The Mountain West has two vacant head-coaching basketball jobs after the dismissals of Allen Edwards at Wyoming and Dave Pilipovich at Air Force this week. Not surprisingly, those are two of the toughest jobs in the conference. With the offseason arriving prematurely thanks to the coronavirus, it seems to be an appropriate time to break down conference's basketball jobs from best to worst. Those rankings are below with categories for basketball budget (per the self-reported numbers to the U.S. Department of Education); current head-coaching salary; the team's performance over the previous 20 seasons; and my rankings for where their facilities rank among MW programs. Enjoy.
1. San Diego State
Budget: $5,786,034 (second)
Head coach salary: $855,424 (second)
Last 20 years: 454-212; 12 conference titles; 10 NCAA Tournaments (6-9)
In short: Steve Fisher took an irrelevant program and turned it into the Mountain West's crown jewel basketball school. San Diego State has the second-most wins among MW schools in the last 20 years (the only team above the Aztecs is Utah State, which spent five years in the Big West and eight in the WAC in that period, two lesser conferences). SDSU has a robust budget, a two-decade history of success, gets great television exposure, sits in a great recruiting area and has sent multiple players to the NBA, including one of the league's best in Kawhi Leonard. That's a huge selling point. Gonzaga has been the best "mid-major" program since 2000, but SDSU could argue it is No. 2 in those rankings. This is an excellent job. It was nice to see current coach Brian Dutcher get this gig after Fisher retired because it was Dutcher who helped build the Aztecs into what they are today.
Budget: $5,795,483 (first)
Head coach salary: $1.1 million (first)
Last 20 years: 409-244;, three conference titles; six NCAA Tournaments (3-6)
In short: UNLV has the most history of any team in the MW with four Final Four appearances, including the 1990 national title. But it's been hard to recapture the glory years created by Jerry Tarkanian, who was forced out after the 1992 season. Since then, the Rebels have had 13 coaches, including interim coaches, in 28 seasons. Only Lon Kruger finished six seasons on the job in that period. So with all of that turnover, why is this a good job? It has the league's largest budget; sits in a city that develops a ton of Division I players; has excellent facilities, including a relatively new practice facility and renovated Thomas & Mack Center; has a good fan base, although that has withered in size of late; and can sell that history of being a national brand. It'd be nice if UNLV was more relevant of late, though. The Rebels last won a MW regular-season title in 2000 and only Kruger has won an NCAA Tournament game since Tarkanian's tenure.
3. New Mexico
Budget: $4,206,654 (sixth)
Head coach salary: $775,000 (third)
Last 20 years: 402-247; eight conference titles; five NCAA Tournaments (2-5)
In short: With all due respect to San Diego State, New Mexico has the best fans in the MW. The Pit also offers a huge home-court advantage. But the Lobos don't actually have as much success as you would expect given that fan base and facility (kudos to the fans for their full support even through some lean years). New Mexico hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 1974 and outside of the Steve Alford era, which was a huge success, the Lobos haven't won a regular-season conference title since 1994. Alford showed the potential in Albuquerque, although it's been pretty lean since his departure (101-92 in the last six seasons). While the budget listed above is average, New Mexico has shown it will invest when things are rolling. Alford was the highest-paid coach in MW basketball history at the end of his tenure. While the in-state recruiting base is so-so, this is still a top-notch MW job, although the fact it couldn't land its top prospects the last time the job was open is a little worrisome.
Budget: $4,706,010 (third)
Head coach salary: $500,000 (ninth)
Last 20 years: 420-240; 12 conference titles; seven NCAA Tournaments (6-7)
In short: This was not a very good job until Trent Johnson was hired in 1999. Prior to that, you could write down Nevada's entire history of success on a napkin. It was slim pickings. But since the turn of the century, the only MW school that been better is San Diego State. Since 2000, the Wolf Pack's 420 wins rank third in the MW, its 12 conference titles are tied for second, its seven NCAA Tournament appearances are third and its six wins in the Big Dance are tied for first. Since 2000, the Wolf Pack has made it to the Sweet 16 under two coaches and won tournament games under three (the only MW program to do that). So multiple coaches have had success here. The head coach salary above is misleading because current coach Steve Alford has a deal that will pay him more than $12 million if he stays through the life of his 10-year contract. Nevada recently added a practice facility, too. The fan base is in the upper-half of the conference. The budget for non-coaching salaries could be increased a little, but this has become an excellent job built for winning long-term.
5. Utah State
Budget: $4,250,996 (fifth)
Head coach salary: $675,000 (seventh)
Last 20 years: 461-201; 14 conference titles; nine NCAA Tournaments (1-8)
In short: Over the last 20 seasons, no MW school has won like Utah State in the regular season. The Aggies lead current conference members in victories (461) and conference titles (14) this century, although we should note a lot of that winning came in the Big West (from 2000-05) and WAC (from 2005-13). Since moving to the MW in 2013, the winning had slowed until the last two seasons. This latest era of Aggies basketball under Craig Smith has been important to show the program can win in the post-Stew Morrill era. That elevated this position by a couple of spots. The biggest thing missing for Utah State is NCAA Tournament success. The Aggies have are 1-17 in their last 18 games in the Big Dance. But the facilities and fan base are good. One issue is Utah is third in the pecking order for schools in the Beehive State behind Utah and BYU, which makes in-state recruiting more difficult. Great student section, though.
