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Bargains and Busts: Notes on the assistant coach salary database

Which schools are getting getting the most bang for their buck, who is stealing money, and another reason why Purdue is terrible.

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Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Amid rampant speculation that various coaches will be leaving to pursue other jobs (besides a certain individual whose last name rhymes with "Maban"), now seems like a good time to investigate the USA TODAY assistant coaching database, which was recently updated. This searchable database provides the base compensation details, along with bonuses, for almost every major assistant coach in the country. It also breaks down the total amount of money each school allocates to their assistant coaching staff.

A quick reminder that this database doesn't have information on *every* school, since private schools are exempt from FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) requests, and a few states have specific laws shielding universities from salary request information, which is why you don't see any data from Penn State. Contextually, that means it's possible that a few assistants from Stanford, Notre Dame and USC might be missing on the high end of the data. I doubt that BYU or Rice is hiding a guy making $900,000, but hey, I've been wrong before.

Feel free to dig into the specifics of your favorite school or your favorite assistant coach (I'm sure you have one, right?) in the comments. For now, here are a few notes from the database that may be of interest to general college football fans:

  • Generally speaking, the teams at the top of the assistant coaching spending chart saw a lot of success on the football field. The top 10 schools in coaching spending went a combined 91-28. The only clunker on that list? #10 Arkansas, who didn't win a single SEC game and finished 3-9, a showing that might be described by Twitter as #karma. The top ten spenders, in order, were LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas, Auburn, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Georgia and Arkansas.
  • That trend remains generally true if you expand the list to the top 25 reported spenders. Only five of the top 25 spending teams finished with a losing record: #10 Arkansas, #11 Florida, #19 Virginia, #21 West Virginia and #25 NC State. For what it's worth, if Notre Dame, Penn State, USC and Stanford reported data, it is almost certain that NC State wouldn't be in the top 25, and West Virginia might not have either.
  • Arkansas and Virginia appear to be the two biggest spending busts on the entire list. Arkansas spent $3,233,000 on their coaching staff, which is more than Oregon, Florida State, Oklahoma State or UCLA, but won a paltry three games. The $550,000 spent on offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Jim Chaney seems like less of a sound investment, especially since a coach the caliber of Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, or Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, was cheaper.
  • There are three open head coaching positions that are likely to draw attention from major program assistants right now: Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, and Arkansas State.  Last season, FAU paid Carl Pelini a base salary of $496,124 to be their head coach (the 98th highest salary among FBS coaches), while Bowling Green paid Dave Clawson $400,000 (104th). Arkansas State was a little more generous with Bryan Harsin, as he pulled a salary of $724,597 (79th) Of course, that wasn't enough to keep him away from Boise State, cementing Arkansas State's reputation as the Spinal Tap Drummer of coaching jobs.
  • That might be important for Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, should he decide to go after either the Bowling Green or FAU gigs, since he'd be taking a paycut from his $605,000 salary, or at the very least, would be making a near lateral move. Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton, also heavily tied to the FAU job, might be more interested, since he'd likely be getting at least a $100,000 raise. If an assistant wants to become a head coach badly enough, taking a paycut isn't out of the question, but salaries are worth paying attention to during the coaching silly season. Arkansas State is less likely to have that problem, since their potential candidates, like Kentucky Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown ($550,000) Cincinnati offensive coordinator Eddie Gran ($350,000) are likely to be significantly under the ~$700,000 salary range.
  • Looking at this database make it seem like FBS assistant coaching is a great gig, but it's important to remember how the other half lives. The lowest reported salary for an FBS assistant is Mario Price, an inside wide receivers coach at Louisiana-Monroe, who was listed as making a paltry $20,000 a year on the database. That comes out to around 10 dollars an hour, roughly what a Taco Bell shift manager makes here in Chicago. I'm going to guess that Coach Price probably works a few more hours a week than your typical Taco Bell manager as well.

