The scoreboard was still smoking in the wake of the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in history when Gus Malzahn made his decision. In reality, he had probably known what he had to do for a few weeks. No team closes a season by giving up at least 31 points in six straight games (against FBS foes) and doesn’t change some things. When you give up 55 points and 539 yards to your archrival in the season finale, the urgency to find a new way gets even greater.
Malzahn needed a new defensive coordinator, and he knew he was going to have to shop in the luxury aisle to get one. Some might think the 850 large the program had allotted for former DC Ellis Johnson was Ritz-level pricing, but that was discount stuff compared to the $1.6 million the Tigers will send Will Muschamp’s way this season. Muschamp — who was fired after four years as head coach at Florida but built successful defenses before that at Auburn, LSU and Texas — brings instant credibility to a side of the ball that had little last season. And he will be paid quite handsomely for that experience. In fact, he’ll be the second-highest-paid assistant in the country.
“That’s where the college game is at with the money and the TV,” Malzahn says. “It’s the cost of doing business. If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”
Given Muschamp’s track record, his Riviera-level price tag isn’t so outrageous. Florida fans obviously focus on his 28–21 record during four years in Gainesville; but at Auburn, they’re more interested in the fact that none of his defenses finished worse than 15th nationally during that time. During his six years directing defenses at LSU (2001-04) and Auburn (’06-07), his units finished in the top 10 every year.
His 2008 Texas edition led the Big 12 in rushing and scoring defense and held seven opponents to 14 or fewer points. Muschamp is an excellent recruiter and brings some top-shelf assistants with him. If the Tigers D has the same success as Malzahn’s spread attack, Auburn will be back in the national title hunt. And it will make perfect sense that Muschamp gets a salary above those paid to more than 60 FBS head coaches in 2014.
“If you’re going to be consistently good and have a chance to win championships, you have to be good on defense, especially in our league,” Malzahn says.
Malzahn’s not the only SEC coach who thinks that way. Texas A&M will pay former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a reported $5 million over the next three years to fix a D that ranked 102nd in total yards allowed last year. That makes him No. 1 on the assistant coach payroll. He and Muschamp join four other conference coordinators (Alabama DC Kirby Smart, LSU OC Cam Cameron, LSU DC Kevin Steele and Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt) who make at least seven figures. Last year, only three — Smart, Cameron and Chavis — earned that much.
The growing collection of million-dollar men makes sense in a conference that boasted nine of the nation’s top 19 assistant coaching salary pools. LSU’s $5.499 million outlay to assistants topped the national list, with Alabama ($5.213 million) second.
The growth has been quick. Consider that six years ago, Chavis made $400,000 at LSU. Last year, he earned $1.3 million. He’ll get $400,000 more than that in 2015. That’s a pretty steep climb in a short amount of time.
“There are rising salaries for all coaches — head coaches, coordinators and assistants,” says South Carolina boss Steve Spurrier, who made $4 million last year, the 10th-highest payday in the country. “It’s all about the rising revenues that are coming in.
“Hopefully, we’ll give some to the players soon, too.”
Hold on, Steve. That’s another topic altogether. The recent SEC binge on coordinator salaries is certainly about the big piles of cash flowing into schools’ coffers from TV deals, the new College Football Playoff and the growing professionalization of athletic departments. But coaches also realize that they had better beef up their staffs to attract, develop and deploy the best players in order to compete in the most cutthroat league around.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Last year, the SEC West went from merely brutal to absolutely pitiless. All seven teams finished the year with above-.500 records and played in the postseason. The last-place finisher, Arkansas, dismantled Texas in a bowl game, and the Mississippi schools reached heights they hadn’t experienced in decades. It is imperative that schools have the best possible coaches to run their attacks, or they risk getting overrun in one of the most competitive environments in all of sports.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been a head coach in the Big Ten, was the Miami Dolphins’ boss and directed the Baltimore Ravens’ attack for five seasons. As he tries to make the Tigers potent again — after a shaky 2014 — he understands the need for head coaches to bulk up their staffs as much as possible. That begins with their top lieutenants.
“When you have coached in the Big Ten and the NFL and then come to the SEC, and especially the SEC West, you realize the margin for error is so small,” Cameron says. “Coordinators can have huge impacts. The games are so close, so everybody has to be as qualified as possible.”
Cameron is right about the slim difference between success and failure. Last season, 19 SEC conference games were decided by seven or fewer points, and 10 had margins of three or fewer. In situations like that, it’s imperative for programs to have the most experienced and talented people possible in top assistant positions. Muschamp’s arrival in Auburn and Kevin Steele taking over in Baton Rouge mean there are now four former Power 5 conference head coaches among the coordinator ranks in the SEC. (Cameron and Alabama OC Lane Kiffin are the others.) In 2014, former UCLA head man Karl Dorrell led the Vanderbilt offense. Last year’s A&M defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder, directed Marshall’s program for five years.
“You have former head coaches as coordinators and future head coaches as coordinators,” Cameron says. “There is so much at stake that everybody is trying to get as many good people as possible.”
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The two highest-profile SEC hires of the offseason were curious less for their price tags than for those who brought them on board. Throughout their coaching careers, Malzahn and A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have been known for their explosive offenses and overwhelming desire to pile up the points and yards, even if that put undue stress on their defenses.
