Clemson's Chad Morris is one of college football's highest-paid assistants.
There’s more money than ever in college football, and assistant coaches are reaping the rewards, with compensation levels rising at a rapid pace
If you happen to score an invitation for dinner at Dabo Swinney’s house, expect a feast, complete with a fine entree, premium beverages and a nice dessert. The climate will be comfortably controlled, and the roof won’t leak. His children will be neatly dressed, and his car won’t be up on blocks in the front yard.
Swinney’s decision to give back some of the bonus he earned for leading Clemson to the ACC championship, in order to provide raises for some assistants and fund some truly remarkable salaries for his offensive and defensive coordinators, has led some to wonder whether that move will force Swinney to make some budgetary sacrifices. He and his family will have to scrape by on his $1.9 million salary in 2012, but major cutbacks are not on the horizon.
“I’m not missing any meals,” Swinney says. “For me, it was a business decision. I’m investing in my staff. I’m in really good shape in terms of my contract. It’s very important to take care of these guys.”
Swinney’s 2012 compensation package places him 46th among FBS coaches, despite the Tigers’ winning last year’s league title. But it doesn’t matter to Swinney that he’s about $3.7 million behind college football’s Rockefeller, Alabama’s Nick Saban, who will make $5.62 million this year. Thanks to a clause in his contract, Swinney was able to redirect $265,000 of the bonus he earned for taking the ACC title to the assistants’ pool to help fund a $450,000 increase for the staff, something he considers vital to Clemson’s long-term success. Some of that was spent on new defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who will make a reported $800,000 this season, and second-year offensive boss Chad Morris, whose salary vaulted from $450,000 a year to $1.3 million per, making him the highest-paid assistant coach in the country.
“(Head coach) is such a big, big job,” Swinney says. “It’s very public, especially at a school like this. We’re running multi-multi-million dollar corporations, and we’re only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.
“We have to delegate and have confidence in the people we delegate to. It’s very competitive to hire and keep coaches, and (the salaries) are just a result of how it has grown.”
Though Morris’ gigantic leap in compensation is rare, coordinators across the country are seeing significant gains in their paychecks. What was a largely anonymous position a couple decades ago is now a high-profile job that carries great responsibility and pays big-time cash.
Morris takes over the top spot on the offensive coordinator pay chart from Gus Malzahn, who also made $1.3 million last year at Auburn. Malzahn has moved on to be the head coach at Arkansas State, where he is making at least $450,000 year less than the Tigers paid him. Talk about a man who loves the Natural State. Though the only other coordinator to earn more than a million dollars in 2012 is USC defensive leader Monte Kiffin (at least $1.2 million), plenty are edging near the magical, seven-figure mark.
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart received a $100,000 raise after the Tide’s national title season and will make $950,000. LSU’s John Chavis is expected to be north of $900,000 this season (and will be paid a reported $1.1 million in ’13 and $1.3 in ’14) after earning $708 grand last season. New Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri signed a three-year, $2.4 million deal. Georgia’s Todd Grantham received a significant raise from last year’s $755,900 salary. And so on. As TV money floods into the upper reaches of the college football world, coordinators at top programs are benefiting at unprecedented rates.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. “(Coordinator) is a very big responsibility, and you want a guy who can be at the top of the spear with his unit he’s responsible for.
“I think the market goes where it goes for a reason. It’s not just because somebody got a wild hair. There is value in these people. When you do your job with excellence, there’s a lot to be gained. They earn it.”
Coordinators aren’t the only ones making more dough. According to USA Today, all assistants’ salaries rose 11 percent from 2010-11, a rate of increase that surpassed that of head men, whose pay went up 7.3 percent. At a time when fans know more about coaching staffs than ever before, and recruiting is as competitive as it has ever been, it’s vital for bosses to have people around them capable of doing the job well. To get those good people, they have to pay, especially when it comes to the coordinators, who serve as the executive VPs of programs.
“If you look at a corporation of any size, the top executives are paid accordingly,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio says. “These are our top executives. They’re going to be head coaches some day.”
In part, that prospect has driven the coordinator salary surge. When small and mid-major programs look for new leaders, they often turn to coordinators at the top level. Although Malzahn took a big cut to head to Arkansas State, many other top assistants would prefer not to drop down a tax bracket, even if it does mean being in charge. By paying them a lot more than they could make at smaller schools, BCS head coaches can secure their services and the continuity that comes with their presence. Coaches and ADs have decided that in order to keep cashing in on the growing football revenue tide, they need the best people possible.
“The overriding factor here is that college football, particularly in the BCS conferences, is a huge business,” says a prominent agent who represents several BCS coaches and requested anonymity. “Programs are making a lot more money than they thought they would even five years ago. Since they don’t pay the players, who are they going to pay? The coaches.”
One of the reasons the salaries are growing so quickly is that the marketplace is highly competitive. Clemson had to give Morris such a huge raise because new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was reported to have offered him the same position for $1.5 million. Although the Tigers checked in a couple hundred thousand short of Meyer’s reported offer, Morris chose the familiarity of the Clemson program and the chance to continue what he started during his 2011 debut season, when he helped Clemson improve from 88th to 26th nationally in total offense.
“If you pay guys well, this is a place guys may stay a little longer and maybe for a little less money,” Swinney says. “There’s a great quality of life here.”
