Wofford coach Mike Young knows the phone calls will soon be coming. So does athletics director Richard Johnson.
For the fourth time in six years the Terriers are in the NCAA tournament, and as coaching vacancies open up across the country, Young will be one of the hot names.
He has been at the small, private liberal arts college in Spartanburg for 26 years, and for the past 13 seasons he has been the basketball head coach. His devotion to the school is unquestionable, but he has flirted with other job opportunities.
Now, with the best team he has ever had, Young is focused on getting his first NCAA tournament victory before dealing with what will come later.
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“I owe this team,” Young, 51, told the Observer last week. “This team has been incredible for Mike Young, incredible for Wofford, incredible for the Spartanburg community. I owe this team and I owe this fan base everything inside of me until this thing comes to an end.
“When those things happen, if they happen – I could care less if they didn’t – if they were to happen, a couple of things. I’ve been here 26 years – that’s a long time. And this place has been incredibly good to me and my family. But also I learned you never say never. You deal with those things at the appropriate time in a professional and standup manner. Time will tell.”
If Young has reached his ceiling at Wofford with this 28-win team, it’s logical he would want another challenge. He’s young enough that he still can make a jump for much more than his reported $171,244 base salary, from a school with more resources.
But there’s history and community at Wofford, and there’s about to be a new basketball arena. The Terriers will tip off the 2017-18 season at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium, an arena named after the Wofford alumnus and Carolina Panthers owner. The exterior will harken back to the basketball cathedrals of old, but a 21st-century arena will be housed inside.
When Johnson showed him a rendering of the arena, lit up against a starry night, Young excitedly asked the AD to email him a copy so he could send it to prospects.
A two-year turnaround
Two years ago, life wasn’t as good for Young as it is now.
After going to the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011, the Terriers regressed in the 2012-13 season with 13 wins against 19 losses.
Forward Lee Skinner sat inside his coach’s office for year-end interviews and flatly told Young he didn’t have fun.
“I was upset,” said Skinner, now a senior. “I didn’t want to even go to practice. Off the court we didn’t hang out. We had cliques. You don’t win if you have cliques on a 15-man roster. I have love for my teammates, but I wished more of everybody.”
Young knew they weren’t very good, but they had potential. He retooled the coaching staff by hiring former Terriers players. Tim Johnson, the school’s all-time leading rebounder, as an assistant, along with Kevin Giltner, who earned first-team All-Southern Conference honors in his senior season in 2012.
Tim Johnson worked with Skinner on his rebounding and post moves. Cut off his right hand and he would starve, Young would say of Skinner. Now Skinner’s left hand is better than his right.
“That’s not to say those coaches that were here were not great, but (the new coaches) know what goes and what doesn’t,” Skinner said. “Every single person was on the same page all season. It was huge.”
A one-bid league
Generally, only the Southern Conference tournament champion makes the NCAA tournament. Last year the Terriers won, dodging Davidson and Chattanooga in the tournament after going 0-4 against those teams during the regular season.
Wofford beat Western Carolina to win the championship, then it lost 57-40 to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This year, along with a win at N.C. State, Wofford went 16-2 in conference play to win the regular season. The Terriers (28-6) still had to win the conference tournament again, and did, beating Furman 67-64 in the final.
The conference has been weakened by attrition – Davidson, Elon, College of Charleston and Appalachian State left, making a bad basketball league worse.
However, that also means Young and the Terriers have a paved path to the NCAA tournament in any given year. A school of 1,600 undergraduates is the big dog in the league, and the miserable season two years ago is a distant memory.
Transferring “crossed my mind,” Skinner said. “But coach Young came and got me from Fork Union Military Academy. I took one visit and I said I could never walk away from coach Young. It doesn’t matter if we don’t win another game for the rest of my career. There’s no possible way.”
College of Charleston never offered Young its coaching job, so there was nothing to turn down. But he did consider leaving Wofford in August, when he was one of the candidates.
“I knew we had one of the best teams, if not the best team, coming back that we ever had,” Young said. “You dealt with it, explored it and Charleston got a good coach and I got to stay with a college and group of people that I love dearly.”
In November, the school announced its plan for Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium. The team will move out of Benjamin Johnson Arena, which rivals only high school gymnasiums.
Johnson, who calls the arena “Richardson,” estimates it will cost $30 million to $40 million. He hopes there will be enough money for an LED ribbon board inside, and he has plans for a kid zone, donor club seating and a lounge area behind the student section.
So that’s the pitch?
“That’s it,” Johnson said. “And we’re close to trout streams. His one vice is to go out in May and do a little trout fishing.
“We’re close to trout streams, we’ve got a beautiful new building and everyone wants him to stay.”
The immediate goal
The arena, though, still is two years away. Young is focused on beating fifth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla., with his 12th-seeded Terriers. Last year’s experience against Michigan was good, and Wofford made it a seven-point game with seven minutes left, but the goal is to win.
“This year as a 12, we’re going to play somebody really good,” Young said. “And you can get swept up in that avalanche of stuff. They will be in a much better frame of mind this time around.”
When the season is over, the courting will begin. Athletics directors will call, and Young might accept interviews.
He will need to make his decision before May.
He’ll have some fishing to do.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9