When the final buzzer sounded last Tuesday night and the dream season was over, William and Mary found itself in the cold, harsh reality of a mid-major program on the rise.
Its success has been undeniable. The Tribe went 23-11 this season, its third 15-win season in the last four years. But now, the Tribe is tasked with building on that success within the limitations of the College.
Such a challenge is multi-layered and complex. It involves players, coaches, money, alumni, recruiting and fan support. But ultimately, those familiar with Tribe basketball agree that the future success of the program begins with one man: Tony Shaver.
“I like to have my roots in the ground”
Tony Shaver accepted the head job at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. upon graduating from North Carolina in 1976. He stayed at Episcopal for 10 seasons before moving up to Division-III Hampden-Sydney, where he coached for 17 years before taking the head coaching job at the College in 2003.
Shaver has been in Williamsburg for seven years now, and when asked if he has any plans to leave, he is more likely to talk of his past than of his future.
“I tell families to look at my background. I’ve been coaching for thirty-some years now and I’ve been at three schools,” Shaver said. “I’ve been here for seven. I’m a little bit different from a lot of coaches [in] that I like to have my roots in the ground. That’s about the best answer I can give. Look at my background — that’s a pretty strong statement that I’ll be here.”
Shaver’s name has been linked to a number of head coaching jobs during the Tribe’s run this season, with speculation often centering on his current salary at the College. According to figures released by the College’s Athletic Department, Shaver — CAA Coach of the Year two of the past three seasons — currently makes $200,000 a year. By comparison, Blaine Taylor, the head coach at Old Dominion, makes $212,160 a year.
But, for all the success he has experienced at the College, Shaver has yet to achieve what is often considered a prerequisite for mid-major coaches hoping to earn a high-major job: an NCAA tournament appearance.
“It’s hard for a major school to hire a coach after one year because, for a group like [William and Mary], the stars have really aligned,” Bill Trocchi, a college basketball writer at Sports Illustrated, said. “They have their system, they are winning close games and in the CAA there’s not really a dominant team right now. It really depends on how they eventually do in the [NCAA] tournament.”
Throughout the speculation, Shaver has given fans and players alike the same message regarding his future plans.
“I talked to [Shaver] about it. Obviously it’s a big deal, but he told me that he loved where he was at and he had no plans to leave,” incoming recruit Tim Rusthoven said. “I didn’t straight up say ‘Tell me your plans,’ but I tried to feel him out and he said he’d be here all four years.”
“I would like to be able to compensate the coaches more”
While Shaver has seen his star rise this season, his assistant coaches — Jamion Christian, Jonathan Holmes and Ben Wilkins — stand to benefit most from the Tribe’s success.
According to state audits, William and Mary has the lowest coaches’ salaries of all CAA teams in the state. The College’s coaching salaries, benefits and bonuses in 2009 totaled $470,418, well behind the next lowest CAA school, James Madison, which paid $680,010 in coaches’ salaries.
Coaches’ salaries, benefits and staff bonuses at Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason each totaled over a million dollars. The discrepancy between Tribe coaches’ salaries and the salaries of coaching staffs around the CAA is the issue Athletic Director Terry Driscoll said he most wishes he could rectify.
“I think right now because the quality of the coaching is so important, I would like to be able to compensate the coaches more,” Driscoll said. “They are not adequately compensated in relation to their peers.”
Wilkins — who has been with the Tribe for six years — earns $60,000 a year, the highest salary among the College’s coaching staff. Holmes — who has been in Williamsburg two years — earns $54,000 a year, while Christian — who has also been on the staff two years — earns $50,000 a year.
By comparison, John Richardson, a first-year assistant at Old Dominion, earned $74,760 in 2009. Robert Driscoll, the highest-earning assistant and Associate Head Coach at James Madison, earned $90,000 in 2010.
None of the Tribe’s assistant coaches ruled out a possible move to another school in the future, but all three expressed happiness with their jobs and the improvements made to the basketball facilities.
“Like any coach, or anybody, it’s hard to say where you are going to be in four years. You could get an unbelievable opportunity you can’t pass up,” Wilkins said. “But I love where I am at. I could see myself being here for a long time.”
Christian said recruits have asked him whether or not he plans stay at the College.
“When I’ve been asked that, I’ve been honest with them, saying if I’m offered X, Y or Z head job, honestly I have to take it,” Christian said. “But the thrill of being here with these guys is pretty overwhelming right now. One of the exciting things about being here and having a leader like coach Shaver who has been here seven years, is we feel like we’re just reaching the tip of where our program can go.”
“What do you do to make your presence felt?”
In addition to having the lowest coaches salaries of all Virginia schools in the CAA, the College also has the least total operating expenses for its men’s basketball program, with a total operating expense of $1,209,462 for the 2009 season, according to the state audit.
George Mason, who spends the next least on its men’s basketball program among Virginia’s CAA schools, spent $2,233,071 on its men’s basketball program in 2009.
The Tribe’s lack of funds often comes up most in recruiting, where Driscoll and Shaver have set forth a philosophy that allows the basketball staff to find players while remaining cost-effective.
“We can’t recruit everybody because the pyramid of recruiting [won’t allow it],” Driscoll said. “We can’t be out like some staffs would be, going out to these tournaments where there are 200 kids there and there are maybe only 50 you can talk to. In that regard, I wouldn’t say it requires less money, but we tend to be more rifle shot than shotgun.”
