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The Catastrophe of Travis Ford and His Contract

"It has been an interesting year," Ford said after the early exit in the NCAA Tournament. Interesting is a very polite way to describe a season that fell miserably short of expectations. It's clear that Travis Ford isn't the answer at Oklahoma State, but he doesn't have to worry about holding on to his job. He's handcuffed to it.

Jamie Squire

Defenders of Travis Ford will point out that firing Ford doesn't guarantee Oklahoma State will be any better off with the next coach. This is true, and irrelevant.

Unfortunately loving your job isn't a qualification for keeping it, and criticism comes with the territory

Kyle Porter of Pistols Firing Blog made an excellent point, what does Oklahoma State want the standard of the basketball program to be? That's the question Holder needs to answer, because once you've done that, the next question is pretty simple. Do you believe Travis Ford can meet that expectation?

That's all that really matters. Regardless of the not so scary buyout clause, regardless of excuses for the season, regardless of the almost's, if only's, and oh so close's, if you don't believe Travis Ford can get the job done, then he needs to go. Keeping him is a slap in the face to the fans, the donors, the players, and even coach Ford himself.

Lost in the hoopla of fandom is that Travis Ford is a person, and a pretty good one at that. He legitimately loves the game, and more importantly, his players. Constant criticism from the fans and the media can't be fun for him, his family, or the team.

Unfortunately loving your job isn't a qualification for keeping it, and criticism comes with the territory. Although, if you believe Ford, a bit unfairly. After the loss to Gonzaga, Ford said, "People were criticizing me. They had no idea what we were doing, no clue what we were doing."

Perhaps I can offer one word..."because". People are criticizing the coach, because they have no idea what he's doing.

Sure there were a couple player attrition issues, but that doesn't give Ford a bye on the season. There's a bigger issue lurking than just the Michael Cobbins injury and Stevie Clark's arrests. It was the lack of leadership that sent the team spiraling out of control.

Just before opening Big 12 play against K-State Cobbins went down with a torn Achilles. Stevie missed the game as well, because he thought driving around with pot was a good idea. All of a sudden the Cowboys had to make up a lot of minutes.

The Pokes banded together as a team, and had a chance to get the game to overtime. They were down three points with six seconds left. Out of the timeout Travis Ford called the most Travis Ford play ever. Give the ball to Smart and let him run down the court to jack up the running three point shot.

Coaching is all about how you handle different situations, and coaches at this level are expected paid to put their team in the best position to win.

There is an argument for putting the ball in your best player's hands to let them make something happen, but that's a very basic answer to the generic situation of "what do you do when you're down by a possession with a few seconds left?"

With the K-State game there were other variables to consider. The Pokes were down three points. Smart isn't a great three-point shooter. Forte, on the other hand, is one of the best shooters in the nation, and he has crazy good range. Even Markel Brown would be a better option, as he's also a better shooter than Smart from behind the arc, and he has tremendous elevation on his jumper which makes it hard to defend.

Any coach should have an instant understanding of all this. Why Ford didn't use the timeout to find a way to get the ball to either Forte or Brown is beyond me. If either one misses that's one thing, but there's little doubt they were the best options given the situation.

Ultimately the loss shouldn't be totally pinned on Travis Ford, but it does begin to show a pattern. A pattern where Ford continually makes suspect decisions in close games.

Cobbins was a tough loss, but not because he's an elite big man...he was the ONLY big man. In six years Ford has managed to bring in Philip Jurick to fill the role for two seasons. Mason Cox came in and played some big minutes later this season because Ford was forced into it, but what if the Cowgirls hadn't found him playing in the Colvin?

Clark returned, and Oklahoma State found a way to make it work, winning the next three games.

You could argue Stevie Clark's dismissal impacted the team harder since the Pokes are a guard driven squad, but the truth is Oklahoma State was already beginning to circle the drain.

Three games before Clark was sent home for good the Pokes went to West Virginia where the Mountaineers played a tough, physical game. Ford strained to answer Bob Huggins' game plan. OSU got the win, but it was closer than it should have been. It was clear, they were a team lacking direction.

Ford cares more for his players than most, but at a certain point he has to be more than their friend. He has to be their coach.

Let's play a game. Stevie Clark had three separate incidents that led to his dismissal. If you weren't familiar with the situations, could you pair the incident to the punishment?