High-speed attacks pressure rivals for 60 minutes, but they impact the defenses on their own teams every minute of the year. The most obvious effect is in the time of possession department. If an offense is holding onto the ball for only 20-25 minutes a game, that means opponents have it for a draining 35-40. Defenses trying to prepare for the kind of physical, pro-style opponents found throughout the SEC don’t have the ability to practice against that kind of scheme during the summer and then week-to-week. And when versatile prospects come into programs as freshmen, coaches try to decide whether they should play offense or defense. If the man in charge is more disposed to scoring points than preventing them, the toss-ups will often end up on the offensive side of the ball.
So, Sumlin’s decision to bring Chavis to College Station and Malzahn’s choice of Muschamp show how important those two creative offensive minds now consider the ability to stop people. At LSU, Chavis worked with an attack designed to complement his unit. The Tigers ran the ball. They worked the clock. And they were delighted with a 23–14 victory. It’s fun trying to score 50 but even more enjoyable to get the win. Muschamp’s defenses at Florida were stingy, but he lost his job because the Gators, who once spun scoreboards under Spurrier and Urban Meyer, were boring. Malzahn and Sumlin have invested big money in their new coaches, but they have to be willing to adapt their styles of play to let the defenses have a chance to thrive.
When Chavis met with Sumlin, the two discussed how the team would practice and any concerns Chavis had about tempo. And when spring drills began, the Aggies had actually slowed things down so much that it was Chavis who requested a change of pace. At Auburn, Muschamp’s unit will complement an attack that has averaged 493.4 yards in Malzahn’s 27 games at the helm.
“Will and (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) work real closely together,” Malzahn says. “We are making sure both sides’ needs are met. The experience so far has been really positive.”
Muschamp may have to convince his boss to play a little more to the defensive side of the ball at times, but the good news is that he won’t have too much interference from Malzahn. Lashlee may be the offensive coordinator, but the Tigers’ attack belongs to the head coach, who literally wrote the book (“The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy”) on the kind of run-based, spread attack he favors. According to Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for AL.com, which combines content from three Alabama newspapers — Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — Malzahn “doesn’t meddle with the defense” and is “hesitant” even to stick his head in the room.
There have been great coordinators in the SEC for decades. One of the reasons Spurrier won a national title at Florida was that he had Bob Stoops, now the head man at Oklahoma, to run his defense. But Stoops wasn’t a huge name when he arrived from Kansas State. Cameron was when Miles brought him to Baton Rouge in 2013. He had spent 10 of the previous 11 seasons as an NFL coordinator and head man, so he brought instant credibility to the job at LSU.
A year later, Alabama coach Nick Saban got himself a high-profile coordinator when he hired Kiffin, the former Raiders, USC and Tennessee coach, to direct his offense. Although the Tide paid defensive coordinator Kirby Smart almost twice as much as the $680,000 Kiffin earned, having a former NFL boss running the attack was big news. It also showed that Saban, who has four national titles to his credit, doesn’t mind having big names on his staff, especially on the side of the ball that isn’t his expertise. The goal is to win games, not rule absolutely — although Saban does a pretty good job with that, too.
“These coaches know they are the big men on campus, so they take the ego out of it and get someone in there to handle the other side of the ball,” Marcello says.
Cameron says there is more to it than just putting together and executing a game plan. Having former head coaches on the staff helps with recruiting. Since assistants spend more time on the road than do those who run the programs, having a former NFL assistant or college head man in the living room adds some serious cachet.
Thanks to television, coaches such as Muschamp, Kiffin and LSU’s Steele are recognizable and therefore have an edge over some of their lesser-known counterparts at other schools. Everybody on a staff must be out there selling, but top coordinators with national personalities can help a lot. They had better want to be part of the equation, rather than thinking they are above the daily grind of being an assistant.
“It’s very important that all coaches on a staff recruit and evaluate,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. “Our coordinators do that, too. They have good relationship skills. If you have a coordinator who doesn’t recruit or have interest in recruiting, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Once the assistants lure top prospects to campus, they have to develop them — and not just to win games against SEC foes. Conference teams recruit some of the best players in the country, and though we would all like to think they are heading to school to become doctors and lawyers, most harbor NFL dreams. The exposure and level of competition in the SEC help them make progress toward that goal, but it’s imperative they receive the kind of development necessary to become attractive to professional talent evaluators.
That’s one reason why Miles considered Cameron an attractive candidate for the OC job. What young offensive player wouldn’t want to learn from someone who has not only helped produce NFL players but who also has coached them? At LSU, where the end of each season brings an exodus to the NFL of players who have been on campus the minimum of three years, it’s vital to have coaches who are capable of helping them maximize their talents — to help the Tigers but also to get them into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
“When you talk to kids, they are looking for coaches who can help them develop today and for the next level,” Cameron says.
Muschamp and Chavis will be expected to provide immediate results for their new teams. At their price tags, they had better deliver quickly. If they do, you can bet that this time next year, there will be some new high-profile coordinators joining the SEC ranks at premium prices.
“It’s the demand for the position,” Richt says. “We’re in an academic setting, but it’s also a competitive setting. You want to hire the type of people who can get the job done in an excellent way. The higher the demand, the higher the salaries go.”
And it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop rising.