The SEC is leading a revolution in college football, and it's not about the guys on the field. Not directly, anyway.
It's about the guys on the sideline (and that's guys—plural). The conference is strengthening its chokehold on college football dominance by taking care of one of the most underappreciated groups in the sport: the assistant coaches.
In a four-story package that begins with this article, Bleacher Report is arguing that college football must enter a new era where assistant coaches, no longer taken for granted, become more valuable commodities, forcing programs to either pay up or fall behind.
The package goes in-depth into how and why the stock of assistant coaches is rising and profiles the nation's top aides. The series concludes with our vision of the sport if this trend plays out to its logical conclusion.
Bret Bielema made waves last month when he announced he was leaving Wisconsin, where he was head coach, for the open job in Arkansas. The move was a shock, to say the least, as Bielema was the most accomplished coach in the Big Ten and was leading his Badgers to their third straight Rose Bowl—a streak unmatched in the conference since the late 1970s.
Arkansas, an SEC school, didn't have Wisconsin's history of success over the past 20 years, but what it did have was about $2 million a year more of coaching salary—and the majority of that was for assistant coaches.
After seeing several key Wisconsin aides hightail it for greener pastures, Bielema was tired of losing the staff-retention battle—one he will have a fighting chance to win in Arkansas.
This was not an isolated example of assistant coaches' burgeoning value. In a drama played out at another Big Ten school, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien was courted by multiple NFL programs, and it took an opportunity for "structural and personnel changes" in the school's athletic department to placate the first-year head coach, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
Reading O'Brien's statements to the Patriot-News, it's not hard to see that those changes are designed to reward his assistants:
These guys are top-flight coaches that have plenty of opportunities, and this is not going to be the easiest of times of the next few years for Penn State, and these are tough guys that've been through a lot and they've stuck with us, they've stuck with Penn State, they stuck with me. So, I think it's important for the people of Penn State to understand that and we've done the best we can to take care of these guys.
The SEC, as a whole, significantly outspends the rest of college football when it comes to assistant pay. That increased commitment to spending not only helped the SEC poach Bielema from the Big Ten's three-time reigning champion, but it has taken four of the six Wisconsin assistants who left the program in the wake of Bielema's move south. Two assistants went to Arkansas with Bielema, and two more joined Tennessee's new staff.
This financially driven disparity is likely to create a one-way door in terms of both head coach and assistant coach hiring unless more programs take the plunge. The SEC is going to keep taking the coaches it wants, and if a team wants to take a coach from the SEC, well, good luck.
The most remarkable aspect, though, is that there's reason to believe that even the SEC is underpaying its assistant coaches—especially relative to the current head coaching salaries out there.
Taking assistant coaches for granted—or at least assuming their salaries are high enough and their contract lengths are appropriate—has become a point of danger in college football. If current trends continue to their radical but natural conclusion, they could well price out dozens of FBS programs from competing with the elites of the sport.
These are the opening throes of a sea-change in college football—one that ends in a situation where head coaches and their assistants are inextricably linked in their importance to a program's health.
Credit whomever you'd like for realizing it first—the assistant coaches for taking care of themselves, the head coaches for making assistant retention a factor in their own job decisions, or the athletic departments for adjusting spending priorities accordingly. No matter who deserves the most recognition, it certainly looks as if 2013 will be the year of the assistant coach.