The University of Toledo basketball team has never played better under coach Stan Joplin.
Counting last night's 76-73 victory over Bowling Green State University at Savage Hall, the Rockets have won a school-record 14 consecutive regular-season Mid-American Conference games, which is two shy of the league record. The Rockets are the only undefeated team in MAC play.
Since star forward Greg Stempin returned from an elbow injury last season, Toledo has won 23 of 27 games. During that span, the Rockets have been the best team in the MAC.
According to the Rating Percentage Index computer rankings, Toledo played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the nation this season. Based on their superior record, the 12-3 Rockets should be a lock for their first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years.
At least that's what Joplin would like to believe.
He knows better, however.
“I've never put too much stock in RPI ratings. I think all the coaches in our league realize that,” Joplin said. “Look at what happened to Kent State last year (not making the NCAA tournament despite 23 wins and the highest RPI rating among MAC teams).
“If we're going to play in the (NCAA tourney) we've got to win the MAC championship and get to the MAC tournament,” Joplin said. “That's the only guarantee we have.”
It's the coach's creed. In his five years at Toledo, Joplin doesn't worry about things he can't control.
Joplin is 77-51 and has won two MAC West Division titles. He's taken one team to the National Invitation Tournament. His biggest wins at UT have come against Xavier and Ohio State two years ago (the year the Buckeyes advanced to the Final Four) and Cincinnati and Auburn this year.
Those are things Joplin can control. His players. His team.
“I tell my kids when I recruit them that I want them to do exactly what I did in college,” Joplin said. “Win a MAC championship, go to the NCAA tournament and get a college degree. If they do that I'll be the happiest person in the world.”
Then there are the things that Joplin can't control.
Joplin is generally well-liked at UT but he realizes he can't control how people perceive him or his program.
The way I see it, football at UT is king until proven otherwise. Basketball is something that most Toledoans watch to get out of the cold during the winter.
If perceptions mean anything at all, Joplin hasn't won over some of the people at the university whose opinions matter the most.
How else to explain the recent announcement that Toledo's two new football coordinators will both earn $90,000 next season - essentially matching Joplin's base salary?
I think it's great that Tom Amstutz received a raise from $63,000 as the former defensive coordinator to between $165,000-175,000 as the new head football coach. Amstutz deserves the bump. He's going to be worth every penny.
It's also great to know that Amstutz was able to fight for raises for each of his new coordinators - a whopping $27,000 increase.
I guess those rumors about UT's athletic program being financially strapped are just that - rumors.
And how come Joplin, despite bringing the Rockets' basketball program from the depths of despair a few years ago, isn't getting his share?
Joplin has two years remaining on a three-year rollover contract, but he did not sign a one-year extension last March, according to attorney Jay Feldstein.
Feldstein, who represents Joplin in negotiations with the university, said he was told that UT was only prepared to offer Joplin a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase.
“By any standard, the coaching job Stan has done has been phenomenal,” said Feldstein, who's supposed to say nice things about his client. But he's right. Joplin has done a excellent job rebuilding the basketball program.
Next year, despite losing Stempin, a senior who could finish his career at UT as the MAC player of the year, the Rockets will be even more athletic. All the pieces are in place for another strong season.
All that's left now is for UT's athletic department to show Joplin the same respect financially that was extended to the football coaches.
“Our program's headed in the right direction,” Joplin said. “We won the West Division title. We went to the NIT. Now we've got to take the program to the next level. That's our goal.”
John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist. Email him at email@example.com.
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