6. Boise State
Budget: $3,678,140 (seventh)
Head coach salary: $725,000 (tied for fifth)
Last 20 years: 370-271; three conference titles; three NCAA Tournaments (0-3)
In short: Boise State is a football school, but it has been pretty solid in basketball over the years. The Broncos' 370 wins rank sixth in the MW over the last 20 years. Really, Boise State is in the middle in most categories, including budget, facilities, coaching salaries, fan support and recent success. Boise is a great city, so it's relatively easy to recruit to, but there aren't any high-level prospects in Idaho, so you have to sell out-of-state kids on moving to one of the most isolated schools in the nation. There also isn't any NCAA Tournament success. Boise State has made the Big Dance seven times and is 0-7 in those games. Leon Rice has done a good job with the Broncos, winning at least 20 games in eight of 10 seasons. There just seems to be a lower ceiling on this job as the schools listed above. Of note: No Boise State basketball coach has gone on to coach another Division I team after his stint with the Broncos. If a coach is taking a mid-major job, he wants to springboard to the Power 5.
7. Colorado State
Budget: $4,415,218 (fourth)
Head coach salary: $725,000 (tied for fifth)
Last 20 years: 328-307; one conference titles; three NCAA Tournaments (1-3)
In short: Like in football, Colorado State seems to put more money toward fewer wins than any team in the conference. The budget is good, but the fan base isn't. The Rams went to the Sweet 16 in 1954 (although it didn't win a game in the tournament that year) and 1969 but has been just OK in recent years. The Rams have only one conference championship since 1991 (that was a MW Tournament crown) and three NCAA Tournament berths in that period. Colorado State doesn't have much to sell recruits in terms of sending players to the NBA, either. The biggest selling point is the campus and community, which are both top notch. Current coach Niko Medved has a good young cast of players, so perhaps he can elevate this position, but it's been more potential than production over the last few decades.
8. Fresno State
Budget: $3,642,878 (eighth)
Head coach salary: $766,440 (fourth)
Last 20 years: 347-293; three conference titles; two NCAA Tournaments (1-2)
In short: It might just be me, but it feels like Fresno State basketball has had more success than it has actually had. The Bulldogs have won just five regular-season championships (none since 2003) and appeared in only six NCAA tournaments, with one being vacated by the NCAA. The program's greatest success came under Jerry Tarkanian, but that was blemished by NCAA violations at the end of his tenure, which led to vacating wins and a postseason berth. Fresno State's home arena is great, but it is never full. The fan base and university support is lukewarm, which helped grease the path for Rodney Terry to leave for UTEP (a sideways move) two years ago. Fresno State has seven 20-win seasons in the last 19 years, which is a decent amount, but it also has had two coaches leave the school following NCAA violations since 2000. The recruiting ground is fertile, and that's probably the best thing about the job, but there isn't much history of success here without cheating.
Budget: $3,329,650 (ninth)
Head coach salary: $510,008 (eighth)
Last 20 years: 329-312; three conference titles; two NCAA Tournaments (1-2)
In short: It's always going to be tough to recruit to Wyoming given its isolation and the weather in Laramie. The fan support is solid and the state does a good job of funding athletics at Wyoming since it is the only Division I department in the state, although the Cowboys do rank ninth in basketball budget. The history is good with 15 NCAA Tournament berths, five Elite Eights and a 1943 national championship, one of two won by current MW schools in basketball (UNLV has the other). The issue there is this history was largely made before the Vietnam War. Wyoming did have a nice run in the 1980s with four NCAA Tournament berths, and Larry Shyatt did a solid job in the early 2010s (117-78 overall, 46-52 in the MW in five seasons), but this isn't an easy job. You'll have to punch above your weight.
10. Air Force
Head coach salary: N/A
Last 20 years: 292-324; one conference title; two NCAA Tournaments (0-2)
In short: This is an exceptionally tough job because there are academic and medical requirements other schools don't deal with. It's hard to build a roster that can compete with the upper half of the conference, so you'll have to out-coach the rest of the league to have any success. The Falcons are one of two MW teams with a below-.500 record over the last 20 years, the other being San Jose State (and you never want to be grouped with SJSU in athletics). Air Force did have a good run from 2003-07, winning 90 games with two NCAA Tournament berths in that four-year span. So there is some recent success, but it's been fleeting with only five winning seasons since 1979. The only reason this job is above San Jose State is because the leash is a little longer; the athletic director understands the issues the coach is dealing with.
11. San Jose State
Budget: $2,035,793 (10th)
Head coach salary: $278,196 (10th)
Last 20 years: 176-431; zero conference titles; zero NCAA Tournaments
In short: This program has been a disaster, and some might argue (I do it all the time) San Jose State doesn't belong in the MW. The Spartans' budget is ridiculously low ($1.3 million behind the second-lowest program in the conference) and its coaching pay is minuscule. The Spartans have averaged 8.8 wins per season this century and has just one winning season since 1995. That was a 17-16 campaign in 2010-11, which for many schools in the conference would be deemed a bad season. This is the best the Spartans have done in 25 years. The facilities aren't good, the community support is non-existent and there's only one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980. God bless anybody who takes this job, which is about as dead-end as it gets. It would have been interesting if SJSU had returned Eric Musselman's phone call when he was looking for a job before Nevada hired him. Could he have saved SJSU?