Can you pair the incident with the punishment?
1. Team rules violation A. Dismissed from team
2. Arrested for marijuana B. Suspended one game
3. Arrested for peeing out of a car window C. Indefinitely suspended & sent home from tournament, missed four games.
Answer: 1=C, 2=B, 3=A

Clark was indefinitely suspended following an incident while the team was in Orlando for the Old Spice Classic. Officially Stevie's infraction was breaking unspecified team rules, but rumors swirled the incident was drug related. At first it was unclear just how much time Stevie would miss, but Clark was in the lineup by the time the Cowboys got back to regular season play.

One month later Clark was arrested for the possession of marijuana. It was clear that Stevie had a problem and something needed to be done.

Ford's response was to sit Clark for one game. One game!

It boggles the mind that the punishment would be less severe for the second offense that's much more serious, and comes on the heals of the first incident.

One month later Clark was arrested again. This time for peeing out the window of a moving vehicle. As ridiculously infantile as that is, as an isolated incident it's more embarrassing than it is a big deal. It wasn't an isolated incident though, and Oklahoma State had little choice in dismissing him from the team. A harsh punishment compared to the slap on the wrist before.

Ultimately Stevie is responsible for his own actions, but where was the leadership? Ford's mindset of "it's never my fault" bled into this team, and it cost Stevie Clark his career as a Cowboy.

It's inexplicable how a team can come out of a timeout looking confused, let alone it happening in back to back games

Ford's lack of discipline spilled onto the court as well. Marcus Smart had a tough day against K-State, and his emotions got the better of him. After kicking a chair, Smart stormed off as if headed to the locker-room. Marcus eventually returned and was put back in the game like nothing even happened.

"I think he did get a little frustrated, and I'm anxious to see if it was justified," Ford said after the game.

Justified or not, you can't let a player openly throw a temper-tantrum and just sit there like, "wow, this clipboard got really interesting all of a sudden."

The lack of leadership broke the teams confidence, because when it's never your fault, there isn't much you can do to change it. It's a difference in mindset. If you take responsibility for failures you recognize that you can do something about it, but when you accept failure you expect defeat.

I pulled this little nugget from ESPN's OSU vs Baylor recap, prior to Clark's dismissal, "Oklahoma State is in danger of falling into a tailspin. The Cowboys lost to rival Oklahoma 88-76 this past Monday night and hosts Iowa State on Monday."

The Cowboys managed to take Iowa State to triple over-time, but once again there were issues with Ford's coaching decisions late in the game.

Travis called his final timeout with thirty-nine seconds left in the third overtime. Out of the timeout Fred Hoiberg switched to the zone and Oklahoma State didn't have a clue what to do, prompting ESPN's Fran Fraschilla to comment, "A little confused on where it's going" as OSU went to setup the play. That's embarrassing, and inexcusable.

Oklahoma State got one last shot at it though. After forcing a Cyclone turnover in front of the OSU bench, the Cowboys had 11.3 seconds to make something happen. Travis Ford signaled in the play, and gave instructions to Smart and Brown. Brown found Smart on the inbound pass who tried to drive inside, but with time was running out, resorted to a turnaround-jumper that bounced harmlessly off the rim.

Was the play really Marcus Smart hero ball? Does Ford even use his clipboard? Smart could have decided to do his own thing, but Travis Ford didn't seem very upset or surprised by it.

It's inexplicable how a team can come out of a timeout looking confused, let alone it happening in back to back games.

The end of the game at Texas Tech was a disaster for Oklahoma State. Much of the focus was on "the shove", but lets not over-look why Marcus was racing down the court to prevent the easy bucket in the first place. Travis Ford called timeout with the Cowboys down by two points, and eighteen seconds left on the clock. Coming out of the timeout the Cowboys were lost and confused. Robert Turner got the steal, took off down the court, and the rest is history. Even with perfect coaching there's no guarantee Oklahoma State wins the game, but there's a lot better chance if they have a play that allows them to at least get a shot off.

Maybe if Clark was still with the team and Cobbins wasn't injured Oklahoma State wouldn't be in those late game situations, but player attrition is never a good excuse for poor coaching.

The game in Ames still befuddles me. Oklahoma State was up by three with just five seconds remaining, and somehow lost the game.

