On the eve of his first NCAA tournament game as a head coach, in the ballroom of a Louisville hotel last March, Steve Prohm surprised his Murray State team with gifts. After dissecting the Colorado State team the Racers would beat by 17 points the next afternoon, Prohm and assistant coach James Kane brought out a large duffel bag. From it Prohm then produced tokens of motivation: mud-colored bricks, one for every player, coach and trainer in the program, each engraved with the phrase "STAY ON YOUR WALL."
The message, one of a
Seasons such as the Racers' ascendant 2011-12 -- a 23-0 start that left them as the nation's last unbeaten, with a national ranking as high as seventh and waves of publicity previously unseen at the southwestern Kentucky school -- can put a program on the college basketball map, but it's what happens in the next and following seasons that determines whether that spot is fixed or fleeting. Roster turnover and the coaching carousel, two of the sport's givens, can be the enemy of upward mobility.
To that end, two spring decisions gave Murray State's cause an appreciable boost. The first came in late March when Prohm, who had spoken with Mississippi State about its coaching vacancy, stayed put and received a one-year contract extension through 2016 with a guaranteed $300,000 salary. The next week, Isaiah Canaan, the Racers' second-team All-America point guard (19.2 ppg), followed suit by announcing he would return for his senior season. Rather than face a potential rebuild, the Racers retained the two faces and central catalysts of their meteoric rise. "Instead of there being a lull and saying, 'Oh no, we lost them,' it just kept everything going for us," Ward says.
And so Ward set about capitalizing on the goodwill. Shortly after Canaan's early-April announcement, some two months earlier than it would normally do so, the athletic department launched its ticket sales effort for the 2012-13 season, signing up between 500 and 1,000 new season-ticket holders before even pushing current ones to renew. Three thousand of the CFSB Center's 8,500 seats, including for the first time all of its lower bowl, are now expected to be sold out for the upcoming season, with much of Murray (pop. 18,000) helping fill the remainder.
Already Racers-crazy, Murray had its affections stoked further by last season's hoopla. Canaan couldn't walk into Walmart without someone stopping to congratulate him; Prohm would go to Dairy Queenand get a hug from the owner. Superfan Lindy Suiter, a local insurance agent who for more than 16 years has published the
That buzz has lingered into the summer. "There's still a lot of blue and gold walking around out here," says Ward, referring to Murray State's colors. "It's always kind of been like that, but it's at a different level right now." Perhaps most important has been the influx of green. The Racers' athletic department has received more than $600,000 in unrestricted donations in the past year, an increase of 20 percent on typical annual figures. That sort of money, to be used in everything from recruiting to facilities, can go a long way in a conference in Division I's economic lower third, where programs spend an average of under $10 million on all sports and $1 million on basketball. "For a program our size," Ward adds, "that's pretty dang good." And at a public institution in a state where budget cuts have shut down courts for days and gutted health departments, it might prove essential.
While it's one thing to win over locals, the lifeblood of a basketball program is its talent, and it's in recruiting that the program must make the most inroads if it aspires to make more noise on the national scene. Last season's 12-man roster hailed from 12 different states, but with a remote location and a lack of a brand name, Murray State can be a hard sell to a kid dreaming of bright power-conference lights.
Canaan, a native of Biloxi, Miss., tells the story of how he'd never even heard of the school before Prohm, then a Racers assistant, started tailing him on the recruiting trail. When he looked into Murray State's history, Canaan found a tradition that outsized the school's reputation. Here was a school offering immediate playing time that had hung conference championship banners in 15 of the previous 22 seasons (now 18 of 25) and launched the pro careers of Popeye Jones and Stew Johnson. The last time Murray State had a losing season, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Prohm was in seventh grade. None of his current players, including Canaan, would be born for another three years.
A firm hired by the university found the publicity generated by last season to be worth roughly $43 million to the school. And while Prohm had already inked all five Class of 2012 recruits before last season, he's already seeing dividends in name recognition and "instant credibility" when approaching prospects and their coaches. "This program is about winning," Prohm says. "What last year did was bring all that to life, to where everybody knows it now."
But the rose of such success comes with its own thorns, namely the difficulties of luring quality opponents to visit a team that's gone 41-3 at home the last three years. "We can't get any games," Prohm says with a laugh. The Racers' non-conference road slate is full, with trips Dayton, Evansville, Lipscomb and Arkansas State and a spot in the Charleston Classic tournament alongside Baylor, Colorado, Auburn, St. John's, Boston College, Dayton and hosts College of Charleston. But at home they thus far have just two nonconference games -- one of which is Western Kentucky -- and are struggling to land two more.
This trap is common for emerging lower- and mid-major teams looking to bolster their credibility, not to mention NCAA tournament resumes, through stronger scheduling. One potential remedy -- paying opponents to come play at the CFSB Center -- has not previously been possible for the Racers, but could emerge as an option should future strong seasons keep revenues flowing. Says Ward, "That's a great place to look at where we could invest in taking the next step."
Prohm also presents his own likely problem. As popular as he's become in Murray, where he was recently named the county chamber of commerce's citizen of the year, the Mississippi State saga demonstrated how Prohm could become just as desired by deeper-pocketed suitors elsewhere. It's a situation familiar to Murray State, which lost Scott Edgar to Duquesne in 1995, Mark Gottfried to Alabama in '98, Mick Cronin to Cincinnati in 2006 and Billy Kennedy to Texas A&M a year ago. "Murray State should always worry about that. Always," Ward says. "If we continue to be successful, it's just part of it. That's fine. I'll take that exchange any day of the week."
That's another concern for another time. At the moment there are more pressing matters, like replacing Ivan Aska in the post and Jewuan Long's perimeter defense, or finding the next Donte Poole to emerge as a secondary scorer. The five freshmen must be meshed with the team's five seniors, and one or two of them will likely need to emerge as a regular contributor. And, of course, that pair of home games must be scheduled.
"You wanna follow this up -- maybe not 31 wins or even 30 wins, but you just wanna continue playing the right way," Prohm says. Coach-speak, sure, but also true. There may be a larger budget, a brighter spotlight and even a new practice facility in January, funded by the arena's $3 million sponsorship deal. But the bigger-picture questions, the ones about whether Murray State can ever replicate last season or where it goes from here, will sort themselves out in the months and seasons to come. For now, Murray State has the enjoyment of its glory, its star coach and point guard back in the fold, and a familiar place atop its conference -- with no plans on coming down.