Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbe made some heads turn earlier this week, when he made some pointed comments to the Detroit News regarding the contract status of men’s basketball coach Rob Murphy, who is entering the final year of his current deal in his 10th season.
“Rob knows where he’s at,” Wetherbe told Tony Paul of the Detroit News in an interview earlier this week. “[H]e knows 10 years is a long time. If you haven’t won in 10 years, maybe you need to do something else.”
Wetherbee’s less-than-solid endorsement of Murphy puts an already struggling basketball program and coaching staff behind the eight-ball during perhaps the most vulnerable time of the offseason. Those comments make it clear that the Eastern men’s basketball program is entering an uncertain future.
Wetherbee has been low hanging fruit for critics, as his tenure has been a bit rocky from his first days in office, so it’s certainly surprising to see him come out aggressively with public comments regarding the basketball program. Wetherbee has, deservedly or not, served as the public face of an athletic department which has faced open hostility at times from their own supporters.
Wetherbee was thrust directly into the fire upon walking in the door from Mississippi State, as he had to oversee (and really, justify) construction of the Championship Performance Facility despite severe budget cuts at the university.
To date, Wetherbee’s defining moment has been cutting a number of varsity sports, including the decorated swim and dive team, at the behest of the university president. The decision ultimately led to lengthy Title IX lawsuits and several legal battles, which haven’t looked kindly on the athletic department.
All of that intrigue has helped contribute to making Wetherbee’s comments regarding Murphy all the more fascinating.
With his comments to the local media, Wetherbee seems to be setting up a new defining moment in his tenure, albeit a moment which is a year out yet. There is an implicit, unspoken understanding that outside of a university’s football coach (where EMU is covered with Chris Creighton), there is largely no bigger name in an athletic department than that of the men’s basketball coach.
A rich basketball tradition in Ypsilanti has fallen upon hard times in recent years. The Murphy era is highlighted by an upset over Michigan, a neutral site tournament title, a MAC semifinalist appearance and one regular season division title. The program has been largely shut out of the Detroit recruiting scene.
However, Murphy remains highly regarded in the basketball community as evidenced by his flirtation with the Orlando Magic some years ago, his relationship with local phenom Emoni Bates, and the words of Power Five coaches such as Mike Hopkins, Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo. If fired or not-renewed by EMU, it would be no surprise to see Murphy as a prominent assistant at a major school, perhaps at Michigan State with the aforementioned Bates.
A successful season for Murphy’s squad in a contract year could cost EMU more money in the long run than if they avoided the lame duck status this offseason. It is uncommon to see a Division 1 coach entering the final year of his contract. Such a status creates a dead man walking vibe and harms the school in recruiting and can force a coach to make decisions based on the present and not the future. It also risks the school paying more a year from now after a successful season than they would now.
Eastern projects to return a veteran roster next season with some nice pieces, but who knows what will happen between now and next fall with what is the transfer cycle for MAC schools. While finishing with a .500 record, Eastern was close in many games and almost hosted a first round MAC tournament game. It is very possible to see Eastern approach or surpass 20 wins and return to Cleveland next year, which could force Wetherbee into extending Murphy.
Critics of Murphy say that for his reported $350,000 salary the school could make another decent hire. For a school like EMU, who hasn’t shown the commitment to spend the money needed to bring in Division 1 home opponents, I am not so sure that the budget to replace a coach of ten years would be as high.
As Western Michigan ultimately learned in replacing Steve Hawkins, it is not as simple as it might seems. Around that price point rules out most top Power Five assistants, and it is similar to the going rate for most mid-major jobs. Eastern does have better facilities than WMU, and its proximity to Detroit keeps it an alluring job for the right person, but it still faces a lot of handicaps.
Wetherbee certainly understands the risk he’s taking in putting contract talks into the public, and it’s a gambit which will take time to materialize.
If the program struggles during the 2020-21 season, supporters will bemoan Wetherbee for not making a move the season before, and if a move is made next year at this time, it might be hard for Wetherbee to make an improved hire due to the schools budget constraints. For a man on thin ice within the Ypsilanti community, another misstep could seal his legacy at the school.
Eastern Michigan was never going to pay Murphy for the final season of his contract to not coach. That decision is not a decision which a school like EMU could afford even before this new coronavirus world we find ourselves in. To have made such a decision would have been attacked by the Eastern academic community, who already largely bemoans any sports expenditures.
Coach Murphy may be on the hot seat but Wetherbee is on the clock.