The day before Kentucky handed Missouri a 27-point loss to open SEC play, Wildcats coach John Calipari was asked about the state of the conference, which had five teams in the top 20 of the Associated Press poll.
“Is the league about as strong as you’ve ever seen it?” asked John Clay, a longtime columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Admittedly, this isn’t a new query for Calipari. It’s almost an annual ritual for a scribe to ask for his assessment of the conference UK owned over the first five years of his tenure. And as is Calipari’s way, his answer might skirt the edges of the query but really answer a question he wanted to hear.
But on this occasion, Calipari spent two minutes aptly summing the state of a conference that’s no longer solely his fiefdom.
“The goal always was, ‘Let’s get seven or eight teams in the NCAA Tournament,” Calipari said. “How do we do this? Well, part of it was the investment each school made in their basketball program. I always say coaches win basketball games, administrations win championships. ... Everybody looked at what we were doing and said, ‘Let’s do it better.’ Just what it was. I can’t tell how many people looked at our practice facility or Coal Lodge and said, ‘Well, we’re gonna do it better.’”
He’s not wrong, either.
After expansion, basketball budgets rose by 50 percent. Those dollars brought in a slew of quality coaches, from proven commodities like Tennessee’s Rick Barnes to forward-thinkers like Alabama’s Nate Oats. And naturally, the talent level across SEC rosters improved. In 2013, the average prep recruit was rated 0.8964 in the 247 Sports composite. By 2021, it jumped to 0.9305 — the equivalent of the No. 130 prospect nationally.
As Sam Snelling documented, the byproduct is a league where fluidity reigns. Since conference realignment, every SEC program has earned an NCAA Tournament berth. Kentucky and Florida are stalwarts, but nine schools notched at least two bids. Take Ole Miss, for example. Before 2012, the Rebels owned just six tournament appearances all time. Now, the school plays in a $96.5 million arena, dropped $9.8 million on the sport in 2020, and racked up three bids in eight years.
What about Missouri?
Well, inconsistency might be the polite descriptor of its product. Away from the floor, though, you could argue the program’s also slipped in the SEC pecking order. Consider this: the Tigers are among the bottom four in basketball spending since switching conferences. Over that same period, MU ranks 13th in overall win percentage. And despite three forays into March, the program has never earned better than a No. 8 seed, and its last victory came in 2010.
Under coach Cuonzo Martin, the program found a measure of stability, but that’s quickly buckled in his fifth season on the job — to the point where MU might find itself in a state of transition. Again.
At this point, we’ve thoroughly cataloged the state of the Tigers on the floor. But now also seems like an opportune moment to assess the administrative framework. And to paraphrase Coach Cal, we’ll start by asking about money.
What does Mizzou spend?
Whenever MU enters the coaching market, there’s a common refrain: This is a top-25 level job.
That’s not inaccurate – to an extent.
Over the past 20 years, four coaches have demonstrated you can guide the Tigers toward a lofty ranking, contend for a conference title, and make deep runs in the NCAA tournament. That said, I think many observers – fans, administrators, reporters, and bloggers — make a mistake. They assume the peak is the baseline.
Obviously, the program possesses advantages. It’s plopped between two productive recruiting grounds in Kansas City and St. Louis. Its facilities are no longer glittering but have been retrofitted enough to remain more than adequate. And there’s enough history of success to attract quality coaches.
But does MU invest at a level to maximize those potential advantages? No, money doesn’t ensure success, but it can help lower some barriers to entry. It allows you to hire a top-end head coaching candidate. It bestows them enough budget to hire assistant coaches to reel in talent. It will enable you to hire support staff to develop that talent and use analytics to leverage it intelligently. And if you want slick new locker rooms, you can make it happen.
A program’s budget doesn’t encapsulate everything, but, as we’ll see, it’s a figure that can serve as a powerful tool to set expectations and evaluate results.
Figuring out what MU and other high-major programs spend is also straightforward. Far from being hidden, schools turn over annual spending data to the U.S. Department of Education to comply with Title IX regulations. Even better, we can download the raw data in Excel files, which go back to fiscal 2003.
(A quick note: The Office of Post-Secondary Education has not published data for fiscal 2021, meaning we only have material through Martin’s third season in Columbia.)
Now, the data isn’t granular. So, for example, I can’t compare what MU spends on private jets for recruiting to what Alabama plunks down. But I can see each program’s total expenses for men’s basketball. With that in hand, it’s possible to build out spending tables and plot how a school’s investment has changed over time.
First, look at how MU’s basketball expenses have evolved from 2008-09 through the 2019-20 campaign. I’ve chosen this period because it overlaps coach Mike Anderson’s last complete recruiting cycle and covers the program’s transition to the SEC.
Analyzing that line isn’t tough. MU’s budget remained flat over its final years in the Big 12 and after it switched conferences. Then, in 2016-17, it spiked. Buying out a coach and hiring another tends to run up the bill. And after wooing Martin eastward from Cal, he had more cash to work with than his three predecessors. But the broader landscape changed in that period of time.
Since moving to the SEC, the Tigers have doled out roughly $7.52 million on basketball each season. Hearing that, you might assume athletic director Jim Sterk and other stakeholders were backing Martin to the hilt. But look what happens when we plot median spending figures – to control for skewing – for the Tigers’ conference and among high-major peers.
Before MU’s disastrous choice to hire Kim Anderson, the school’s outlays moved in lockstep with regional and national trends. That changed when it hired a true son. The Tigers flattened out while its competitors steadily escalated their spending. By Kim Anderson’s second season, MU’s budget lagged ranked 67th among power-conference programs and was almost $1.7 million below the median.
Now, the school has infused the Martin regime with more money, but as you can see, the program still trails other high-majors and the SEC. The gap is closing, but the disinvestment and its timing had disastrous knock-on effects.
When you look at average spending since conference realignment, MU ranks 50th among 75 high-major programs. And while its budget has increased over the last dozen years, its place in the spending rankings – outside of Anderson’s tenure – remained largely static.
Spend to Win | Expenses, Spending Gaps, and Ranking | 2012-2020
|Season||Expenses||High-Major Gap||SEC Gap||High-Major Rk.||SEC Rk.|
|Season||Expenses||High-Major Gap||SEC Gap||High-Major Rk.||SEC Rk.|
Put another way, Mizzou’s a middle-class program. That’s not meant as a slight, either. It’s helpful.
More than anything, it tells us that MU cannot simply buy its way to success. Instead, savvy administrators might spot some market inefficiencies and use those insights to hire a coach with the program to maximize them. And that only matters more as the gulf between the haves and have-nots gets wider.
So, while there’s not one number we can look at and draw conclusions, spending is the logical place to start.
Spending and Winning: Connect the Dots
How much do those dollars and cents matter? The answer: moderately. Let’s see why.
First off, we’ll treat a season as a discrete data point, plotting how much a team spent and its win total. That becomes a single point on a graph. Then, we’ll do the same thing for every high-major program since the 2012-13 season. When we’re done, almost 599 dots make up a giant blob on our scatterplot.
Study it for a second. It’s pointing – albeit vaguely – upward and to the right. That hints at a possible relationship between spending (the horizontal axis) and a win total (on the vertical axis). Using a basic data analysis tool in Excel, it’s possible to see whether it exists.
Now, I’m going to throw around the term correlation quite a bit. In statistical terms, it measures a relationship on a scale from -1.0 to 1.0. A correlation of 1.0 means a perfect relationship, and -1.0 implies a negative relationship. Or, you can think of it this way:
- Correlation of 1.0: As spending goes up, wins go up
- Correlation of -1.0: As spending goes up, wins go down
- Correlation of 0.0: Spending doesn’t matter at all
It turns out the correlation for that mass on the chart is 0.34 – or a modest to moderate relationship. Now, if we were doing biomedical research, we’d be worried. But given we’re looking at human behavior and variables we can’t control, that’s not a terrible number.
Loosely translated, a school’s spending influences a win total.
Next, we look at another number called R-squared. Measured between 0 and 1, it tells us how well data fits a model. In this case, it’s 0.14 – or pretty low.
So, each season, a school’s budget plays a role in winning, but it doesn’t entirely explain the difference in outcomes. But, again, that makes sense. Maybe a coach with a big budget has recruited poorly. Perhaps they’ve had a critical injury. Or maybe they play in a more challenging conference than someone else whose budget is similar.
Wonky? For sure. Imperfect? Yes. However, at least we see the strength of a relationship. And more importantly, a simple tweak can make it even more telling.
Spending and Winning: Take the Average
For our purposes, we care about programs and how they behave over time. Doing so requires shifting our frame from looking at seasons as single entities.
As you saw earlier, high-major programs have consistently increased spending. Practically speaking, they’re pushing dots further rightward on the scatterplot. But we can fix the problem.
- Find each program’s average expenses and average win totals.
- Plot them on a chart.
- Calculate the correlation.
Instead of 600 dots, we cut the number down to 76 – and smooth out any skewing from what amounts to cost-of-living increases.