That's a more extreme example, but there are plenty of coaches in the Sun Belt, CUSA, Mountain West and MAC who are toiling away for much less than you'd think an FBS coach would make. Kent State has five assistant coaches making under $60,000 a year. Utah State has three. There are coaches at Wyoming, Old Dominion, New Mexico State, UAB, Idaho, MTSU, Central Michigan, and others who are making under $60,000 as well, which is probably less than your high school gym teacher. Now, 60K isn't bad money, it's more than the US median household income and 60K in a place like Logan, Utah can still get you pretty far.  But given the long hours, stress, and lack of job security around coaching gigs, plus the huge difficulty of finding success at some of the smaller schools in FBS, there are certainly easier gigs out there that pay a little more.

FWIW, the two lowest paid coordinators appear to be New Mexico State Defensive Coordinator David Elson, and Old Dominion Defensive Coordinator Rich Nagy, at $101,000 and $100,000 in base salary, respectively.

The biggest individual earners shouldn't be a surprise to major college football fans. Your top 10 assistant coaches in terms of base salary?

1. Chad Morris - Clemson $1,300,000

2. Kirby Smart - Alabama  $1,150,000

3. John Chavis - LSU $1,100,000

4. Greg Mattison - Michigan $840,000

5.Todd Grantham - Georgia $850,000

6. Justin Wilcox - Washington (As of right this second anyway) $800,004

7. Brent Venables - Clemson $800,000

8. Ellis Johnson - Auburn $800,000

9. Al Borges - Michigan  $700,000

10. Mark Snyder-Texas A&M $708,000

Generally, all of these coaches enjoy fairly strong reputations, with the possible exception of Michigan's Al Borges after this season. They're also well compensated enough to discourage them for leaving and taking a mid major head coaching position.  Leaving a 800K assistant gig to take a 550K head coaching gig can be a harder sell.

Many have pointed to lower assistant coaching salaries as a reason for the relative struggle of some Big Ten programs. Despite having access to a veritable money fountain in the Big Ten Network, some Big Ten schools are lagging behind some surprising schools in terms of total assistant coach spending.

-Wisconsin, 28th among reporting schools, at $2,495,000. Behind Kansas State, Colorado, and the entire Top 25.

-Michigan State, 32nd, at $2,410,483. Behind Boise State and Kentucky. Getting Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi at $557,208 is a steal though.

-Iowa, at 34th, with $2,367,500. Behind the above schools, along with Cal.

-Minnesota, at 43rd, with $2,152,350. Behind Utah and Mississippi State

-Indiana at 48th, with $2,074,780. That's behind Iowa State and KANSAS. Dave Campo, at $500,000, is stealing money from the Jayhawks, btw.

-Illinois is 49th, Purdue is 50th, at $2,066,400 and $2,010,000, respectfully.  It's safe to assume that several private and non-reporting schools are probably paying more than this, so these guys are probably actually a few spots lower than that.

-Directly below Purdue, separated by less than $23,000? MEMPHIS. Future B1G member Rutgers is even worse at 54th, less than Memphis, Cincinnati and Washington State.

If we don't count The American as a major college football conference anymore, Rutgers will have the lowest spending pool of any playoff college football program. The Big Ten will have four of the bottom ten spending programs with Minnesota as the 11th.

I imagine that Rutgers will probably spend more once they get a year or two under their belt in the Big Ten, but if the bottom feeders in the league want to crawl into the middle class of college football, they're going to need to build quality depth in their coaching staff, and it's harder to do that when you're spending so much less than your competition.

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What's the key takeaway here? Generally, the schools that are making investments in their staff are the ones who are successful.  Like with any organization, sometimes the proverbial little guy gets a slam dunk hire at a little cheaper (see, Luke Fickell making more than Pat Narduzzi), and sometimes an organization spends a lot of money on the wrong talent (see, Knicks, New York or UVA's coaching staff). Coaching is a competitive labor market, and the best talent doesn't come cheap.

When it comes to all the crazy turnover we'll see this offseason, it can help to remember to follow the money.