When not considering whether players can unionize or the ramifications of the Rutgers and Maryland athletic departments joining the Big Ten this summer, a big portion of offseason news has focused on new coaching salaries. Seemingly all over the Big Ten, strike that, all over the East Division, head coaches and assistants are garnering huge paydays.
But does this more help the Big Ten keep up with the SEC, or does it more create a competitive disparity that will unbalance the new divisions over the next few years?
Hopefully, the West Division steps up and gives deserving coaches a big payday as well, especially following the new television contracts signed in a couple years. That would moot this potential issue.
But count me among the "hesitant to believe it" camp when it comes to increased spending. If an athletic department can find a way to pinch a penny to blow that dollar somewhere else, it will.
So let's take a look at some of the top salaries in the Big Ten as of 2014, and where that leaves the balance of competitive power between the new divisions.
Michigan State likely made the biggest waves of the offseason in salary news by giving Mark Dantonio a huge pay increase up to $3.7 million. Dantonio has stayed loyal to East Lansing for almost a decade, and his proven success of double-digit wins in three of the last four seasons speaks for itself.
Plus, winning the first Rose Bowl since 1984 and finishing in the top three in the country certainly doesn't hurt when your school has to compete against the image of being a "little brother" to Michigan and perhaps even to Ohio State. That provides a huge interest boost in the football program and sells more season tickets, which leads to a pay bump.
But the size of the pay bump was notable, as Dantonio made less than $2 million in 2013. His old salary would have made him the lowest-paid coach in the SEC (Mark Stoops, $2.2 million at Kentucky, for the record), but his new salary puts him among the elite coaches nationwide. Dantonio would now be close in salary to elite SEC coaches like Guz Malzahn and Steve Spurrier, for example.
He is now firmly entrenched in the $3 million-plus club, which includes six B1G coaches: Urban Meyer ($4.8 million), Brady Hoke ($4.3 million), Kirk Ferentz ($4.0 million), James Franklin ($4.0 million), Dantonio and Bo Pelini ($3.1 million). Those numbers are at least competitive with the SEC, the gold standard for paying coaches.
But note that four of those salaries, and four of the top five, belong to the top football programs of the East Division. Only Iowa actually competes with the coaching pay at the head coach level, and Kirk Ferentz's salary and buyout have become a bit of a joke nationally, so it's hard to count him.
Why else would Bret Bielema bail a dominant position to get more pay for his staff at a train wreck of a program in the SEC? It's all about money, and the Big Ten has finally realized that.
The top assistant coaches are also getting huge paydays, mostly in the East Division. The top-paid assistants include MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was bumped to $905,000 this offseason; new hire Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who will receive $857,000; Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison (about $850,000); Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck (over $700,000) and Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell (over $600,000).
Once again, four of the top five paydays go to East Division teams (and Penn State may also pay this well, although the institution does not report that information publicly). If nothing else, it is clear that Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State blow away what the other league competitors are paying for coaches, which means better coaches will stick around longer or come into the Big Ten, like Chris Ash and Nussmeier from the SEC this season.
With the extra money put into the assistant coaching staff as well, Michigan State is now one of only three schools that pays more than $3 million total for the assistant coaching staff. The other two are Ohio State and Michigan. See a trend? The West Division probably does.
Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue will at least find more company than just Indiana on the bottom end of the assistant coaching staff pay list when Rutgers and Maryland join the Big Ten. Maryland currently pays Randy Edsall's staff comparably to these lower-tier pay scales in the conference, while Rutgers pays like a mid-major rather than a BCS conference program.
For example, Kyle Flood earns less than $500,000, and he's the head coach. However, Rutgers is not the team that the West Division needs to worry about. Instead, it's the three known (and likely four counting Penn State) powerhouses running away with higher coaching salaries that will be sitting in the way of Big Ten titles when the West Division champion goes to Indianapolis each December.
Nebraska and Wisconsin are the only assistant coaching staffs making about $2.5 million a year or more, and that is relatively a baseline amount for retaining competitive talent away from more lucrative schools and better pay in head coaching and coordinator positions.
Of course, these schools also need to pay head coaches enough to run good programs and encourage those young coaching talents to develop at the Big Ten schools as well. Right now, discounting Iowa and the infamous Ferentz contract, the only head coach in the West Division making much more than $2.25 million is Pelini at about $3.1 million.
The other five head coaches (Pat Fitzgerald, Gary Andersen, Darrell Hazell, Jerry Kill and Tim Beckman) all make about $2.0 million. That is certainly good money, but it simply does not compare to the top of most BCS leagues and all of the SEC.
So even though Kill now makes more money and Andersen received a raise, these numbers are not coming close to the four top programs in the East Division. Right now, that may not make much of a difference.
But if you let that disparity sit for a number of recruiting classes, then the West Division will inevitably lose more good assistant coaches (and possibly head coaches), leading to more turnover and lower likelihood of top recruiting classes. Meanwhile, the East Division will show recruits stability and a commitment to compete for the College Football Playoff.
Does higher coaching pay lead to better results on the field? It certainly seems that way, but it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: As programs stay more consistent and make more money, athletic departments will spend more money to give coaches a fair piece of the pie, and the cycle repeats.
It is definitely true that going too low on the pay scale can be disastrous when it leads to too much coach turnover. Of course, lower and mid-tier programs have to be careful to not commit too much money to unproven coaches, as a long rich contract with a hefty buyout can hamstring a school's future decisions. So there is risk there to go with the potential reward.
If four of the top five paying athletic departments continue to be in the East Division over time, then in five years, these seemingly unbalanced divisions (now) could be a real balance problem.
As painful as it seems, the solution is simple: The West Division has to step up and pay more. Otherwise, the Big Ten Championship will be decided most seasons well before two teams make a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium.
That's not a good situation for the conference, or the fans.
Thanks for reading! I am the Featured Columnist focusing on Big Ten Football for B/R.
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