Football Helps Mississippi State Land Ben Howland

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Ben Howland’s name was among the more frequently bounced-around in association with college basketball job openings the last two years. The former Pittsburgh and UCLA head coach seemed like a great fit for former powerhouse DePaul, a program that hit the skids in the last decade or so.

And why not? DePaul is situated in the recruiting hotbed of Chicago and plays in a strong basketball conference. But DePaul couldn’t offer one critical thing Mississippi State had to offer when it pursued Ben Howland: DePaul lacks a football program.

Howland is a fan of the game, or at least, knowledgeable enough to fake it in order to placate a football-obsessed fan base.

But more importantly, top-level college football generates multiple millions in revenue for athletic departments, and it doesn’t get any more top-level than the SEC. The conference’s partnership with ESPN launched the SEC Network last August, a media endeavor that is generating huge paydays for the conference’s members.

The cult-like following of SEC football fuels the SEC Network, thus it stands to reason the lion’s share of money coming in reaches the football programs. Mississippi State used its increased revenue to sign head coach Dan Mullen to a substantial extension just last month. Mullen will make in the neighborhood of $4.3 million a year at a university that historically has one of the smaller budgets in the SEC.

Mississippi State is also investing in facility upgrades, an absolute must to compete on the ultra-competitive recruiting front in SEC football.

Both facilities updates and coaching salaries are part of the SEC’s arms race — a race that is spilling over to other sports.

Just yesterday, reports of Mississippi State’s SEC counterpart Alabama courting Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall to the tune of $3 million a year surfaced.

While Marshall would not be the highest-paid coach among his peers, as Alabama football’s Nick Saban is among the football lot, a $3 million annual salary would rank Marshall in the top eight with such noteworthy names as Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

Izzo, Pitino and Calipari all have national championships; Alabama basketball has none, and hasn’t sniffed a title since reaching the 2004 Elite Eight. And yet, Alabama football’s many titles allow the university to pay championship wages to a basketball coach.

Likewise, Mississippi State has not been to a Final Four since 1996. Howland, who went to three straight from 2006 through 2008 at UCLA, is set to make a little over $2 million a year in Starkville.

Howland is being paid in the same range as Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, Ohio State’s Thad Matta, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Michigan’s John Beilein, all of whom have appeared in a Final Four in the last six years.

Mississippi State basketball can pay Final Four money to a head coach because its football program is part of the SEC football juggernaut.

Of course, with Final Four money come Final Four expectations. Yesterday, I wrote Marshall hypothetically going to Alabama is a safe move, because Nick Saban’s long shadow allows Crimson Tide basketball to operate without too much scrutiny.

While Dan Mullen has performed admirably at Mississippi State, transforming the perennial SEC cellar-dweller into a team that was ranked No. 1 for a while last season, he has yet to win a conference championship — let alone a national title. Because the football program is relatively new to competing at a high level, and due to the Bulldogs’ respectable basketball history, expectations on a hoops coach are higher in Starkville than in Tuscaloosa.

Just ask Rick Ray, who was given all of three years to pull Mississippi State basketball out of the mud.

But football’s continued success — and thus, continued generation of revenue through merchandising, New Year’s Six bowl payouts and TV deals — will be directly tied to the pursuit of success on the hardwood.

Expect to see universities with football programs continue to leverage that advantage over those like DePaul that lack the sport.