- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. First, a closer look at the increased investments Big Ten schools are making in their football staffs to keep up with the national market.
Two days before Michigan State ended its best season in nearly a half-century with a Rose Bowl victory, Mark Hollis stood outside a Los Angeles conference room and described the dilemma he and other athletic directors face with football coaches' salaries.
"I get concerned sometimes about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry," Hollis said, "but at the same time, you need to ensure that continuity is in place."
Michigan State ensured continuity by making major financial commitments for coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants. Penn State, meanwhile, is paying new coach James Franklin about $1 million more than a coach (Bill O'Brien) it lost to the NFL. Michigan used its financial resources to attract an offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) from national power Alabama.
The recent moves underscore a greater willingness throughout the deep-pocketed Big Ten to invest more in the men charged to coach its flagship sport, one that has struggled for the past decade. The Big Ten didn't set the market for soaring coaches' salaries, but after some initial reluctance, the league seems more willing to join it.
"When you see an institution like Penn State and Franklin, it says we're going to attract the best talent that we can and in order to do that, we have to step up financially to procure that person's services," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I think that's great for our league. ... We need to have the best coaches, we need to retain the best coaches."
Ohio State in 2011 hired Urban Meyer for a salary of $4 million per year. At the time, the Big Ten had no coaches earning more than $4 million and only two making more than $3 million. Purdue was one of the few major-conference programs paying its coach (Danny Hope) less than $1 million. Bret Bielema cited the difficulty of retaining top assistants at Wisconsin as one reason he left for the Arkansas job in 2012.
The landscape has changed. Last year, both Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke made more than $4 million, while Iowa's Kirk Ferentz made just less ($3.985 million), according to USA Today. Franklin's deal at Penn State includes an annual salary of $4.25 million. Terms of Dantonio's new contract at Michigan State have yet to be announced, but it will put Dantonio, previously among the lowest-paid Big Ten coaches ($1.9 million), in the top salary tier. His staff also will receive nice pay bumps.
"I don't think we've been woefully behind," Smith said of the Big Ten. "We were not the first ones to drive the salaries up, but we weren't far behind in responding. Whenever we can attract someone who is really talented, we pay them."
They also must pay top assistants, many of whom command salaries well above those of head coaches from smaller leagues. The Big Ten, after lagging behind nationally in assistant coach pay, is catching up.
"The offensive and defensive coordinators, those decisions become critically important," Michigan AD Dave Brandon said. "You can have the greatest head coach in the world, but if you're not providing him with those leaders who can manage those smaller staffs ... it's hard to believe that the head coach is going to be successful."
There has been no Big Ten mandate to increase salaries, and athletic directors don't discuss financial specifics when they meet. These are institutional decisions, and Hollis, upon realizing Dantonio and his aides deserved an increase, first looked at what MSU could provide before surveying the Big Ten, the national college scene and the NFL.
Part of his challenge is verifying data, as some numbers, even those available through records requests, aren't always accurate.
"Every school pays individuals in different ways," Hollis said. "There can be longevity payments put in there, different bonuses."
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner expected to make a strong financial push for O'Brien's successor but didn't know exactly where the numbers would fall. Among the metrics Joyner used was the potential attendance increase a new coach could bring.
Despite PSU's on-field success the past two years, average attendance at Beaver Stadium has dropped by about 5,000. An increase of 1,000 fans during the season, including parking and concessions, adds about $500,000 in revenue, Joyner said.
"If you believe [the coach is] going to have a very positive effect on your fan base and on your program and on your ability to put bodies in the seats," he said, "it doesn't take a lot of seats to cause a return on that investment."
Indiana AD Fred Glass also wants to fill seats, but he's in a different financial ballpark from schools with massive stadiums like Penn State, despite competing in the same conference. Glass notes that while Michigan made $147.5 million in football revenue last year, Indiana made only about $4.5 million.
But it didn't stop IU from doubling its salary pool for assistant coaches when Kevin Wilson arrived, or awarding Wilson a seven-year contract worth $1.2 million annually, or increasing the number of full-time strength coaches devoted to football from two to five, the NCAA maximum.
"There's a reason IU traditionally hasn't been where we want to be in football," Glass said. "We haven't really made the investments in it. We haven't stuck with continuity. We haven't stayed with a staff over a long period of time. That's what we need.
"Kevin understands we're making resources available, but it's not a bottomless pit."
Glass' last point resonates in the Big Ten, which generates record revenues but also sponsors more sports, on average, than any other major conference. The league believes in broad-based programs, which makes it harder to sink money into football, despite the superior return.
"We are a college program versus just a football franchise, and I think our football coaches not only understand that but really embrace it," Hollis said. "I believe in the Big Ten, maybe more so than others -- I've had the opportunity to see East and West -- [coaches] feel that the athletic department is part of their family."
But they also have to take care of their own families, and their assistants. They know salaries are rising everywhere.
Big Ten athletic directors know this, too. To keep up, you have to pay up.