It's one thing if you decided to try and prevent the easy look, and take your chances with Iowa State throwing up an improbable shot - it worked for Bruce Weber against OSU - but Ford maintains they wanted to foul in order to secure the win.

"We wanted to foul. We were telling our guys, but they didn't either hear us or react", Ford said after the game.

Before Forte's second attempt, Markel Brown huddles the team not five feet from coach Ford. At the same moment you can hear Ford shouting something to Forte from across the court, and Forte doesn't seem to have any problem hearing the coach.

Furthermore, as Forte goes to shoot you can see Ford at the edge of the frame talking with Sager. If Ford told Sager to foul, it sure didn't look like it.

There is a moment when Iowa State takes the rebound down the court that Ford seems to yell something to the team, but quickly drops his hand in a oh-screw-it motion. If that's when it occurred to him to foul, that's inexcusable.

To say "no one expected Forte to miss" isn't a defense either. True he's the best free throw shooter in the conference, but last I looked he wasn't perfect. Misses happen. It's irresponsible to not be prepared for a possible miss. Of course you hope the players are aware of the situation, but only one guy is paid to be. Luck favors the prepared, and Iowa State got lucky.

There isn't anything that guarantees any of the losses turn out differently, but coaching is all about giving your team the best chance to win, and clearly Ford isn't doing that.

Travis Ford's Record in Close Games
Season Record W/L % vs Top 25 W/L % vs Top 25
2008-09 7-6 .538 2-5 .286
2009-10 6-4 .600 3-0 1.000
2010-11 8-6 .571 1-2 .333
2011-12 7-7 .500 1-4 .200
2012-13 8-4 .667 2-4 .333
2013-14 5-11 .313 2-6 .250
TOTALS 41-38 .519 11-21 .344
Close games are defined as games won or lost by fewer than 10 points

Robert Whetsell put it best earlier in the year, "These guys will jump off the cliff for Travis Ford. Unfortunately, I doubt he could draw up a play that would put them in position to do so."

In contests against Top 25 competition decided by ten points or less, Ford has only once led Oklahoma State to victory more than a third of the time. Top 25 competition is a key barometer since more often than not you're facing a quality coach on the opposing bench. Ford is one of the highest paid coaches in the country, yet he's continually out-coached. It's not surprising that he's only won one NCAA Tournament game in six years.

Travis Ford's Record At Oklahoma State
Season Overall
Big 12
AP Top 25
Big 12
2008-09 23-12 (.657) 9-7 (.563) 2-7 (.222) 7th NR NCAA Round of 32
2009-10 22-11 (.667) 9-7 (.563) 4-5 (.444) 7th NR NCAA Round of 64
2010-11 20-14 (.588) 6-10 (.375) 2-6 (.250) 9th NR NIT 2nd Round
2011-12 15-18 (.455) 7-11 (.389) 1-8 (.111) 7th NR
2012-13 24-9 (.727) 13-5 (.722) 3-4 (.428) 3rd 17th NCAA Round of 64
2013-14 21-13 (.618) 8-10 (.444) 3-7 (.300) 8th NR NCAA Round of 64
TOTALS 125-77 (.619) 52-50 (.510) 15-37 (.288)

In 2009, after just one season and Ford's only NCAA Tournament win, OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder extended Travis Ford's contract through the 2018-19 season.

Holder must have been feeling like a genius at the time. He and Boone Pickens had recently come up with a fantastic life insurance idea, and his new hire just got OSU back to the NCAA Tournament. I can only imagine how Ford's end of year review went.

HOLDER: Hey Travis, thanks for stopping by my office. Congratulations on the fantastic season!
FORD: Thanks, hopefully we can build on this year's success.
HOLDER: Phew... um ok, how much more do you want?
FORD: What...? No. I'm just happy to be here.
HOLDER: Okay, I can extend your contract two more years, but that's it.
FORD: No, I think you misunderstand. I like Oklahoma State. Don't worry, I'm not looking for better offers.
HOLDER: So you're going to play hard ball? Man, I don't know how much more I can give you. How about 4 years?
FORD: Don't you think I should put together a couple of good seasons before you offer me an extension?
HOLDER: You drive a hard bargain, but I like you! I can do a slight raise, and I'll extended your contract to 10 years. What do you say?
FORD: uh... sure...
HOLDER: 10 years, and all our money! Final offer.
FORD: Okay, Okay. You have a deal, but you don't have to give me all your money.
HOLDER: It's all good, besides me and Boone are going to get OSU a ton of bank off a bunch of old dudes once they die.
FORD: Oh, I heard about that, what a smart idea! Anyway, I need to get going. I keep noticing how all the other coaches always have so much more written down on their clipboards. I thought I'd come up with some cool drawings to fill in all my empty spaces.
HOLDER: Okay, sounds good. I'll see you later. You're one tough negotiator! I bet your players don't get away with anything! Oh, and can you send coach Gundy in here if you see him? I need to talk to him about his non-conference schedule. He keeps wanting to pay schools I've never even heard of to come play us! Can you imagine if I just wasted money like that?

