As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.
In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.
That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.
In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.
"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."
Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.
Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."
The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.
"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."
The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.
Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.
"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.
"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."
That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.
"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."
"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."
Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.
It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.
"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "