The annual migration is under way.
Nomadic college-football assistant coaches are zipping up their bags—some of which may never have been unpacked—and moving on to a new, richer opportunity. Gone is the institutional knowledge from the program, as are the relationships the assistants had cultivated with their players and their head coaches.
But it doesn't have to be that way—and it shouldn't. Good assistant coaches are too valuable to be taken for granted. As more and more programs seem to be realizing, it's worth investing a lot more money in assistants; other programs are going to have to fall in line or find themselves out on the curb.
That's the thesis at the heart of a Bleacher Report series about college football assistants. These assistant coaches are underpaid, and that's a trend that shouldn't continue for much longer.
It's worth mentioning that college-football assistants are being paid more, right in line with their head-coach counterparts. According to USA Today, FBS assistants saw their average pay rise about 10 percent over the last year, to about $200,000 a year. Given the wide divide in pay between elite programs and low-tier FBC programs, the "average" salary doesn't say a whole lot. But the 10 percent is progress in the right direction.
That said, the gains made by assistants aren't happening fast enough for some coaches—and it's directly affecting job decisions.
Bret Bielema stunned the college-football world in December when he abandoned the post of his Wisconsin Badgers just days after leading the team to the Big Ten championship and its third straight Rose Bowl.
What's more, Bielema didn't say "thanks, but no thanks" to his third straight Rose Bowl to go to an SEC powerhouse. He went to Arkansas, a historically middling SEC program.
Fortunately, Bielema didn't leave the reason for his departure up to guesswork. It wasn't purely money for himself, though he did get a decent raise, from $2.6 million to $3.2 million.
No, it seems that a bigger reason was that Bielema is getting more than his own annual salary to spend on his assistant coaching staff. According to ArkansasMatters.com, Bielema's coaching staff has already signed for combined salaries of $3.1 million, and he's got one more hire to make that'll push him over the $3.2 million mark. At Wisconsin in 2012, his assistants were making a total of $1.8 million, according to the USA Today's coaching salary database.
As ESPN.com noted in covering his press conference when he left Wisconsin, Bielema made it explicitly clear that his inability to match offers of raises was affecting his ability to coach:
Bielema lost six assistants last year, and he noted that three of them went from salaries around $225,000 per year to over $400,000 annually. He said that hours after the Badgers won the Big Ten title game last Saturday, three of his assistants told him they'd been contacted by other schools and were offered significant raises. He said he wouldn't have been able to match those offers.
"Wisconsin isn't wired to do that at this point," he said. "With what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to have that ability to do that. I've found that here at Arkansas."
Of course, some offers are too good for any assistant to pass up.
Bielema couldn't have been too discouraged when, after the 2011 season, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took the top job at Pittsburgh. Pitt's in a BCS conference and paying Chryst $1.75 million a year. Nobody's going to turn that down.
But losing defensive coordinator Dave Doeren to Northern Illinois the season before must have stung for Bielema. NIU was "only" paying Doeren $425,000 a year to be the head coach. And if $425,000 a year seems like a small price for Wisconsin to pay to keep a desirable coordinator in town, well, Bielema clearly agrees—and so does Arkansas.
Bielema's new coordinators are getting $550,000 a year each from Arkansas, more than at least 31 FBS coaches currently make. That jump to a low-level head-coaching job doesn't look like much of an attractive option anymore.
SEC Paves the Way
The best proof that assistants have been underpaid and undervalued comes from the fact that no conference pays them and values them like the best conference in college football.
The SEC knows coaching-staff stability is crucial to player development and minimizing institutional adjustments to new hires—and it recognizes the assistants' salaries as the newest front in the ongoing financial arms race in college football.
Bumps in head-coaching salaries are starting to hit a point of diminishing returns. Sure, it makes sense to open up the coffers for the likes of a Nick Saban, but even if a school is committed to spending $6 million on coaching personnel, at some point, it ceases to be in the program's best interest to keep shoveling the lion's share of that money into the head coach's pockets.
Here's a chart of the salary breakdown by power conference, from the USA Today's data. Two things immediately jump out: The SEC values its assistant coaches, and the Big 12 loves its head coaches.
Past the obvious, the first thing worth noting is that the SEC is a little underrepresented in terms of both its head- and assistant-coach salary breakdowns, as Arkansas' figures are from the John L. Smith interim year in which he made $850,000 to coach, and Vanderbilt's numbers are unreported. Both of those schools will have strong payrolls in 2013, but the only complete data we've got is from the 2012 season.