The extension pays Ford $2.625m starting on July 1st, and next July it will be bumped to $2.8m per year for the remaining four years.

Remainder of Ford's Contract
Season Salary Personal Services Retirement Total
2014-15 $400k $1.825m $400k $2.625m
2015-16 $425k $1.975m $400k $2.8m
2016-17 $425k $1.975m $400k $2.8m
2017-18 $425k $1.975m $400k $2.8m
2018-19 $425k $1.975m $400k $2.8m
Total Remainder $2.1m $9.725m $2m $13.825m

Since Travis Ford has been at OSU, coach Jim Boeheim has taken Syracuse to the Sweet Sixteen four times, the Elite Eight two times, and has even made a trip to the Final Four. In fact, he's taken Syracuse to the NCAA Tournament 31 times, and has 57 Tourney wins in his career. He makes $1.9 million a year.

Ford was awarded a top 15 coaching salary for one Tournament win, and has finished in the top half of the Big 12 Conference just one time since. I'm not a finance expert, but that's a horrendous return on investment. At Ford's current pace, he would need to coach for 342 more years to catch up to Boeheim.

Sure Ford has brought in elite players, and his high profile signings have been a life raft of hopefulness in what's been an ocean of disappointment over recent years. Even with talent though, Ford is barely above .500 in Big 12 play, and that's a problem.

Some fear that without Travis the Cowboys won't attract the same level of talent, but what's it matter if the talent is constantly squandered?

Holder admitted to Berry Tramel of the Daily Oklahoman that a 10 year contract was a mistake, "In retrospect, it wasn’t good for him or us".

Holder may be owning up to playing a role in getting Oklahoma State into this mess, but it's time he gets them out. He didn't seem to have a hard time pulling the trigger on Sean Sutton.

"Life is not fair. Athletics is not fair," Holder told ESPN in 2008 regarding Sean's firing. "At the end of the day, I feel like it's the right decision."

If it was clear then, why isn't it clear now? Is Ford really that much better than Sean?

Travis Ford Compared to Previous OSU Coaches
Coach Years Record W/L % Conference Record Conference W/L % Salary
Eddie Sutton 16 368-151 .709 153-90 .630 $916k
Sean Sutton 2 39-29 .574 13-26 .333 $750k
Travis Ford 6 125-77 .619 52-50 .510 $2.6m

Sean was fired after losing projected starter Kenny Cooper, multiple player arrests, and a six game losing streak, but he did get a big win over Kansas. Sound familiar?

Ford 's conference winning percentage is an improvement over Sean's, but hidden in the numbers is that Ford has only finished the season seeded higher in the Big 12 Tournament one time. I would bet, given another four years, Sean probably could have managed at least one successful season as well.

There is one big difference between this season and Sean's final year though. Sean's star, JamesOn Curry, bolted for the NBA, and Marcus Smart returned to OSU.

"Marcus Smart has saved that guy's job." Mitch Malone, a Texas Bluechips AAU caoch, told USA Today when talking about the talent coming out of the state of Texas "I absolutely think that if Marcus Smart didn't go there, Travis Ford gets fired."

Compared to the other Big 12 coaches, Ford ranks an appalling seventh in conference win percentage, and he's the only coach without Sweet Sixteen experience, yet he's the third highest paid coach in the conference. That's astounding.

