Friday, February 27, 2009

Tennessee Effect has coach salaries on rise

February 26, 2009

By Tom Dienhart

Let's go ahead and call it the "Tennessee Effect."

A nickname is given to any event that causes a seismic change in an industry, and that's just what Tennessee did this offseason when it re-defined the salary structure of college football with the hiring of new coach Lane Kiffin's staff.

The numbers are staggering: $1.2 million for a coordinator, $650,000 for a defensive line coach and at least $350,000 for two other assistants. Just like that, Tennessee single-handedly ratcheted up the cost of doing business for every school. And athletic directors across the nation have taken notice.

"It's a concern for all athletic directors during these challenging times," Minnesota A.D. Joel Maturi says. "Many areas across our campus have been issued a wage freeze."

Tennessee has the most expensive staff of assistant coaches in college football history. The price: $3.325 million for nine assistants. That comes out to $369,444 per coach. That makes the $2.4 million that Alabama doled out to its nine assistants this past season – which was tops in the nation – seem like a pittance.

"We chose a little bit different model to allow Lane to hire the right kind of staff around him to be able to have the kind of success we need to have in football," Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton says.

Some feel this is excess to the extreme – and even a bit shameful, given the tough economic times. Banks are failing, the auto industry is on life support and unemployment is at heights not seen since the early 1980s, but it's as if college football merely shrugs its massive shoulders and lights another cigar with a $100 bill.

"On an ethical level, it is preposterous, if not heinous, to have the football and basketball coach paid several times as much as the university president," says Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who is considered an expert on the economy of sports. "What message does that send to the students about the priorities of the school or the society?"

College football, though, can be lucrative. Football coaches and their assistants play a substantial role in the creation of revenue that funds many benefits to universities, including other sports.

"It is clear that the best coaching staffs are creating significant added value, resulting in greater proceeds from marketing, licensing and ticket sales, increased charitable donations, and a rise in student admission applications," says Neil Cornrich, who represents many high-profile head coaches. "Consequently, there is more competition for top coaches at all levels."

That brings us back to Tennessee, which hasn't won the SEC since 1998. Meanwhile, conference brethren Florida and LSU each have won two national titles this decade, Alabama is on the precipice of again becoming one of the top programs in America and Georgia has won two SEC titles and is a national power. Oh, and Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss are ramping up for big runs under new coaches.

The highest-paid Vols assistant is defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin at $1.2 million annually, making him the highest-paid assistant in the nation and the first million-dollar coordinator. Defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron – who also has the title of assistant head coach – gets $650,000. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney ($380,000) and linebackers coach Lance Thompson ($350,000) give the Vols four assistants who make at least $350,000.

Factor in Lane Kiffin's $2 million deal, and Tennessee is spending $5.3 million on football coaches this year. Amazingly, that aggregate figure ranks just fourth in the SEC, behind LSU, Alabama and Florida, largely because the head coaches of those schools are paid more than Kiffin.

"Our funding model requires football to be successful in order to fund other sports and not detract from the university's mission," Hamilton says. "This team of experienced coaches understands that vision.

"While our coaches' salary model is unique, we feel it is a great model for Tennessee. Coach Kiffin understands the power of putting together a great team, and he used the budget we provided to assemble what many will consider to be the best staff in America."

Not surprisingly, the SEC is the trend-setter in this spending spree. It's like any other industry: The top companies attract the top talent and pay top dollar. And the pursuit of – and bidding for – prime SEC assistants has been fast and furious this offseason.

Tennessee hired away Thompson (Alabama) and David Reaves (South Carolina) from other league schools. Alabama grabbed James Willis from Auburn. Auburn lured Tracy Rocker away from Ole Miss. LSU nabbed Ron Cooper from South Carolina and also hired former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. And on it went, as schools anted up in hopes of winning the SEC championship.

Some trace the all-out salary explosion to Alabama's courtship of Nick Saban after the 2006 season. Alabama gave Saban an eight-year, $32 million contract that made him the nation's highest-paid coach.

While Tennessee garnered most of the headlines this offseason, Auburn also wrote some massive checks in building Gene Chizik's first staff on the Plains. Media reports indicate that four Auburn assistants will be paid more than $300,000: defensive coordinator Ted Roof ($370,000), offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn ($350,000), wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor ($320,000); and Rocker ($300,000). And offensive line coach Jeff Grimes isn't far behind ($290,000). All five were hired off other staffs: Roof from Minnesota, Malzahn from Tulsa, Taylor from Oklahoma State, Rocker from Ole Miss and Grimes from Colorado.

The high cost of coaching has had a trickle-down effect. Non-"Big Six" schools can't match the spending clout of their big-boy brethren, which has impacted smaller schools' ability to retain top talent.

Fresno State is a perfect example. Every offseason, it seems, Bulldogs coach Pat Hill loses an assistant – or two – to a higher-paying jobs at a school in a bigger league. Look at his offensive coordinators alone. It started with Jeff Tedford (Oregon) and has continued with Andy Ludwig (Oregon), Frank Cignetti (North Carolina), Steve Hagen (North Carolina) and Jim McElwain (Alabama). This offseason, Hill saw Doug Nussmeier bolt to join the Washington staff.

"It is tough," Hill says. "We don't have the resources the bigger schools have. We do the best with what we have, but it is a challenge to keep hiring quality people. But I like the challenge."

Big expectations are part of receiving big money. In other words, to whom much is given, much is expected. Lane Kiffin is ready.

"As I said in the first press conference, this staff was going to take some time," he said recently. "It wasn't about doing it fast, it was about doing it right … Once again, I would like to thank Mike Hamilton, the athletic department and our donors for making this possible."

Popular Posts