When David Brandon played linebacker for Michigan back in the mid-1970s, head coach Bo Schembechler would spend the first half of the practice with the defense and the second half with the offense. Under his watchful eye, the Wolverines waged a near-constant assault on the upper reaches of the Big Ten. And though his staffs produced 12 future head coaches — Bill McCartney, Gary Moeller, Don Nehlen, Jim Young and Les Miles among them — the identities of his assistants and even his coordinators were largely unknown to all but the most devoted U-M fans.
“It’s no longer Bo walking back-and-forth at practice,” says Brandon, who is now Michigan’s athletic director. “(Football) CEOs need leaders on both sides of the ball.”
Brandon understands the current climate of the coordinator salary race enough that when Wolverines coach Brady Hoke needed a big number to secure the services of Greg Mattison to run the defense when Hoke was hired in 2011, Brandon signed off on a $750,000 salary, then the highest assistant’s payday in the conference. The move paid off handsomely. In 2010, Michigan ranked 108th nationally in scoring defense; last season, it finished sixth. Without Mattison at the defensive helm, it’s unlikely Michigan would have played in the Sugar Bowl and received the fat BCS payout.
“You need to make this kind of investment to stay competitive at the top level,” Brandon says.
It’s interesting that Brandon and his fellow ADs had to be convinced that beefing up coordinators’ salaries was a good idea. Obviously, administrators keep a close eye on the bottom line, so any increase in expenses is going to cause a small disturbance in the force. But head coaches have become adept at convincing their bosses that the extra outlay is worth it.
“It’s a little different model,” Swinney says. “When I got the job here, I told them I didn’t care what they paid me. It was about trying to get things from a staff standpoint to where they have to be.”
That holistic approach to staff compensation is driving a lot of this. Alabama’s staff was paid a total of $3,866,350 last year, still short of the $5.62 million Saban will make this season but certainly a strong statement. At LSU, three assistants made more than a half-million in 2011, led by Chavis. Tennessee’s and Florida’s staffs both earned more than $3 million combined. UT defensive boss Justin Wilcox (who has since moved to the University of Washington) earned $625,000 last year, while offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was paid $525,000.
“It’s fair to say that coordinators don’t just necessarily run the offense and run the defense,” LSU coach Les Miles says. “There’s a lot more to it. It requires a specialization. When you’re competing at the highest level, you require a guy with great experience, ability and continuity.
“You have to find a guy who can represent a school well, recruit at the highest level and fulfill a role that will prepare the players.”
It’s no coincidence the lion’s share of the nouveau riche at coordinator positions can be found in the SEC, and many of the top salaried coaches are on the defensive side. With some exceptions — see Auburn, 2010 — the conference remains a defense-first concern, and that has been rammed home by Alabama’s two national titles in the past three seasons.
Since the last six national title winners have come from the SEC, it makes sense that coaches will pay top coordinators. “If you want to get the right guy and keep him, you have to pay him,” Richt says. It won’t be long before that philosophy will creep northward. Clemson is already on board, and if Meyer was willing to throw $1.5 million at Morris to lure him to Ohio State, and Mattison is collecting three-quarters of a million at Michigan, expect the Big Ten to adopt the model.
“A lot of it is driven by the market,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says. “It all trickles down and begins with the coordinators in the NFL. Things have started to escalate, and it showed up first in the SEC. That’s usually how it goes.”
When Monte Kiffin started coaching, back at Nebraska in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he certainly wasn’t a wealthy man. In fact, when he saw what his son, USC head coach Lane, made in his first coaching job three decades later, Monte wasn’t too happy.
“It wasn’t fair,” he says. “But that’s just life.”
Since the elder Kiffin is making north of a million bucks each season, he can afford to be philosophical about the escalating salaries in the coaching world. “Football hasn’t changed,” he says. “It’s just that the salaries have gone up, but everything has gone up.”
There is no question, however, that his job is more demanding than it was when he was coordinating the Cornhuskers’ defense during Tom Osborne’s early years in Lincoln. First of all, Osborne was a lot more engaged in the daily operations of the program than many head coaches are today — and not because they are aloof or disengaged. For many years, Osborne called all the plays the Cornhuskers ran. Though some program chiefs have that level of hands-on involvement today (Saban comes to mind), few have the ability to run either side of the ball, not with all the fundraising and administrative responsibilities they have.
So, Kiffin and his coordinator brethren are charged with making the Xs and Os come to life on the field. We know who they are and are aware they make the big money. At their core, however, these guys are still ball coaches, and though they may harbor dreams of running their own programs some day and certainly don’t mind being well compensated, they care more about doing their jobs than anything else.
Last winter, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi removed himself from consideration for the vacant Akron head coaching spot to return to East Lansing. Though his $300,000 salary at MSU is less than the $375,000 former Zips coach Rob Ianello was paid annually to go 1–11 twice, Narduzzi decided it would be better to be a lieutenant in the Big Ten than a big cheese in the MAC. He’s happy and well compensated at MSU. And if the Spartans continue to play great defense, he may just find his paycheck heading toward those SEC totals. Narduzzi isn’t kidding you; he’d like that. But he’s more interested in doing a good job. “I’ve coached the same whether I was at Rhode Island (from 1993-99) or at Michigan State (from ’07-present),” Narduzzi says.
And he isn’t missing any meals, either.
This story appeared in Athlon's 2012 College Football Annuals.
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