Thinking Out Loud: Paying Assistant Coaches (Do you " get what you pay for?")
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Bret Bielema made his midnight getaway from Madison to Fayetteville, it sparked controversy across the college football landscape.
Not because Bielema was so well-liked or beloved in the Big Ten. He wasn’t, but it was hard to understand why a coach who had led his program to three-straight Rose Bowl appearances would basically pack his bags in the middle of the night for a middle-of-the-road SEC program.
The Arkansas Razorbacks went to three-straight bowl games under Bobby Petrino – including their loss to Ohio State in the 2011 Sugar Bowl – but there is very little about the Arkansas program that suggests it’s a better job than the one Bielema left behind at Wisconsin.
That is until you start to look a little closer.
When I first heard Bielema was making the move from the Big Ten to the SEC, it actually didn’t surprise me. Bielema definitely seemed like a Midwest guy who enjoyed some of the morals of coaching in the Big Ten – if those still exist – but I had to figure the Razorbacks threw a pile of money at him, much like they reportedly did in their attempt to lure Les Miles away from LSU.
It turns out, that pile of money was only slightly larger than the pile of money he was already getting from Wisconsin. According to multiple reports, Bielema’s contract at Arkansas will pay him $3.2 million annually for six years. That’s a little bit of a bump from his $2.6 million salary in Madison, but nothing the Badgers could not have matched, if they wanted to.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin fans, and really for fans of the Big Ten as well, it looks like the Badgers don’t want to pay anyone to coach football up in Madison. According to a study done by USA Today, the Wisconsin football program is among the worst in the Big Ten at paying assistant coaches, which was one of the main reasons Bielema claims he left the school he had been band-picked to run by athletic director Barry Alvarez.
According to the USA Today study, Wisconsin was near the bottom of the pack in the Big Ten at just $1.77 million committed to assistant coaches. The only school in the conference with a lower payroll was Purdue, which just bumped up new head coach Darrell Hazell’s payroll for assistant coaches over the $2 million mark.
That puts the Boilermakers in the same ballpark as most of the other football programs in the Big Ten, but certainly not on the same level as the Big Two – Michigan and Ohio State.
These rival schools have dominated the conference for years, but if anyone is wondering whether we are headed for another ‘10 Year War’ between Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke, take a closer look at the assistants.
Ohio State has the top-paid coaching staff in the Big Ten, at $3.29 million for the group Meyer put together last December when he took over a program in limbo following the unexpected exit of Jim Tressel.
Tressel never paid his staff that well, but Meyer demanded the Buckeyes be willing to shell out SEC-type money in order to bring in some of the brightest football minds around the country. He went out and hired guys like Tom Herman, Kerry Coombs and Everett Withers, who had served as the defensive coordinator and interim head coach at North Carolina.
Meyer also lured Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton away from Brian Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame, no small feat considering what the Fighting Irish have been able to accomplish this season. With an annual salary of $357,800, Warinner is one of the highest paid position coach (non-coordinator) in the entire league. He also holds the title of co-coordinator behind Herman, but it’s defensive coordinator Luke Fickell who spikes the numbers so high for the Buckeyes.
Fickell, who served as the school’s interim head coach last season, is still collecting interim-head coach type money to coach Meyer’s defense in Columbus. At $761,000 annually, Fickell is the highest-paid coordinator in the Big Ten, but not by as large a margin as might be expected.
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who left the Baltimore Ravens in order to return to Ann Arbor last season, is second in the conference among assistant coaches at $758,900 per year.
While Michigan’s defense has improved dramatically under Mattison, who also coached Meyer’s defense at Florida when they won the BCS title in 2007, Wolverines’ offensive coordinator Al Borges has the third-highest salary in the Big Ten at $658,300 annually.
Michigan fans are probably questioning that number after watching his offense lay an egg in the second half of the OSU-Michigan game this season. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($501,700) has the fourth-highest salary among Big Ten assistants, followed by Herman ($456,000) and Withers ($456,000), Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator.
That means the Buckeyes are paying over a million dollars for Fickell and Withers, so it’s a good thing they got that defense turned around in the second half of the season.
Illinois surprisingly has the next three highest-paid assistant coaches, although Penn State and Northwestern’s salaries were not made available (those schools are not subject to the same state open-records laws as other schools).
Excluding PSU and Northwestern, the Fighting Illini had the third-highest paid staff in the Big Ten behind OSU and Michigan, followed by Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa, which brings us back to Wisconsin. The fact both Minnesota and Indiana were paying more for their assistant coaches last year is embarrassing for a school that is headed to its third straight Rose Bowl.
It helps to explain why someone like Bielema would jump at the change to coach Arkansas, and maybe why the Badgers were turned down by guys like Al Golden and Paul Rhoads before they eventually settled on Gary Anderson.
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