Also, the ACC and Big East are excluded because four of the 12 teams in the ACC are with private schools that do not report assistant-coach salaries, and the reported head-coaching salaries at all four schools (Duke, Boston College, Miami and Wake Forest) are all well below the conference average. Meanwhile, the Big East is missing complete data for three of its eight schools (Pitt, Syracuse, Temple).
While the SEC might be leading the way in paying assistants more, it's still paying each assistant just a fraction of what it's paying the head coach.
Let's look at corporate America's approach to executive pay. As a whole, per Jerry Goldberg's "Fortunate 2500" list of top executives' pay in the Fortune 500, the CEOs of those companies earned $5.365 billion in 2011. That's not helpful information by itself, except when looking at the earnings of the top-five executives as a whole; there, the total is $13.256 billion.
In other words, on the Fortune 500 level, CEO compensation accounted for roughly 40 percent of compensation for the top-five executives. At Arkansas, where Bielema is openly thrilled by the higher salaries for assistants, his salary is still close to 50 percent of the outlay for all 10 of the coaches.
And as you look at the ratios by conference, it's awfully close to 50 percent in each case. There are some variations, but even in the unlisted ACC and Big East, the 50-50 ratio is generally a good guideline.
Continuity Considered a Key to Success
There's more than just the practices of corporate America to dictate whether assistant coaches should be paid more. There's the history of what happens to teams that can't hang on to their best assistant coaches—and can't attract suitable replacements.
We've already been over the situation at Wisconsin, which quite understandably irked Bielema. At Penn State, a similar situation threatened to derail Bill O'Brien's tenure there in its infancy.
O'Brien, who led Penn State to an 8-4 record in the first season of both PSU's mammoth sanctions and O'Brien's own collegiate coaching career, met with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns in early January as both searched for a new head coach. O'Brien decided to stay in Happy Valley, and the way he was talking afterwards, it sure sounded like he got Penn State to hook up his assistant coaches.
O'Brien offered no specifics, and Penn State is not required to disclose contract information about its football coaches, but O'Brien's comments, via the Harrisburg Patriot-News, made it clear that assistant-coach retention is a major priority of his—and likely a key issue in getting him to stay:
WKOK's Steve Jones: How important is it that your staff is well taken care of?
O'Brien: "That's an important part of it. That's a good question. 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."
Jones: You've been hired nearly a year. What's the continuity of this stuff and why is that important?
O'Brien: "You know, that's what the NFL is going through right now with those programs that are starting over again. Continuity is what breeds success. When you have a staff that works together, knows each others' language, work ethic, understands their role and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they fit into the staff. Then, the players see the chemistry of our staff. I think the players see a staff that gets along very well. It's important to keep this staff together."
At a more recent press conference, O'Brien didn't go into any further specifics about the nature of his recent conversations with either the NFL or with Penn State, but he did mention taking care of his assistants again when asked:
I think that these guys are paid well. I think that they can always be paid better, and I think there's things that we've talked about from day one here, (athletic director David) Joyner and I, about ways that we can do that, whether it's a bowl bonus or what bowl would we have gone to if we win a certain amount of games, things like that. So those are conversations that take place, and like I said, in the inner circle, and we'll do the best we can to continue to try to make it attractive to coach here.
The effects of losing a valuable assistant coach over money can be swift and severe. At California, as SI.com detailed, top recruiter and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi secured verbal commitments from three U.S. Army All-American recruits, only to leave for another job at Washington just a couple of weeks before the 2012 national signing day.
None of those recruits kept their commitments when it came time to sign, California's rush defense had its worst performance in over a decade and longtime head coach Jeff Tedford was fired after a lackluster season.
The reason for Lupoi's departure? Despite being one of the most important conduits of talent on the West Coast, he was only making $164,000 a year at California when Washington hired him away. A salary of $164,000 is low for BCS-level positional coaches to begin with; when they're also great recruiters, it's almost a slap in the face. Washington's deal with him averages about $416,000 over three years, according to the school. Of course Lupoi took the job.
On the other hand, in terms of what stability can mean to a program, look at what's happening at Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald has one of the most stable programs in the nation, with he and his assistants averaging 7.4 years of tenure as full-time members of the Northwestern coaching staff. Only two coaches have less than five years on the staff, and Fitzgerald himself is a 12-year veteran with the Wildcats, including seven years atop the program.
What does Northwestern have to show for that stability? Five straight bowl bids, when the program only had seven in its history before the current streak. The first bowl victory since the late '40s. The first 10-win season since the breakout 1995 campaign that went to the Rose Bowl. In 2008, the first nine-win season since 1996—the only two in program history.
Since Northwestern is a private school, we don't know how much these assistant coaches make per year or how they've been encouraged to stick around Evanston. However, it is extraordinarily unlikely that Northwestern would be on the path to legitimacy if it were cycling through assistants every three years or so—to say nothing of not being able to retain Fitzgerald.
Turnover Is Part of the Game
There are other factors at play here, of course.
College-football coaching is a highly volatile and competitive job market. Unless the assistants are at "destination" schools, if they're not making some sort of move within a few years—either inside or out of the program—it's generally seen as a sign that they're actually not doing their job very well.
It's reminiscent of the military term for officers' progressions: "up or out," meaning that if an officer is passed over twice for promotion, he's sent on his way.
So one can reasonably believe it's just the nature of college football for assistant coaches to not stick around for too long, regardless of what they make or what their job title is. In fact, legendary former head coach Bobby Bowden told Bleacher Report that he not only expected, but appreciated, the ambition that fuels this volatility:
I always took this approach: I was hoping every coach I had wanted to be a head coach. I figured they were smart enough to try not wanting [my job].
Why? Because I know they've got to work their tails off to be a head coach. That's the kind of guy I wanted. I never wanted to stand in their way. If I ever lost a coach to a step up, that's good. I'm for you.
If they move laterally, I would say, "Uh oh, I'm doing something wrong, the fact he would want to work over there for the same money that I'm paying him."
That aspect is something that can't be ignored, especially as salary structures vastly favor head coaches compared with the way businesses are usually run. There are very, very few assistant positions for which a coach would pass up a BCS-conference head-coaching spot.
That being said, college athletic departments find themselves in the unenviable position of having to appear that they'll do everything in their power to keep coaches around, while not revealing any specifics about those strategies in order to keep their informational advantage.
So when we contacted Ohio State's athletic department for comment about assistant-coach retention, we were referred to this exchange (NOTE: links to .PDF file) between a reporter and Ohio State AD Gene Smith upon Urban Meyer's hiring:
Q. One of the questions that Urban answered was the difference between the Big Ten and the SEC. And one thing the SEC's been willing to do is invest in their assistant coaches. Is Ohio State willing to go to SEC levels in terms of how much money they will invest in assistant coaching staff?
GENE SMITH: We'll put in place the resources necessary to attract the staff that Urban Meyer feels he needs.
Q. Can you elaborate on that?
GENE SMITH: No.
Another Big Ten school official was a little more forthcoming than Mr. Smith, albeit only on condition of anonymity. The athletic department administrator told Bleacher Report that while money was important, it wasn't the one single driving factor in what brings a coach to a given program:
I think the money's gotten to the point where a lot of these coaches are making a very comfortable salary, so I don't think it's 100 percent about salary.
I think they're looking for stability in their position, they're looking for job security. I think they want to go someplace where they can be successful and they want to work someplace that's committed to the sport they're coaching in.
I think [job] title plays into that a little bit, but from my perspective if they aspire to be a head coach down the line, that's more about professional growth. But I think they're looking for stability, security and commitment to the sport they're coaching in.
As for actual retention of the coaches, sometimes it's not even a priority, according to the administrator:
You do the best you can to be proactive, but sometimes you have to deal with situations as they come up. Typically, a head coach calls up and says, "Hey, I've got an assistant coach who's considering leaving, what are some options we have that we can do?" And then we sit down with the head coach, and quite frankly sometimes that head coach wants that person to leave and go do something else, but there are plenty of occasions where we want to keep that coach here and create that consistency and stability.
But even if the object is rarely (if ever) to retain everybody all of the time, there's no question that less turnover would be desirable at a program tracking for a new level of success. Programs with the financial wherewithal have to see, with the way the SEC is going and given the examples cited in this story, that investing in assistants is a no-brainer. And if the right school really wanted to make a splash, it could be a game-changer for the entire sport.
Bleacher Report's series on the value of assistant coaches continues with a look into the future of college football. For other parts of this series, go to this article.