Despite the size of its budget, the Tribe’s recruiting budget has increased in the last year. The College spent $71,455 on recruiting in 2009, compared to $63,034 in 2008.
And although he and his staff have placed a greater emphasis on recruiting the Midwest, Shaver believes the Tribe’s success in that region has saved the Tribe money over the past couple of seasons.
“With the skill level we are finding in the Midwest, we’re really able to zero in on a small number of recruits and I think it has helped us financially, quite honestly,” Shaver said. “To sign four players this past year we only had five official visits. You’re allowed twelve, so we were able to zero in on guys we wanted and it worked out for us.”
Despite the increase in its recruiting budget, the Tribe still lags behind schools such as Old Dominion or George Mason, which spent $119,081 and $108,836 on recruiting in 2009 respectively. Their total also falls well behind high-major schools such as the University of Virginia, which spent $171,045 on recruiting in 2009, more than twice the Tribe’s recruiting budget.
Competing with high-major schools without high-major, or even high mid-major funds, is the Tribe’s challenge according to Cade Lemke, the Director of the East Coast Fusion AAU program.
“If Virginia wants to go to a kid’s open gym, they can hop aboard a plane in Charlottesville and go to Columbia, then go to Tallahassee, then next to Birmingham, then back to Charlottesville,” Lemke said. “William and Mary can only do one of those trips and dip into a significant percentage of their budget for next year. The question then becomes, what do you do to make your presence felt?”
“You’re going to have to be creative”
One way for a mid-major team to make its presence felt to recruits is to pick up victories over high-major teams, the way the Tribe did this season against Maryland and Wake Forest. But those program-defining wins are hard to come by, as high-major teams have little interest in scheduling a game in Kaplan Arena, according to Wilkins.
Instead the onus is placed on the Tribe’s coaching staff to schedule guarantee games — games in which that Tribe are paid large fees to play on the road — which both add to the programs coffers and give their team a chance to win. Such a task usually falls to Wilkins, the assistant coach most responsible for putting together the Tribe’s schedule.
“It’s important to look at those high-major games because you want to give yourselves a chance to win,” Wilkins said. “We don’t want to put our guys in a situation where they are in a lot of trouble. We want our style to give the other team fits.”
This season, the Tribe made a total of $215,000 from its three guarantee games against Connecticut, Wake Forest and Maryland. It took in $80,000 for the loss to the Huskies, while the College’s wins over the Demon Deacons and Terrapins netted the basketball program $70,000 and $65,000 respectively.
The Tribe’s games against Wake Forest and Maryland reflects the strategy which takes place in scheduling those games, as the College took on the Demon Deacons three days after Thanksgiving and played Maryland one day before New Year’s Eve.
“Ideally you want to catch teams around Thanksgiving, before Christmas and after Christmas because being around the high major teams [as a coach] at N.C. State, and you see this with our guys sometimes, they’re ready to go home,” Wilkins said. “So when they see a name that’s not a high-profile name they’re like, ‘We gotta play so-and-so,’ whereas for our guys, if you put a name like Maryland around Christmas, they’re geeked and excited for Maryland.”
Such wins have a price though as opposing teams have become more wary of scheduling the Tribe as future out-of-conference fodder near the holidays.
“There was one big school in the upcoming year, not this year but the next one, we were trying to get around that date and their guy was like ‘No chance,’ because he knows the game,” Wilkins said, laughing. “He knows the deal. You try to find the coaches who haven’t figured that out yet.”
Wilkins is left to creatively schedule away games against high-major opponents because big-name schools have no interest in coming to Williamsburg. For high-major schools, according to Wilkins, it makes both economic and basketball sense to schedule the majority of their out-of-conference games at home.
“I know when I was at N.C. State, they didn’t want us to play non-conference road games because they lost money. For their athletic department, they can pay a school X amount of dollars to come to the RBC center and they know they are going to make four times that revenue,” Wilkins said. “So for those high major schools now, the financial incentive is to stay home.”
There are two circumstances in which Wilkins said he could envision a high-major school playing a game in Kaplan Arena over the next couple of years. One would be a high-major school looking to schedule a home game near a player’s hometown.
The other is a smaller high-major schools, because of the recent economic downturn, changing their approach to scheduling to include a road trip to Williamsburg. Instead of paying loads of money for a one-time guarantee game, Wilkins could see smaller high-major schools scheduling three games at home and one on the road, with a series of lesser payouts for each home game.
“I think the unfortunate situation with the economy will help mid-majors and low- majors,” Wilkins said. “The high-majors who don’t have as much money as the Kentucky’s or Kansas’s are starting to get into a bidding war they can’t win. So some of their ADs are going to them and saying ‘We can’t pay as much as these other schools, so you’re going to have to be creative.’”
It’s the type of creativity the Tribe finds itself having to use on a daily basis. For the foreseeable future, the Tribe must continue to build a respectable program while still maintaining the razor-thin margin of error it has dealt with since its inception.
Such is the life of a rising mid-major, the curse of the kind of heightened expectations. It’s the reality William and Mary finds itself in right now as it tries to establish itself as a perennial contender in the CAA.