It also makes the relationship between spending and winning easier to spot. Look at the scatter plot now.
Our correlation reflects that clarity. This time, the value comes in at 0.76, which is awfully strong. Additionally, the R-squared value (0.286) practically doubles.
But wait for a second and look at the far-right side of the plot. Three programs – Duke, Kentucky, and Louisville – have average budgets almost $5 million ahead of their peers. How badly could they skew our distribution?
Let’s focus on 80 percent of schools with average budgets between $6.1 million and $11.4 million? Well, our correlation dips to 0.51, and R-squared is 0.26, but those are still significantly better than what we saw in the last section. Even after accounting for outliers, the relationship holds up.
We can say that programs that spend more over time often win more games. Of course, budgets don’t explain every outcome. Still, they allow us to use expenses as a potential indicator of expectations and success.
Once again, our scatterplot helps us do that by visualizing where programs sit in relation to each other.
Notice how the X-axis (average expenses) and Y-axis (average wins) moved. In this case, they intersect at the median for expenses ($8.2 million) and median wins (20) for high-major programs. As a result, we now have dots in four quadrants, each telling us about the programs occupying their space.
- Upper Left: Below-median budget; above-median wins
- Upper Right: Above-median budget; above-median wins
- Lower Right: Above-Median budget; below-median wins
- Lower Left: Below-median budget; below-median wins
Or we can look at it this way:
- Upper Left: Overachieves with a lower budget
- Upper Right: Meets expectations with a higher budget
- Lower Right: Underachieves with a higher budget
- Lower Left: Meets expectations with a lower budget
Now, we not only know the relationship between spending and winning, but we can see where each high-major program fits into that galaxy. And more than that, it can serve as a tool to set expectations for a program like Missouri and whether the Tigers are meeting them.
Where does Mizzou fit into the picture?
By now, we should know that MU’s spending lagged behind the SEC and among high-major programs. We also understand that a budget has an impact on winning. And finally, we have a visual tool to help us see just where the program lands.
Voila. Look at the gold dot. There are your Tigers.
First off, its average spending is only about $600,000 below the median for high-majors, which explains why it hugs the dividing line between quadrants. However, MU’s average wins (15.4) would be well below the median for its peers.
Just how badly did the Tigers underperform? Well, look at the dashed line angling through the data points. It’s the line of best of fit, and its linear equation can very loosely estimate (keep in mind the modest R-squared) how many games they should win based on their expenses.
Using that method, we’d expect the Tigers to tally up almost 19 wins per season – or 3.6 more than their average for the period we’re looking at and one below the median for high-major programs.
What’s more worthwhile is figuring out where Mizzou fits among 38 high-major programs that also have budgets below the median level. We can do that by zooming into a specific region of our scatterplot and dropping a line of best fit – one that splits the group in half.
Twenty programs sit above that line of demarcation, including 13 that averaged 20-plus wins despite average expenses below $8.2 million. Of that baker’s dozen, Butler, Creighton, Iowa State, Kansas State, Purdue, and Xavier were the only schools to make big dance more than half the time.
Often, fans set the bar for success at 20 wins and almost annual NCAA tournament bids. But the reality is just 15 percent of below-median spending programs clear it. Moreover, those teams averaged just 2.3 bids between 2012 and 2020. Admittedly, MU didn’t want five years to lapse between its trips in 2013 and 2018, but it’s not unheard of among the company it keeps.
Next, let’s shift our axes once more. This time, we’ll use the median expenses for these 38 schools ($7.06 million) and median wins (18.5) as the intersection point, effectively redrawing quadrants. This helps us stratify which schools are genuinely maxing out resources, such as Butler, Colorado, Iowa State, and Notre Dame.
Moving the axes places Mizzou in the lower right quadrant. Its average expenses are above the median, but its average wins are below par. To it bluntly, the Tigers have underachieved — even among programs who aren’t rolling in dough.
Again, their spending should put them somewhere around 19-11 each season – and in the same quadrant as Purdue, Creighton, and Xavier. Instead, their closest neighbors are Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wake Forest.
Calling MU a top-25 level program — at least in terms of expenses — is probably overstating its commitment. However, there’s enough funding in place for the right coach to find success. Administrators would still do well to invest a little more in the program, but the chief struggle remains to identify the right person to deploy them.
As for the model, I’d rule out Butler and Xavier, each of whom relied on a conveyor belt of internal promotion. Some fans might point to Purdue, who returned to his alma mater after just one year at Southern Illinois. Unlike the MU alum on your brain, Painter spent two seasons as an apprentice under Gene Keady. No such transition plan exists in Columbia.
