Fresno State Basketball

Warszawski: NCAA berth elevates Fresno State coach Rodney Terry to next tier

College basketball is primarily comprised of two types of coaches:

Those who have led programs to the NCAA Tournament, and those who haven’t.

Rodney Terry now belongs in the first group. Sure, there are distinctions within that. Coaches with national titles or Final Four appearances on their résumés occupy a higher strata. But just getting your school’s name on the bracket qualifies as a significant achievement – especially at a place like Fresno State that for so long was stuck in the basketball doldrums.

“Whether it’s right or wrong, March gives you credibility,” said Bulldogs associate head coach Jerry Wainwright, who took both UNC Wilmington and Richmond to the Big Dance. “Now (Terry) has a brand. Now he’s not selling hope anymore.”

Rather than mere hope, Terry can sell accomplishment. And the fact that he has the chance to sell on a national stage means a lot more potential buyers.

This was an important season for Terry, coming off a 15-17 record in 2014-15 that belied the progress he was making. After three below-.500 finishes in four seasons, the 47-year-old first-time head coach needed something to hang his hat on. As the always insightful Wainwright put it: “In Year 5 people start looking at you funny.”

With the Bulldogs back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, the entire dynamic gets thrown into reverse.

“How long can Fresno State keep Coach Terry around?” becomes “How can Fresno State keep Coach Terry?”

And if the Midwest Regional’s No. 14-seeded Bulldogs somehow upset No. 3 Utah of the Pac-12 on Thursday in Denver, Terry’s brand and stage will only get bigger.

You are not reading the words of a college basketball insider. Still, it doesn’t take an Andy Katz (my former Bee colleague, now at ESPN) to tell you Terry’s name will start to circulate around openings at bigger jobs, if it hasn’t started happening already.

Before coming to Fresno State, Terry spent nine years as a Texas Longhorns assistant. He was born and raised in Texas. That gives him deep ties to that state and the Big 12. And it just so happens TCU already fired its coach (Trent Johnson, a familiar name from his days at Nevada) and Oklahoma State appears ready to follow suit.

Without the NCAA Tournament pelt on Terry’s wall, none of the preceding speculation and conclusion-leaping is even possible.

Once the Duncan Building cleared following Sunday’s selection celebration, I sidled up to Terry, shook his hand congratulations for the third time in 24 hours and asked if he was ready to become a hot coaching candidate.

“You know what? I’m happy here building what we’ve built,” Terry said. “We put a lot into doing this right now and we see the moment.

“All the time with our players and all the things that we did to build this culture, we have a chance to do something special here. And I think there’s a commitment level from this administration to be one of the main players in this league.”

That last part is key. Though Fresno State’s options will be limited if a deep-pocketed Power Five Conference school comes knocking, the athletic department in December showed support for Terry by giving him the raise that was promised upon his receiving a three-year contract extension (through 2019) in June 2014.

Why the 18-month delay? Money. Why else?

Fresno State bumped Terry’s total guaranteed compensation about $50,000 to $411,000 per year, making him the seventh- or eighth-highest salaried coach in the MW, according to Athletic Director Jim Bartko. (Terry’s contract also contains performance bonuses, including $35,000 for reaching the first round of the NCAA Tournament and $20,000 for winning the MW tournament.)

Before getting the raise, Terry was 10th or 11th in the 11-team conference.

“I don’t think any of our coaches should be 10th or 11th in salary,” Bartko said when he and I spoke Saturday morning, hours before the victory over San Diego State. (Yes, he predicted a Bulldogs win.)

“Not if we expect them to win the league and go to the Tournament. … (Terry’s) one of the top five coaches in the league even though he’s not one of the top five in salary yet.”

I then asked Bartko a similar question, if he was ready for his men’s basketball coach to become a hot candidate.

“We want all 21 (coaches) to be hot candidates,” Bartko replied. “We want every coach every single year to draw interest from people. Because if that happens, it means we’re having success.”

For a college basketball coach, there’s no more tangible talisman of that success than the NCAA Tournament.

There is nothing to suggest Terry wants to leave. The pride and love he has for his players is obvious, especially seniors like Marvelle Harris, Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis who bought into that initial dream at the ground floor and rode it to the penthouse. (All three are on track to graduate in the spring.)

“They’re like my own sons,” Terry said. “I don’t have any kids myself right now, so ... every day I live for those guys and I live through those guys, and just to make a difference in their lives is the most important thing for me.”

The Bulldogs will lose that trio next season. However, there is enough talent in the program, both returning and waiting in the wings, to make you believe this won’t be a one-time happening.

Because once a coach takes his first team to the NCAA Tournament, he becomes a brand rather than a hope.

Mile-high matchup

MIDWEST REGION: NO. 3 UTAH VS. NO. 14 FRESNO STATE

▪ Vitals: 4:27 p.m. Thursday (TRUTV) at the Pepsi Center in Denver

▪ Records: Bulldogs 25-9, Utes 26-8

▪ How they got here: Fresno State earned an automatic bid by winning the Mountain West tournament; Utah earned an at-large bid out of the Pacific-12

▪ Leading scorers: Bulldogs, Marvelle Harris 20.6; Utah, Jakob Poeltl 17.6 ppg

▪ Common foe: Fresno State went 2-1 against San Diego State, most recently winning 68-63 Saturday for the MW title. Utah beat SDSU 81-76 on Nov. 17.

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