TOM DAVIS: Fort Wayne basketball isn’t the best college job, but it is really, really good

The Fort Wayne men's basketball team celebrates around head coach Jon Coffman in the locker room at Assembly Hall in Bloomington this past season after the Mastodons beat Indiana University for the second consecutive season. (Photo courtesy of Fort Wayne Athletics)
Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman calls a play during the second half of a game this past season against Kentucky in Lexington. (By The Associated Press)
Fort Wayne Director of Athletics Kelley Hartley Hutton

There has been a lot of traffic flowing in and out of the Fort Wayne men’s basketball office this month as the Mastodon coaches are selling their program to prospective recruits.

What the coaches are seeking isn’t simply the best players to join the Mastodons, but the right student-athletes.

“What we do and how we play,” fifth-year Mastodon coach Jon Coffman told News-Sentinel.com recently, “and what our expectations are to maintain our culture is very, very challenging and at times it is too challenging for some people.”

Coffman explained his philosophy involves finding players that want to be “owners, not renters” of the established culture and that applies to the coach, as well.

Coffman is all in when it comes to “owning” his position with the Mastodon program and not simply serving as a “renter” at Fort Wayne basketball.

Lack of loyalty? Not here.

There is no piece of paper less credible than that of a college coaching contract.

There have been very public examples of coaches who have signed multi-year deals to guide a program only to leave for another position – in some instances – days later.

However, disloyalty is often a two-way street in intercollegiate athletics. There have been just as many – if not more – institutions that have failed to honor a contract and fired the coach before his/her time is up.

Just this spring alone, there were 52 institutions at the NCAA Division I level that have had to go through the process of finding a new men’s basketball coach.

As for Coffman, he has one of those deals that – in theory – binds him to the Mastodon program for three more seasons. You can call me naïve, but I not only believe he will honor that contract, I don’t believe he’s going to leave his current position for a very, very long time. In particular, as long as Fort Wayne athletic director Kelley Hartley Hutton is his boss.

“I absolutely love our city,” Coffman said. “I am very appreciative of this opportunity and the community has really embraced what we have done and I work for a phenomenal (athletic director).”

A great job, not just a good one

It is interesting to view varying perspectives as it relates to any situation.

You could be debating the merits of a location, a political issue, a car or say a basketball coaching job, and what some look at in a more negative light, others see nothing but possibility.

In terms of Fort Wayne basketball, I have had that debate through the years and from my perspective, the quality of the program, or the head coaching job, it isn’t an arguable topic.

Coffman’s job isn’t the best of its kind in the country (Notre Dame’s Mike Brey holds that title and I recently wrote a column on a said topic at www.news-sentinel.com), but it’s really, really good. And it is a lot better than most believe.

Others may see a limited budget (relatively speaking) or a geographically-challenging league (Fort Wayne is 750 miles-plus from most of its Summit League peers), but my vision is too clouded by the positives that have enveloped the program.

“Three quick things,” Fort Wayne assistant coach Ryan Sims said of selling the Mastodons to recruits, “you see how big of a city Fort Wayne is, you see the Coliseum, and then a winning tradition.

“At the mid-major level, that is three really cool things for a recruit.”

Or a coach.

What is not to like?

There are so many positive aspects to Fort Wayne basketball (and Coffman’s situation) that it really is asinine to argue.

The renovated Gates Sports Center is a beautiful facility to visit or work in.

The Mastodon coaching offices are very nice and the three-court practice facility is perfect for a program to train in.

Sims mentioned the city and Coliseum, and while it is true that the weight room and locker room aren’t the most lavish, they have been good enough to allow current Fort Wayne guard John Konchar to grow from a 180-pound kid into a 210-pound potential NBA Draft pick.

Coffman and his staff can offer a nice campus, a Purdue University degree, and the Mastodons have established a proven track record of developing athletes that go on to play professionally.

Konchar will be the rule to this, not the exception.

“Those that have battled through their careers with us,” Coffman said, “they love our culture. They live by it. They are very proud of it. Those are the generations that have graduated and moved on, but are coming back on alumni weekends and helping to build that large family of Fort Wayne basketball players and program that I am really, really proud of.”

If you build it, he will stay

It isn’t just the Mastodon players that have developed an appreciation for their experience, but Coffman has, as well.

This program is filled with hard-working, quality student-athletes that represent the university in a magnificent manner. Oh, and by the way, they win games also.

“We sell that a lot in the recruiting,” Coffman explained. “Those that come here, they buy into our culture. They want to be a part of that.”

The Fort Wayne program has historically been viewed as a “stepping stone” program and with good reason, after all, previous coaches have left for other jobs. However, Coffman has a contract that will pay him (on average) $184,620.80 each of the next five years, which is a tremendous salary in this market and the Mastodon program has never been stronger in any measurable way.

All of those points are nice, but Coffman said that relationships are the key to holding his very special situation together.

“I think the person that you work for is absolutely critical when you are looking at my position,” Coffman said. “I’ve been blessed to work for two really supportive chancellors, but the person that I report to directly is my athletic director. Every day when I walk into work I know that I have her support and I know that I have the best job in the country.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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