Can Utah State rebound from Danny Sprinkle’s exit? The head of the Aggies’ NIL collective weighs in.

Eric Laub says he understands the realities of Danny Sprinkle’s departure, but thinks the Aggies’ NIL situation is on the right path.

(Eric Draper | AP) Head coach Danny Sprinkle reacts to the game against New Mexico during the first half of an NCAA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 in Albuquerque, N.M.

The co-founder of Utah’s State NIL collective, Eric Laub, settled into a reception the night before Stew Morrill’s name was etched onto USU’s basketball court back in February.

At the dinner that night, he saw the Aggies’ former head coach in the same room as then-head coach Danny Sprinkle.

“You see Stew Morrill there and you see Sprinkle and you think, ‘Man what could we build if you stay here for as long as Stew?’” Laub said. “I think you hold out hope.”

But a month later, Utah State has lost Sprinkle to Washington. The coach’s new deal comes with more money — six years and $22.1 million dollars worth — and a larger name, image and likeness war chest to piece together a championship-caliber roster.

Sprinkle spent just 11 months in Logan — winning the Mountain West and an NCAA Tournament game. He is the third consecutive Utah State coach to leave after making the tournament.

It’s left Utah State asking the same questions: Is the program’s current salary and name, image and likeness (NIL) situation giving it a chance to retain coaches and to make NCAA tournament runs? And how much did NIL specifically contribute to Sprinkle’s departure?

“It is probably a piece of it,” Laub, the head of USU’s Blue A Collective, said. “Number one is six years and over a $20 million contract. That is probably number one. But what I love about Danny is he wants to win. Wants to win a national championship. And in today’s college athletics, the NIL dollar is a big piece of that.”

Laub was frustrated, like many fans, when he saw Sprinkle on the move this week. He thought if any coach would stay in Logan — despite those NIL limitations — it would be Sprinkle. He is from Montana and coached for his hometown college, Montana State. Maybe he’d see some similar qualities in Logan, Laub thought.

“Unfortunately that is kind of the way it’s been at Utah State,” he said. “It is kind of getting used to this thing whether it is Gary Andersen or Matt Wells or Craig Smith or Ryan Odom [leaving]. It is frustrating. Not super surprised unfortunately.”

But he was also frustrated because he didn’t know what more the collective could do. He admitted NIL funding was nearly nonexistent when Sprinkle came into the program. He said the collective missed the entire recruiting cycle when Sprinkle got the job, only getting involved in the summer by the time the roster was essentially complete.

“We really weren’t set up until recruiting was done. [Guard] Ian [Martinez] came on late, we were a part of that,” he said.

But in the last year, the collective made strides to be competitive for Sprinkle’s future roster-building initiatives.

“You work so hard to raise the money and get the collective to where it needs to be,” Laub said. “They kind of express some needs and you meet those needs. And then you put such a good roster together that you win in the first year and then they are gone.”

Laub feels like USU’s NIL situation is in a sustainable spot, but there are still challenges.

He says they have “large donations committed over a couple of years” to ensure the next coach has runway to build a roster. The collective also has a monthly subscription model that brings in revenue.

While Laub did not say the dollar figure USU raises for NIL, he did say what he hears is expected in the Mountain West.

For a high-impact player, or a starter, he thinks the going rate is somewhere around $100,000. You would need $500,000 then to put together a starting five. He’s heard some schools in the Mountain West have $1 million committed to building a roster.

“The trouble is that a lot of coaches are such paranoid beings they hear one school is [offering] something and think they have to match it,” Laub said. “Then the third school has to be higher than that. It just gets out of control. I know the path that it’s on right now is not sustainable.”

Still, he feels USU is in a good spot to build a Mountain West roster.

But that brings him to the other side of the issue: getting a roster that can compete nationally and retain players.

Laub acknowledged that a big part of keeping coaches like Sprinkle, who want to win at the highest level, is being able to field a roster that can get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. That means beating teams from the Big Ten, SEC, and ACC. Those schools, he knows, can poach players from the mid-majors and outbid for recruits in the first place.

“We are not going to be a high bid on kids,” he said. “They are going to have to come to Logan because they want to be there. We are able to make it a little bit better for them. We are not throwing up a million bucks for a kid.”

Creighton's Steven Ashworth (1) drives against Iowa's Josh Dix (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

He has already seen USU lose high-major talent on its roster to these larger schools. He pointed to guard Steven Ashworth, now in the Sweet 16 with Creighton. Ashworth is from Utah, went to USU for three years, but the Aggies couldn’t keep him after Odom’s departure.

“I think it is no secret that [when] Ashworth left Utah State he got several hundred thousand dollars to leave. That is for one player,” Laub said.

He often hears about players at USU getting offers from larger schools they can’t compete with.

“The dollar amount is hard,” he said. “The frustrating part is there are so many slimy agents and third-party people that will reach out to players that we have, both football and basketball, right now. They will say, ‘Hey, I’m not affiliated with this university. But if you come here, I’ve got $500,000 waiting for you.’ That’s the frustrating part with all the tampering in recruiting. You get a guy, develop him for two years and they have a breakout year, and then they can go get a half a million bucks somewhere.”

Because of that, he doesn’t know what to do with a coach like Sprinkle. He knows his career is “on a hell of trajectory” and he wants to get to Final Fours. To do that in Logan, USU has to keep players and bid for high-major talent. How can Utah State satisfy that in the future?

“I’m sure at Washington they have 50 guys ... that will throw in whatever they need,” he said. “The frustrating part is it’s kind of the same battle with coaches [that it is with players]. You got a good player and the next school will come and pay him.”

There is a more immediate problem for Laub. USU wants to keep its roster that just won the conference.

He doesn’t know how he will retain players like Great Osobor — who was the MW player of the year — and guard Ian Martinez.

“Osobor followed [Spinkle] from Montana. Looking at it logically, if he followed him from Montana State to Logan, I’d assume he’d go up to Washington with him,” he said.

He figured Sprinkle would make Osobor a priority.

“I’m sure Danny Sprinkle’s first call to the Washington people is, ‘Hey I need this guy with me.’ And here is X amount of money to get him up here,” he said. “So we can’t race to the top and get in a bidding war with these big schools. That part of it isn’t sustainable for Utah State. But if Great loves Utah State, loves Logan and wants to stay here, then we can certainly have a conversation.”

The two players he doesn’t want to lose for NIL reasons are local products Mason Falslev and Isaac Johnson.

“The thing I would really hate to see is Falslev or Isaac Johnson, the in-state kids we got, going to a Utah or a BYU,” he said.

He is “really worried about that right now,” in terms of roster retention, and doesn’t know what to do. If he is proactive in reaching out to players, it might go a long way. But he doesn’t want to overstep if the next coach doesn’t think they fit his system.

“You don’t want to interfere with the next coach’s plans,” he said.

All of it makes Laub’s job challenging right now.

When USU was playing Purdue in the round of 32, Laub saw a video circulating on the social media platform X that had a montage of Sprinkle’s introductory press conference last April. It had him believing, for a second, that maybe he’d stay.

“I was almost crying yesterday,” Laub said.

But now he will be back at another introductory press conference, and meeting another coach, next month. Hopefully, Laub said, it will be his last for a few years now that Utah State’s NIL pool is in a better spot.

But then again, the threat of the larger school looms.

“You have to have a good collective and a good coach,” Laub said. “We have the collective where it needs to be. So we have a lot of confidence in [athletic director] Diana [Sabau] to get the next guy here. Just hope we can do it all next year, but not lose a coach.”