State hoops: Michigan State's Suzy Merchant isn't paid like a coach with 500 wins

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Here's how Suzy Merchant's head coaching career began: With a profanity-laced phone call to Greg Kampe.

"Why did you tell me I could be a head coach!?!" Merchant fumed.

It was Friday, Nov. 17, 1995, and Merchant's Saginaw Valley State team had just lost to Aquinas, which didn't even offer scholarships. Merchant felt completely of her league. She had messed up a sideline out-of-bounds play. She had messed up a substitution. And she was 0-1.

Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant.

She needed someone to vent at, and the unlucky target became Kampe, Oakland's men's basketball coach, who had first pushed Merchant to go for the Saginaw Valley State job, while Merchant still was a part-time assistant with the Golden Grizzlies.

"True," Kampe said, confirming the story.

It's safe to say Kampe was quickly validated, as things worked out just fine for Merchant. After that Aquinas loss, Merchant won her next four games and 10 of her next 12. Two stops later, she recently collected her 500th win as a head coach, and her 300th as head coach at Michigan State.

More: State hoops: Oakland (1-1 Big 12) puts foes on notice with defense, rebounding

Merchant now is in her 27th season as a head coach — three at Saginaw Valley, nine at Eastern Michigan and 15 at Michigan State — and has had just one losing season. That compares to 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament, 10 of those in 13 tries (there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020) with the Spartans.

Michigan State, despite losing two starters for the season to injuries, could be in line for another. The Spartans are 4-1 heading into Tuesday's game at St. Francis in New York.

"It's kind of humbling, I guess," Merchant said over the phone from New York on Monday night, an off-day between a pair of road games. "I coach to win games, but I don't coach for milestones. I didn't really think of it in the terms of where I was. I've been at some places and I've had some opportunities, and I've tried to make the most of them along the way.

"For me, it's about connecting and building long-lasting relationships. Championships and NCAA Tournaments and all those things are great. That's really never been what it's been about for me."

Rather, she said, it's the phone call from a former player who's getting married; or another who had their first kid; or an invite to go out to dinner, like the one that came from ex-Spartan Kalisha Keane, who's now an assistant at Long Island University (they had Italian; it was great); or a text on Mother's Day.

"That," said Merchant, "is why I got into it."

Merchant, who played basketball at Traverse City High School and Central Michigan, certainly didn't get into it for the money. Out of college, she knew she loved the game, so she took the part-time gig at Oakland, despite making just $12,000, and living out of her car until she could afford first and last month's rent.

Today, Merchant, 52, makes darn good money — more than $500,000 a year. There's a problem, though: Amazingly, she is among the lowest-paid of the 14 Big Ten women's basketball coaches, neck and neck with Illinois and Minnesota for dead last. Eleven Big Ten coaches make more than $600,000, eight make more than $700,000, seven top $800,000, and three are over $1 million. Michigan's Kim Barnes Arico's newest contract, signed in September, is worth about $300,000 a year more than Merchant's.

Merchant's 10 NCAA Tournaments since taking the MSU job ahead of the 2007-08 season are third-most in the league in that span, behind only Maryland (12) and Iowa (11). Those coaches, Brenda Freese and Lisa Bluder, are both over $1 million. The third is Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer, who has made eight NCAA Tournaments in that span. (Stringer is sitting out this season over COVID-19 concerns.)

Merchant doesn't want to talk about her contract. She knows she does well, compared to most of society. She's the third-highest-paid head coach at Michigan State, behind Mel Tucker and Tom Izzo (ahead of hockey coach Danton Cole). Tucker is about to become the second-highest-paid college football coach in the country, and Izzo is the 12th-highest-paid in college basketball. Cash, though, has never been a motivator for Merchant, which is why she had no agent until recently, and one contract since coming to Michigan State from Eastern. It's a five-year rollover deal that's given her modest 3% raises every year, except for one outlier, when administrators decided to give her a bigger bump.

She's stayed all these years at Michigan State for a variety of other reasons, despite other offers, including from the ACC, that would've gotten her close to a million.

