While Arkansas State University men's basketball Coach Mike Balado may boast his strongest team yet next season -- with 13 returners, reigning conference freshman of the year Norchad Omier and the addition of guard Desi Sills -- the 45-year old coach will enter 2021-22 with his future in Jonesboro murky.
In November, Balado will begin the final season of his five-year, $1.875 million contract he signed when former athletic director Terry Mohajir hired him in 2017 after four years as an assistant coach at Louisville.
Mohajir is no longer at ASU, gone in February to the University of Central Florida and replaced by Tom Bowen. Bowen has been mum to speak on Balado's expiring deal since his hiring in March and says the coach has "100%" support. Yet what lies beyond March 31, 2022, for the coach who carries a 51-69 record through four seasons, and the program is unclear.
For now, Balado is publicly unfazed.
"At the end of the year, we'll discuss that," Balado said. "I don't look too far ahead. I take it day by day, just like I tell my players. We attack today as today and we worry about next week when the time comes. I'm not concerned about it. I'm not thinking about it. All I'm concerned about is continuing to build a program in the right way like I said when I first got here."
Over his four seasons at ASU, Balado's Red Wolves have yet to match the 20-win mark former coach Grant McCasland achieved in his lone season of 2016-17, eclipsing 15 wins only once since 2017 -- when ASU finished 16-16 in 2019-20. The Red Wolves' Sun Belt Conference Tournament opening-round win over Georgia Southern in 2021 -- at the end of a truncated 11-13 season -- was their first postseason victory under Balado.
The fresh-faced 2020-21 team managed a fourth-place finish in the Sun Belt West Division, tying Appalachian State for the seventh-best record in the conference, placing ASU ahead of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for the third time in four seasons. The result also followed steady improvement in the league on the heels of back-to-back ninth-place seasons that came after the Red Wolves closed to 11th in the Sun Belt in Balado's first season.
"Anybody who has built a program knows it can't be done overnight," Balado said. "Over the last four years, going on Year 5, we've established a culture of young men that represent the university in an A-plus manner. ...It's taken a while to get the right type of person, character to build a program, and now we're putting character with talent continuing to build."
The contract expiration will leave Bowen with a decision to make at the end of March and offers an opportunity to put his stamp on a key revenue program just over a year into his new job.
During Bowen's time at Memphis from 2012-19, the school reportedly paid Josh Pastner $1.255 million to leave for Georgia Tech, and he hired two men's basketball coaches: Tubby Smith and Penny Hardaway. Smith went 40-26 in two seasons before he was fired in 2018; Hardaway has won 66.3% of his games in three seasons and recruited some of the top classes in the nation but has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.
"I don't talk personnel matters publicly ever -- that's not what we do," Bowen said. "Mike Balado's contract is Mike Balado's contract. We're excited for his 2021-22 season, and he and I have a great relationship."
"Right now, he's our head basketball coach and I support him 100%."
Working in Balado's favor in 2021-22 is a promising Red Wolves roster. Marquis Eaton and Christian Willis remain with Omier along with the arrival of Sills. Markise Davis, Caleb Fields and Keyon Wesley lead a deep rotation of players around them.
In June -- more than six months from opening night -- Balado is concerned with meshing his most talented group in five years in Jonesboro, and focused less on the status of his contract.
"This is Year 5," Balado said. "I think with the guys we have returning and the talent we added, it's something I'm excited about. I'm not going to set expectations on a team before we even play a game. I can tell you I feel very comfortable in this position."