Gophers basketball fans pining for Eric Musselman – Twin Cities

Based on online comments, a good amount of University of Minnesota men’s basketball fans want Eric Musselman to replace fired Richard Pitino as coach.

But the university probably waited two years too long for a chance at Musselman.

Now it appears Brian Dutcher is the people’s choice, but there’s whispering that Utah State’s Craig Smith may be athletics director Mark Coyle’s early choice.

At the same time — April of 2019 — that Minnesota was giving Pitino a two-year contract extension, inexplicably increasing his annual salary to an average of $2.46 million, Arkansas was signing the son of former Gophers-Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman to a five-year contract averaging $2.5 million after Eric spent the previous four years making Nevada a perennial NCAA tournament program.

Following the current NCAA tournament (Arkansas entered No. 10-ranked), look for Musselman, 56, to sign an extension that could approach $4 million a year.

That’s unless Indiana, which is paying Archie Miller $10.4 million to take a hike, and its manic boosters make Musselman a can’t-refuse offer. Eric’s current buyout is $5 million through April 30; it drops to $1.5 million a day later.

If, miraculously, Minnesota, which is projected to lose some $40 million in its athletics department due to the coronavirus pandemic and still owes $42 million on its $166 million Athletes Village, could find a way to afford Musselman, he’s proven it would propel the program to national prominence.

Tireless and charismatic, Musselman would successfully recruit in-state. Parents, and grandparents, remember his ultra-competitive father. At Nevada, which Eric coached to three straight NCAA tournaments, he instituted the Harlem Globetrotters-themed pregame warm-up show his dad made immensely popular to full houses at Williams Arena.

Eric, then 7 years old, was a part of that on-floor show nearly 50 years ago. Plans are for him to reintroduce it at Arkansas next season. No doubt it would delight fans if he were to bring it back to Williams Arena.

Musselman’s paternal half-brother Max, a Minnetonka grad who was a student manager for Gophers women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen in her first season, resides in the Twin Cities, and Eric has a myriad of friends and fans there. Remember, he was a Timberwolves assistant to his father during the 1990-91 season before becoming a two-time NBA head coach.

The big challenge facing Coyle is to find a coach who can recruit and draw ticket buyers. In Pitino’s last season (2019-20) when fans were allowed to attend games before the pandemic, Williams Arena attendance averaged just 10,232 in a 14,625-capacity building.

On average, that’s 4,393 empty seats per game. That’s some $200,000 per game. That’s costly.

There’s little doubt that Musselman, with the right in-state recruits and the storied pregame show, would sell out Williams Arena his first season. He did that at the 11,536-seat Lawlor Events Center in Reno. His last season, there were standing-room-only tickets.

By the way, in 1984, there wasn’t a single Division I college boys basketball recruit in Minnesota. Now, in grades nine through 12, there are at least 60.

Successful big-time college coaches will tell you half the job is promoting and creating interest in the program.

When Musselman took the Nevada job, it paid $400,000. After selling out the arena for three years in Reno, the school raised his salary to $1 million. When Arkansas offered $2.5 million a year for five years with all sorts of attainable bonuses, Nevada countered with a 10-year offer of $2 million a year.

Why would Nevada be willing to go from $400,000 to $2 million? Simple: When you make the NCAA tournament three straight years and you sell out your building and your merchandise sales explode, financially it works.

Minnesota would have to figure out financially whether it’s worth investing mega-millions in Musselman or accepting mediocrity. What’s the cost to be ranked No. 8 in the country as is Arkansas?

Bottom line: Retaining Pitino two years ago got the Gophers what they deserved.

Musselman’s Razorbacks play Texas Tech in Sunday’s NCAA tournament second round.

Dutcher, 61, considering his success at San Diego State, pedigree and strong local family background, and that he’s got just a $1 million buyout if he were to accept the Gophers job, seems the most practicable choice for a rebuild at Minnesota.

Dutcher has an undervalued contract of $1.18 million next season. His deal runs through 2025-26. He would at least double his salary at Minnesota. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if San Diego State increases his deal to try to fend-off Minnesota.

Dutcher’s season ended Friday with a loss to Syracuse. He could meet with Coyle soon.

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