To me, Creighton’s acclimation to life in the Big East is a testament to the idea. A decade ago, the Blue Jays coaxed Gregg McDermott, who had been struggling at Iowa State, back to the Missouri Valley Conference to replace Dana Altman. Over his first three seasons, his bosses spent roughly $5 million — which is hefty at the mid-major level. But they ramped up investment quickly after accepting an invite from the remixed Big East Conference.
Between 2012 and 2020, basketball expenses grew by 49.8 percent, reaching almost 9.4 million. That infusion helped boost recruiting, with three of McDermott’s last four classes having an average recruit rating above 0.9350. And that’s translated to rosters that average 22 wins that pack crowds into the CHI Health Center. As it stands, the once modest program in Omaha has passed Mizzou in spending, talent acquisition, and performance.
Find the right coach with a program to capitalize on your relative advantages. Then, spend strategically to bolster them. And make sure expenses move with the market. Sounds simple, but it’s proven elusive in Columbia since Mike Anderson stalked the sidelines.
Why does this matter right now?
For one, the task is inevitable. It’s a facet of the larger discussion that’s already unfolding about Martin’s future, one where defining what qualifies as success is arguably the most important.
The season’s shallow trajectory spurred it, too. MU’s already slid more than 60 places in KenPom’s ratings, and the Tigers own a minus-10 net rating against Division I opponents. (It stands at minus-28 versus power-conference foes.) Based on win probabilities, the program is favorite in just one of its 18 remaining games – a season finale at home against Georgia. There are no other toss-ups left.
After making the NCAA Tournament last season, Martin’s contract effectively triggered an automatic extension and boosted his political capital. But what we’ve seen far amounts to an insane burn rate. What might spare Martin is showing enough improvement in SEC to make the buyout math unpalatable for his employer. But if it continues, Desiree Reed-Francois might find herself sharpening a pencil.
Either way, having a baseline for performance based on spending is practical. It puts the program’s recent performance in context. It helps us evaluate the entirety of Martin’s tenure. And, if a change does arrive, assess the pros and cons of the job MU would be looking to fill.
If it’s not evident by now, MU’s not an institution equipped to throw money at a problem.
For fiscal 2020, the school’s overall athletic expenses ranked second lowest in the SEC, per federal data. Yet, at the same time, it operated in the red for a fourth straight year, running an $8.9 million deficit. Given how the pandemic kept fans out of stadiums, it’s all but a certainty that streak will reach the fifth year.
How fiscal 2022 unfolds might also be bearish. Football attendance remains a pivotal revenue driver – one that reportedly dipped by 14 percent last fall. And a rebuilding season on the hardwood always figured to depress turnout at Mizzou Arena, but the program’s current state won’t help.
Meanwhile, Reed-Francois’s already going in search of further savings. Last month, she trimmed two upper-level administrative positions. That’s not a thumbnail portrait of a department ready to casually cut a $6 million buyout check.
Perhaps a booster or group of supporters might step forward. They’ve certainly been generous lately, contributing a record $55.1 million for fiscal 2021. But again, what kind of capacity exists to make a buyout affordable? Major donors already helped underwrite $131 million in upgrades for football. Aside from liquidity, is that purpose to which they want to put their wealth?
And let’s say Martin does enough to earn a reprieve. Part of that might entail radical change for his program. That’s not cheap, either.
For example, let’s assume any program overhaul would come with a staff shakeup. In fiscal 2021, MU’s trio of assistants earned $610,000, per UM System salary records. That’s 16.4 percent less than Martin’s first staff took home, albeit having Michael Porter Sr.’s salary come off the books explains most of the dip.
But as I’ve mused on Dive Cuts, what’s the willingness of top-tier assistants to come aboard? Their new boss’ seat isn’t warm. It’s scalding. Would they up their salary demands or push for buyout protection as a measure of security?
The baseline we’ve set down here can be used in a cost-benefit analysis. Say Martin finishes 11-20 — or about seven to eight wins behind MU’s recent baseline. Is it worthwhile to give him more time and resources to close that gap? Or do those increased resources merit moving the baseline itself? If so, might it be better to hand the job to another architect?
So maybe you want MU to be more than a program that averages 19 victories, earns a modest seed in the NCAA Tournament, and hopes for a March miracle. No doubt Cuonzo Martin wants more than that, and so do his bosses. And it goes without saying the guys slipping on jerseys feel the same.
In the coming months, though, the question is what path — and resources — leads them that way.