawlowski still hasn’t taken the Hilltopper baseball squad to the postseason in any of his three years.
 The remainder of Stansbury’s time at WKU and how well the Tyson Helton hire goes for the football team will be key to Stewart’s legacy on the Hill. Both of them need to do well, as WKU is kind of strapped for buyout cash if things go south.

“It’s certainly a costly move,” Stewart said when he announced that Sanford was being kicked to the curb. “The good thing is, while we’re not happy about this outcome, we’re really 3-1 in terms of these, because we’ve been on the plus side three other times.”

That money is used. Unless a Power 5 program takes a liking to one of WKU’s coaches, which seems highly unlikely, all buyout money is going to have to come from some other place.

Has Stansbury lived up to his raise? Will Stewart live up to his? That’s not up to me to decide.

All I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, the university should think about not giving pre-emptive raises when it simply doesn’t have the financial ability to stop what it’s trying to stop.

And what it’s trying to stop probably wasn’t going to happen anyway.

Sports Editor Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mattstahl97.