A Bold Proposal for College Football: The Assistant Coach Dream Team
With assistant coaching salaries creeping upward nationwide, especially among the power conferences, there are some programs that have the financial leeway and on-field incentive to make a giant leap. Forget weight-room renovations. Forget oak and marble everywhere you look in the locker room. Forget new scoreboards to replace the ones the school put in 14 years ago.
If the school wants to make the biggest splash on the field for the money it spends, we have a modest proposal: Pay giant sums of money for the entire coaching staff, not just the head coach. Invest in the assistants.
This article makes that proposal as the fourth and final part of Bleacher Report's series about college football and the potential for change in the way programs pay an undervalued commodity: the assistant coach. (If you haven't seen the first three parts, start here.)
Taking our vision to an extreme, what if a school gave its head coach enough salary money that he could appoint a staff of all-stars, regardless of what jobs they had anywhere else?
Simply put, it would be the greatest coaching staff college football has ever seen.
Here are the numbers that we're suggesting: $7-8 million for the head coach—a contract that would make Nick Saban jealous, only because he's not the one getting it (more on that in a bit); $4-5 million for the coordinators; $2 million for the positional coaches.
Is that expensive? Of course it's expensive. That's the whole point. It's a gross extravagance of hiring, and one that everyone in the nation is going to pay attention to.
With a murderers' row of coaches, the only serious expectation is a national championship. That sells out any stadium, no matter what. It tells recruits they'll be getting the best instruction in college football and almost assuredly going to a great bowl every single year. There is no better recruiting pitch than that.
The argument against this tactic, of course, is that teams have won national championships without buying extravagant coaching staffs. And yes, Alabama doesn't need to buy off other teams' head coaches to fill its coaching staff with talent. Neither do most of college football's most elite programs.
But let's be clear: This isn't an Alabama move—at least not with Saban at the helm, competing (often successfully) for a title every year; Alabama already has what it needs. This is a move for a school that wants to kick-start its college football program in a serious way, to put itself on the map—or to get back on it after a downturn. It's a Big Idea.
An all-star staff wouldn't guarantee an immediate title run, of course. Recruits usually take time to develop; players can and often do fall short of expectations; fumbles bounce one way or another; referees can turn a game; season-altering injuries are cruelly random.
But player development is arguably the most valuable aspect of putting together an elite program, and if it's not, it's either recruiting or financial support from the fanbase. And all three of those aspects are helped immensely by giving your program the best, most expensive set of coaches college football has ever seen—and keeping that set, and all the promises that came with it, intact.
So without further preamble, here's a coaching staff we'd put together with game-changer money. At the very least, they'd be the first calls we'd make. It's a complete redraft of a staff from the top on down, with everyone involved set for substantial raises from where they are now. Play along with this, and then we'll return closer to reality and consider the ramifications of such a staff being compiled.
Head coach: Urban Meyer
Backup plan: Les Miles
Meyer is the complete package of head coaching candidates: He's young and highly successful and has shown remarkable versatility in adapting his game plan to his personnel. Miles is also a title-winning head coach, and he's just honest and crazy enough to make a plan like this work.
We're not leaving off Saban because we think he's not as good as Meyer or Miles. (He is, obviously; he's the best coach in college football.) This simply isn't the type of staff you build around Saban; it's the staff you build to beat Saban. His operation is the hurdle this all-star staff has to get over.
Also, the notion of a process-minded fanatic like Saban taking on this many former head coaches and trying to get them all to run his own system is probably a recipe for nuclear disaster.
Offensive coordinator/QB: Dana Holgorsen
Backup plans: Bill O'Brien, Gus Malzahn, Chris Petersen
Holgorsen gets amazing results out of his players without needing a 5-star rating attached to their name out of high school, and he has turned Geno Smith from a guy who can't make a decent read progression to save his life into a sure-fire first-round draft pick.
The coaches listed as backup plans here each have unreal track records as well, and good cases can be made for all of them to be a first choice.
Defensive coordinator: Will Muschamp
Backup plans: Bo Pelini, Bret Bielema
Muschamp is adapting quite well to his situation at Florida (Orange Bowl be damned), and Pelini and Bielema are two of the most successful head coaches with defensive backgrounds in college football today.
Moreover, all three are still relatively young, and their firebrand personalities would translate well to renewing their professional focus on defensive intensity. It seems unlikely that any of these coaches would be willing to go back to a coordinating role, but as Mad Men's Don Draper once said, "That's what the money's for."