"Michigan State, it's the people," Merchant said of why she's stayed all these years (her predecessor, Joanna P. McCallie, was on the job seven years before making the leap to Duke. "I grew up idolizing this place and wanting to be a Spartan. I'm just blessed that I am here."

One day, perhaps Michigan State will realize it's blessed that she's there — and actually show her.

Slam dunks

►The best Marquette transfer in the state might not be at Michigan State. He might be at Oakland, where Jamal Cain, the Pontiac native who came home this offseason, is off to a scorching start with his new team. Cain, a forward who should form a dynamic duo with holdover Jalen Moore, was named Horizon League player of the week after averaging 30 points, 13.5 rebounds and three steals in a win over Toledo and a loss to Alabama. Cain has been in double figures all five games, including the opening narrow loss to West Virginia, the victory over Oklahoma State and Monday's win over an impressive mid-major, Vermont. Moore hit the winning 3 in the closing seconds against the Catamounts to kick off a Florida tournament.

►Keep an eye on Oakland's women's basketball team, too. The Golden Grizzlies gave No. 13 Michigan all it could handle Monday night in Ann Arbor, scoring the first 11 points of the fourth quarter to pull within one score. The Wolverines eventually pulled away to win, 69-58, behind player-of-the-year candidate Naz Hillmon. Hillmon returned from non-COVID illness after missing the previous game, a win at Central Michigan. "First quarter killed us," Oakland coach Jeff Tungate said. The Golden Grizzlies trailed, 19-6, after one, and by 18 at one point, before storming back, behind the play Kahlaijah Dean (15 points), Brianna Breedy (12 points) and Olivia Sims (10 points). Oakland next gets Michigan State at home Friday.

►Keno Davis, Central Michigan men's head coach from 2012 until his firing following last season, has landed a new gig. He was announced as the head coach of the upstart Flint United of The Basketball League — a minor-league outfit with more than 30 teams. He takes over for the inaugural coach, former Michigan State star Charlie Bell. Davis joins the other recently departed Michigan MAC coaches in landing new gigs, after Eastern Michigan's Rob Murphy joined the Pistons' G League team and Western Michigan's Steve Hawkins became head coach at Portage Northern High. Speaking of Hawkins, he announced an addition to his staff recently, former Bronco Muhammed Conteh.

►Tough start to Year 2 for Western Michigan men's coach Clayton Bates, whose Broncos on Thursday lost to Division II Saginaw Valley State, 80-63. It was the Cardinals' first-ever win over a Division I program. Western followed that up with a 109-61 loss at Iowa on Monday. Bates, whose lone win this year is over Division III Hope, has a third year on his contract, but could need some wins. WMU has a new athletic director coming with Kathy Beauregard retiring Dec. 31.

►Detroit Mercy's Antoine Davis saw his nation-best streak of 57 consecutive made free throws come to an end in a loss at Louisville on Saturday. The Titans, still missing two key players (one injury, one waiting on NCAA waiver), are 0-4, but impressed against the Cardinals. They were in it late, until two turnovers.

State power rankings


1. Michigan (3-2)

2. Michigan State (3-1)

3. Oakland (3-2)

4. Detroit Mercy (0-4)

5. Eastern Michigan (1-3)

6. Central Michigan (1-3)

7. Western Michigan (1-3)


1. Michigan (5-0)

2. Michigan State (4-1)

3. Central Michigan (1-2)

4. Oakland (2-3)

5. Eastern Michigan (2-1)

6. Western Michigan (2-2)

7. Detroit Mercy (0-4)

Games of the week


►Michigan State vs. Loyola-Chicago, at Bahamas, noon Wednesday (ESPN)

►Eastern Michigan at DePaul, 2 Sunday (FS1)

►Central Michigan at Kentucky, 7 Monday (ESPN+)

►Detroit Mercy at Northeastern, 7 Tuesday (ESPN+)


►Oakland vs. Michigan State, 3 Friday

►Michigan vs. Oregon State, at Florida, 6:45 Friday (FLO)

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984