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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 21 2014

Schnepf: Saul Phillips seeing his coaching stock on the rise

Spokane, Wash. - Dane Fife, an assistant coach for the Michigan State men’s basketball team that will be playing for an NCAA Division I tournament Sweet 16 appearance today in Spokane Arena, knows Saul Phillips. He still texts him almost every day.

“He’s a competitor … he’s a lot like Tim Miles,” said Fife, who as the former head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, coached against both Phillips and Miles when his teams played North Dakota State.

So much so that Phillips could be following in Miles footsteps to a higher-paying job at a much bigger program.

That is the farthest thing from Phillips’ mind right now. He is not actively seeking a job. He’s focused on today’s game in Spokane Arena, where his underdog Bison – who knocked off Oklahoma on Thursday night – will be playing San Diego State for their own chance to reach the Sweet 16.

But such success does not go unnoticed.

Ask Miles, who left NDSU in 2007 for Colorado State before moving even higher up to Nebraska. Miles’ Huskers lost to Baylor in Friday’s NCAA tournament game in San Antonio, where Miles was ejected.

Phillips was quick to mention Miles when asked about his fun demeanor during Friday’s news conference at Spokane Arena.

“He is obviously outgoing … as you saw today, he was outgoing out of the arena apparently,” Phillips deadpanned.

Here’s Fife talking about Phillips and Miles again.

“Those guys are two peas in a pod,” he said. “They are really, really good coaches. They relate to players really well. I think players fight for them and I think that is the best attribute I can give Saul.”

There are numerous attributes that have the national media infatuated with Phillips here in Spokane. And if the Bison can repeat the trick today against San Diego State, you can bet even more athletic directors in search of a coach will be smitten as well – if they aren’t already.

“His phone is going to ring … we know that,” NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said Friday, after he just finished talking about Phillips with reporters from the New York Times and USA Today.

It’s not always an easy decision for coaches to leave.

Miles left a team just prior to it reaching the 2009 NCAA tournament. Phillips would leave a program that has now played in two NCAA tournaments with a renovated arena coming in the near future. In fact, all week here in Spokane, Phillips has conveyed to the media how much he likes Fargo, NDSU and Taylor.

“I could end up working for a lot of athletic directors at a lot of places,” Phillips said Friday. “But I’ll never have a better one than Gene Taylor.”

There was a pause before Phillips said within earshot of Taylor: “Can I get a raise now?”

“We are working on it,” Taylor answered.

With NDSU somewhat placed on the college basketball map now, the time has come where Taylor and his band of fundraisers seriously need to consider upping the ante for their basketball coach’s salary. Right now, Phillips is earning $175,000 a year. That needs to go beyond $200,000 if NDSU has any hopes of keeping Phillips.

But there is only so much a mid-major program like NDSU can afford without breaking the bank. It can’t spend $412,000 like Denver is doing for head coach Joe Scott – even though the Denver athletic department budget is reportedly in the red. And it can’t match the $483,000 that Scott Sutton gets at Oral Roberts – a program that will be returning to the Summit League next year.

“There’s always going to be someone who can pay more,” Taylor said.

If you look at the current 19 coaching openings at the Division I level, not many would be able to pay more. And ones that could pay between $200,000 to $300,000 may not be very attractive programs.

This week in Spokane, Phillips’ name was mentioned for the opening at Washington State – just down the road from Spokane. You’re talking a significant pay raise with a $1 million salary. Even that seems like a long shot for Phillips.

But there was an opening that popped up Friday that perked up a few ears when Buzz Williams left Marquette for Virginia Tech. Marquette is another $1 million coaching-type school that is located in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is located in Wisconsin.

Phillips was born and raised in Wisconsin, played college basketball in that state and coached for two college teams in Wisconsin.

Such a job would be one in which Taylor would tell Phillips he would be a fool not to take. But there have been jobs out there in which Taylor strongly recommended against – like the UNC-Wilmington job Miles turned down or the Ball State job Phillips was considering last year.

“It’s going to have to be a pretty good job,” Taylor said.

Which brings us back to this NCAA tournament – where history shows coaches at smaller schools have cashed in because of their success.

Andy Enfield, who guided last year’s Florida Gulf Coast team to the Sweet 16, went from a $157,000 salary to $1 million at USC. John Groce, who guided the 2012 Ohio team to the Sweet 16, went from a $308,000 to $1.4 million at Illinois.

There are other mid-major coaches who have made successful runs in the NCAA tournament who have stayed at their schools. But that’s mostly because they are getting paid quite well – like Shaka Smart who is earning $1.3 million at Virginia Commonwealth, and Brad Stevens, who was earning $1.2 million at Butler before tripling that salary to coach in the NBA with the Boston Celtics.

Either way you slice it or dice it, as a school like NDSU goes crazy with all that national exposure from NCAA tournament success, at the same time, it could be losing its coach.

Fife’s boss, the legendary Tom Izzo, said Friday those can be difficult decisions.

“All you want to make sure is that people will make their decisions not based on that the grass is greener on the other side, but that it’s a very educated, right decision … and those are hard to make,” Izzo said. “I’ve gone through some tough decisions in my life and for the most part it’s worked out and I’m sure it will if it’s North Dakota State.

“At least if you are having success, everybody gets a chance to hopefully raise their game a level and that’s what the world’s all about. That’s what having success is all about … that you get to move up or you get the opportunity to move up.”


Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com