Positional coaches: Butch Jones (running backs), Mario Cristobal (offensive line), David Shaw (receivers), Don Treadwell (tight ends), Charlie Strong (defensive line), Al Golden (linebackers), Paul Rhodes (defensive backs).
Oh, and lest we forget, the place we'd make this all go down: Texas. Perfect mix of a local talent base, program revenue, high-level facilities and a booster base that's just desperate enough to go along with a scheme like this after a few years of backsliding to mediocrity.
A Real Solution and Real Ramifications
The idea of a team assembling this sort of all-star cast might be absurd. But even if a ridiculously cash-heavy fantasy like this never comes to pass, there's nothing crazy about the notion that a handful of well-supported programs should consider altering their fortunes by closing the huge gap between their head coach pay and their assistant coach pay.
Arizona State, for example, paid head coach Todd Graham $3 million in 2012, according to USA Today's salary database. Its top assistants made $320,000 each. North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora made $2.5 million. His top assistants? $250,000 each.
What if a school like that suddenly doubled (or even tripled) its assistants' salaries? The effect of this would be enormous. Other high-level schools would almost certainly follow suit, and eventually coaches that wouldn't fetch such high pay in 2012 would soon be getting it.
That's commonly thought of as a "bubble." And if there's one thing economics proves repeatedly, it's that bubbles pop, and usually to the detriment to those expecting the money to keep flowing forever (in this case, the coaches). But even if the market corrects itself, we'd still see some programs spending much more than they had previously.
This is a highly competitive market, and football programs spend to compete. That'll never change.
Going back to our Dream Team school, Texas football generates the most revenue and profit of any college football program. According to Forbes, Texas makes $104 million a year off its football team—and $78 million of that is pure profit. That $78 million is more than all but two other programs generate for overall revenue.
If schools like Texas started spending bigger on assistants, it would be another case of the rich getting richer in college sports.
Forbes ranked only the top 20 most valuable college football programs. Getting down to the lowest revenue generator of those 20 (Wisconsin) we see revenue of just $48 million less than half of what Texas brings to the table. That's a stark disadvantage by itself.
And there are more than 100 college football programs that make less money than Wisconsin in the FBS alone. Don't even bother asking about lower divisions.
According to USA Today's listing of coaches' salaries and athletic department financials, most of the athletic departments in the FBS are net losers of money, and only 22 report net profits. Granted, some athletic departments are in private institutions, and it's hard to believe the likes of Notre Dame, Southern California and Stanford aren't swimming in money with the job they're doing.
But going down to the MAC, only two of the conference's 13 members report any profit whatsoever from their football programs alone. All lose at least $10 million annually in their overall athletic departments, and three lose $20 million or more. This isn't due to coaching staff income bloat, either; again, according to USA Today, the highest-paid MAC staff as a whole (Ohio) makes $1.33 million a year, with $511,500 of that going to head man Frank Solich. There's simply no money to do any better than that.
$1.33 million is effectively a ceiling for the MAC—and it's nothing to the big boys. There were 59 FBS head coaches who made more than $1.33 million by themselves in 2012. And yet MAC football is in the same athletic subdivision as the BCS conferences...for now.
So with that kind of income inequality directly affecting the coffers of programs with fixed coaching staff limits, it just makes sense that the "haves" are going to outmuscle the "have-nots" for assistant coaches, and that's a pattern we've seen for time immemorial. Now that programs are starting to take the salaries of their entire coaching staff seriously, that disparity is only going to be heightened.
At some point, disparities are too much to ignore, and with college football already in the middle of severe restructuring—little to none of which involves teams in conferences like the MAC or Conference USA—some tough decisions are going to have to be made. After all, if even the lowest assistants at high-level programs are going to start making more than what a random Sun Belt school will pay a head coach and there's no money to make up any of that ground, at some point, it's no longer worth it to keep trying to compete at that same level.
Again, our Texas scenario is undeniably a radical proposal, but it's also one that seems to be a natural conclusion. These programs compete by spending, and Texas is one of a few programs that can afford to put together an audaciously talented, expensive staff—one that would reaffirm the Longhorns' position as the premier college football program in the nation and facilitate increased fan involvement (and carriage of the school's baby moneymaker, the Longhorn Network).
Eventually, someone's going down this road. There's too much money, pride and competition in football not to. It may be much more gradual, to the point that it takes so long it's imperceptible, but it's coming.
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