CLEMSON — On Feb. 29, three days before Clemson played at Maryland in a big conference game, Terry Don Phillips summoned Oliver Purnell to his office.
At 8-5 in the ACC, Purnell's basketball team still had three games remaining in the regular season — plenty of time for things to turn sour. But Phillips had already seen enough to assure the fifth-year coach he'd get a major contract extension at the end of the season.
"Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and have an epiphany," said Phillips, the sixth-year athletic director who hired Purnell in 2003. "We've got a great coach. We need to have him at Clemson, we need to keep him here, and we need to do the things for his family that make it happen."
Clemson took that step Tuesday, announcing an agreement to extend Purnell's contract through the 2013-14 season while boosting his guaranteed compensation into what Phillips said is the top third of the ACC. Both sides say it represents a strong mutual commitment that'll keep Purnell in Clemson for years to come.
In other words, don't expect Purnell to pull a Rick Barnes or Cliff Ellis and bolt for a place with more prestige or money. "The commitment that is here is stronger than I have ever felt before," Purnell said. "This feels like home."
Purnell's new contract hasn't been signed, but the announcement comes at a good time because it sends a strong message to other schools that Purnell is off the market. Coming off their first appearance in the ACC Tournament finals since 1962, the No. 22 Tigers (24-9) are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade.
The 54-year-old Purnell has compiled a 94-67 record at Clemson, including 49-20 the past two years. After guiding the Tigers to NIT appearances the past three years, he ushered them to third place in the ACC during the regular season — their best finish since 1990.
Seeded No. 5 in the Midwest Region, Clemson plays No. 12 seed Villanova (20-12) on Friday night at Tampa's St. Pete Times Forum.
"Oliver and I have a firm agreement," Phillips said. "This is a done deal. We are not going to lose our coach."
Purnell has spent most his time at Clemson making around $700,000 a year. His most recent contract was extended in February to run through the 2011-12 season.
Purnell's new deal, the details of which have yet to be announced, will be heavily rooted in deferred compensation while pushing him past the million-dollar mark.
Phillips said Purnell's guaranteed money will rank among the top four in the ACC, a conference that has five coaches making $1 million or more. Purnell's compensation previously ranked no better than ninth in the conference. Phillips has also agreed to make sure Purnell's assistants have competitive salaries.
The new contract is just the latest evidence of a heightened emphasis on basketball under Phillips. Purnell's predecessor, Larry Shyatt, made $420,000 annually. Purnell has been able to take advantage of an estimated $33.2 million worth of facilities upgrades, including an extensive renovation of Littlejohn Coliseum before he arrived and new coaches' offices at Jervey Athletic Center.
When Rick Barnes bolted for Texas after the 1997-98 season, Purnell was at Dayton. He interviewed for the job later taken by Shyatt but removed his name from consideration, skeptical that Clemson's administration was not sufficiently committed to basketball.
That changed when Purnell interviewed with Phillips in April of 2003. Now Purnell says he can envision ending his coaching career at Clemson. He said his new contract shows "in every way that basketball is important at Clemson. And really, that's the reason I came here a few years ago."
This and that
Sophomore center Trevor Booker said he'll probably have surgery on the ankle he sprained severely earlier this season. He suffered the same injury "probably five times" in high school and has scar tissue that needs to be cleaned out ... Purnell said he's concerned about Villanova point guard Scottie Reynolds, who's averaging 15.6 points and 3.3 assists per game — but not enough to consider backing off the full-court press. "It's a concern," Purnell said. "But we can't change, nor do we want to change. That's our style."
The Tigers depart today for Tampa.