Travis Ford Compared to Big 12 Coaches
Coach School Years Record
(w/ school)
(w/ School)
(w/ School)
Bill Self KU 11 325-69 (.825) 151-31 (.830) 16 (11) 36-15 (.706)
(26-10 (.722))
NCAA Champ
(NCAA Champ)
Bob Huggins WVU 7 150-91 (.622) 69-57 (.548) 20 (5) 27-20 (.574)
(7-5 (.583))
Final 4
(Final 4)
Travis Ford OSU 6 125-77 (.619) 52-50 (.510) 5 (4) 1-5 (.167)
(1-4 (.200))
Round of 32
(Round of 32)
Rick Barnes TEX 16 357-152 (.701) 166-76(.686) 21 (15) 21-21 (.500)
(19-15 (.559))
Final 4
(Final 4)
Lon Kruger OU 3 58-38 (.604) 28-26 (.519) 15 (2) 14-15 (.483)
(0-2 (.000))
Final 4
(Round of 64)
Scott Drew BAY 11 206-149 (.580) 74-108 (.407) 4 (4) 8-4 (.667)
(8-4 (.667))
Elite 8
(Elite 8)
Fred Hoiberg ISU 4 90-46 (.662) 37-33 (.529) 3 (3) 4-3 (.571)
(4-3 (.571))
Sweet 16
(Sweet 16)
Tubby Smith TTU 1 14-18 (.438) 6-12 (.333) 17 (0) 30-16(.652)
NCAA Champ
Bruce Weber KSU 2 47-21 (.691) 24-12 (.667) 10 (2) 11-10 (.524)
(0-2 (.000))
(Round of 64)
Trent Johnson TCU 2 20-43 (.333) 2-34 (.059) 5 (0) 5-5 (.500)
Sweet 16
Travis Ford's
5th 6th 7th T-7th 10th 10th 3rd
Coaches salary for 2014-15 season. Salary data per USA Today, Forbes & ESPN

Can you look at that chart and determine anything other than Ford is a below average coach making above average money? Outside of pay, his best category is time in the program. Not only are there coaches doing more in less time, but if you remove the one and two year coaches from the table it gets even more disparaging for Travis Ford.

Ford is aware Cowboys fans expect more. On Monday he addressed his criticisms.

"Oh, you’re aware of it. I don’t read anything. I hear about it all. I hear everything," Ford said. "You know it’s out there, not necessarily because I’m hearing it, but things weren't going the way I wanted it to go."

"Do we want more?" Ford continued. "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s the goal. I promise you, I live and breathe it and eat and sleep it. That’s my plan. That’s what I’m focused on. You always need a couple breaks here and there, I don’t care who you are or where it’s at. Nothing’s guaranteed in this game, I don’t care how much talent you've got. You always have the human element."

Ford's right, nothing's guaranteed in this game, including that no matter how hard you work, or how much effort you put in, that you still might not be better than the guy next to you. It's just the reality of playing or coaching competitive sports. We can want it until we are blue in the face, but it's just not always in the cards.

In six years Ford clearly hasn't met the expectations of a school that actually has a pretty decent basketball history, even with some of the best talent, facilities, and resources in the country. He continually doesn't get the job done. It's time to cut bait.

Under normal circumstances Oklahoma State would have already parted ways with Travis Ford, but these aren't normal circumstances. Like it or not, Holder has married Ford to OSU, thanks to an outrageous contract.

"It might still prove to be not such a bad decision… I’m always optimistic… Everyone wants Travis Ford to succeed. When we look back, my hope is the contract proves to be a good idea that works for everybody." Mike Holder via Berry Tramel.

Holder has to look out for the financial well being of the school, but should that come at the cost of the players and a program? Brown, Smart, Nash, and Forte were the heart and soul of this team. They love their coach, but they're constantly put in a position to fail. When they committed to OSU I'm sure it wasn't to hang their heads in post-game press conferences, and watch a guy they care about get torn to shreds in the media.

You can't blame Ford for trying to do his job, but you can blame Holder for condemning next year's roster (and possibly more) to the same fate. Holder doesn't think Oklahoma State can afford to cut Travis Ford loose, but I'm not sure they can afford not to.

Surrendering the program to a lame duck coach in order to save Boone's pocket change is beyond disrespectful to the fans, the donors, and the student athletes. It's toxic, and will rot the program from the inside out, because after admitting it's just money keeping Ford in the first chair, how can you ask anyone to line up behind him?

Marcus Smart gave up millions of dollars for his love of OSU. Unfortunately Holder is not willing to do the same.