Wake Forest University (WFU) announced that men’s head basketball coach Danny Manning had been relieved of his duties on Saturday April 25th. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein has since reported that Manning’s contract included a $15 million+ buyout, a number most would have assumed was cost prohibitive considering the financial difficulties facing NCAA athletic departments. John Currie made it clear that the decision to fire Manning with five seasons remaining on his deal was performance driven, but the WFU athletic director said “the economics support the [call to dismiss the coach].” Based on the names reportedly under consideration to replace Manning (list includes: UNC-Greensboro’s Wes Miller, UMBC’s Ryan Odom, ETSU’s Steve Forbes and Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey – associate HC Randolph Childress is currently serving as the interim coach), Currie intends to reduce department overhead with his next hire.
Howie Long-Short: The Demon Deacons had just a single winning season in Manning’s six years in Winston-Salem. The college basketball HOFer was also a holdover from former athletic director Ron Wellman’s regime and had several players transfer out of the program over the last few seasons, so ‘huge’ buyout aside, word of the dismissal wasn’t exactly shocking. The news raised some eyebrows if only because the sports world has been on hiatus for the last six weeks. Currie explained that “the onset of the pandemic played a role in the timing of [the] announcement.”
Wake Forest is the only power five (P5) school to have fired their men’s head basketball coach since March Madness was abruptly called off back on March 12th. It’s fair to assume with programs nationwide experiencing budget shortfalls (see: cancellation of the NCAA tournament cost Wake Forest $2.3 million) that there simply isn’t money available to buy out coaches right now. Of course, it wasn’t like most college athletic departments had “money lying around” before the COVID-19 outbreak. One former P5 AD said that “outside of 15-20 schools that appear to be profitable, nearly all collegiate athletic departments – including this select group – are subsidized at some level by the University and/or student fees. Without those subsidies, they would be running huge deficits – many already are.”
Historically speaking, when coaches underperform it’s been wealthy boosters who have helped to fund buyouts “so that – at worst – [the early termination could be] cost-neutral to the athletic department.” It’s unclear who is paying Manning’s buyout (as a private university WFU is not obligated to disclose financials), but generally speaking our source said that booster money to cover “athletic director mistakes” has dried up. “Fundraising has already begun to contract [as a result of the economic downturn] and quite frankly, donors were tired of funding buyouts even before [COVID-19 sent the economy into a tailspin].”
Taking buyouts out of the equation, the concept of replacing an expensive veteran coach with a younger, less costly option is a sensible solution to the budget crises facing many NCAA schools. The former AD we spoke to said that “gutsy athletic directors” might be willing to can their highly paid – and underperforming – coaches in favor of a non-P5 head coach, high-profile assistant or up-and-comer that would accept a “more incentive-laden deal with a low buyout,” but because ADs are judged on two things – hiring coaches and fundraising – he suspects that most will still opt for the splashy (and costly) hire.
Athletic directors planning to stick by their highly paid coaches would be wise to restructure contracts. In a post-COVID world, schools will hold nearly all of the leverage. “Coaches will fight reductions in salary, but most will work together with their university because what is their alternative? Where are they going to go? There aren’t any jobs available and guys aren’t going to leave a P5 job on principle.”
Editor Note: Please note that joining our community (below) will entitle you to receive our free daily sports business email newsletter.