“I told him ‘If it’s an area code you don’t recognize, just don’t accept the call,’ ” Sander, East Tennessee State University’s athletic director, said with a laugh.
Sander knows it’s a serious matter, though. When your basketball coach becomes one of the most popular people in town, other towns — and schools — begin to notice. And Forbes has earned every bit of the wave of popularity he is riding.
Folks in the ETSU community know Forbes is going to be a hot commodity after leading the Bucs to a 27-win season and the 10th NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
Chances are, bigger schools are going to come calling when the NCAA Tournament is over.
“You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the world to look and say ‘Who’s out there who can really coach, who can really recruit, who can engage a community, get people excited about a team and really make things happen?’ ” Sander said.
ETSU took a pre-emptive strike just before the Southern Conference tournament, adding retention bonuses to Forbes’ contract. Each July he will receive large bonuses — beginning at $150,00 this year — as long as he is still the Bucs’ coach.
The bonuses were raised from private donations, showing how much Forbes means to the community. The extra pay increases to $175,000 and then $200,000. It brought Forbes’ pay up to almost $400,000 for this year and it will exceed that number in the future.
His contract runs through the 2019-20 season.
“I think Steve wants to be here and I think with us taking the initiative, he feels valued,” Sander said. “He knows how much we want him to be here. There’s no doubt in my mind, he appreciates the fans and he appreciates the university leadership.”
That kind of pay increase knocks out an entire level of schools that might have shown some interest the coach, which is what the university had in mind. Now it will take a pretty big offer from a pretty big school to lure Forbes away.
Of course, as ETSU fans pull for the Bucs to beat Florida in Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener, they know a win would open the door a little wider for their coach to leave.
“I want them to win as many games as they can and let the chips fall where they may,” Sander said. “If he does such a good job that a Power 5 conference school comes in and pays him $3 million, then I’m really happy for him. He would deserve it.”
Throughout the years, the Bucs have lost coaches to Auburn, North Carolina State and Penn State, so the excercise is nothing new to ETSU fans. Sonny Smith left ETSU for Auburn and went 173-154 with five NCAA appearances in 11 seasons. Les Robinson went 78-97 at N.C. State in six years and Ed DeChellis was 114-138 at Penn State in eight seasons.
Forbes’ name has already come up in conjunction with a couple of open jobs. N.C. State and LSU are looking for coaches. Wichita State could be open if Gregg Marshall decides to finally move on to bigger challenges (he’s being mentioned for the Missouri opening as well as other spots). Marshall makes more than $3 million a year at Wichita State.
Nothing connecting Forbes with any jobs is official. It’s just speculation among fans and journalists.
“First of all, message boards and newspapers don’t hire coaches,” Forbes said. “All that stuff is flattering, to have your name out there, but I don’t listen to it. I’m very happy where I’m at. It would take a heck of an offer for me to leave here.”
When Forbes does get an offer he can’t refuse, nobody will be able to hold it against him if he leaves.
“I’m not looking for a job,” he said. “I love it here. That’s not how it works. But I have to be smart about it too. If somebody calls me with something that could be life-changing for me or my family, then I’d have to listen.”
The expected interest in Forbes stems from several factors. He’s a proven recruiter and has connections all over the world of basketball. He knows how to get the most out of his players and he can really motivate a fan base. But most importantly, he wins. In the six seasons since he left Tenessee, Forbes’ teams have gone 177-30. That’s an average of almost 30 victories a season against five losses, an incredible winning percentage of .855.
Those are the kind of numbers that will add digits to a paycheck.
When Forbes was hired at ETSU, he said all the right things about the Bucs being “first, best and most.” Nobody expected it to happen this quickly.
“You always hope,” Sander said. “But to make this kind of transition this quick, to be perfectly honest, I thought the momentum and the enthusiasm for the program had really kind of sunk to a pretty low level. I thought it would take time to get players in to compete.
“To win 51 games in two years, to go the conference championship in consecutive years and win it this year and go to the NCAA Tournament, that’s pretty amazing. That’s a tribute to him and the coaching staff he put together. And his kids have really bought in.”
Sander said he believes it when Forbes says he loves being ETSU’s coach.
“I’m pretty good at reading people and he is genuinely appreciative of the opportunity that was given him here,” Sander said. “He says all the time that after the Tennessee thing he didn’t think he would ever be a Division I head coach.”
The “Tennessee thing” was Forbes’ one-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA after Bruce Pearl and his staff were fired at Tennessee. Forbes was on that staff and while Pearl received a three-year show-cause, Forbes got a one-year ban, as did Jason Shay, now on his staff at ETSU.
“We never brought it up,” Sander said. “We had done enough research. I talked to a lot of people. We knew he had the right values and we thought we wouldn’t have to worry about that.”
Forbes went on to coach junior-college ball after leaving Tennessee, going 61-6 in two seasons as head coach at Northwest Florida State College and making the national championship game twice. He re-entered the world of big-time college basketball when Marshall hired him at Wichita State. Less than three years later, Sander gave him a shot as a Division I head coach.
“I am very appreciative they hired me,” Forbes said. “That means a lot. I want them to remember this two years from now when I’m still here and hopefully they still want me to be here.
“This type of job is day-to-day and game-to-game, so I know how that works. For me, I’m focused on winning the first game here in the tournament and then moving on to the next one. If something like that happens, it happens. It’s not something that I’m focused on.”