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College football’s $2 million assistant club is booming

Monte Kiffin changed the coaching compensation landscape in 2009 when he secured a $1.2 million salary from Tennessee to be the program’s defensive coordinator. That contract made him the first assistant in college football history to earn an average of $1 million in a season. 

He’d be far from alone in 2020. There were 24 assistant coaches that made at least a million dollars last season, according to USA Today. That number has only grown this offseason. For example, Ohio State is paying FOUR assistant coaches $1 million-plus this year. There were only eight such coaches nationally in 2015. 

Today we’re going to examine a different sort of beast: The $2 million-a-year assistant coach.

Dave Aranda broke barriers in 2018 when LSU awarded its defensive coordinator a four-year, $10 million contract. That’s $2.5 million a year for those playing at home. Aranda was alone in the $2 million assistant club for all of … six months. Clemson gave defensive coordinator Brent Venables a new contract with an average salary of $2.3 million a year. 

Flash forward two years, and the $2 million assistant club has doubled. Here’s a look at four rich defensive coordinators and their reported salaries:

Kevin Steele, Auburn: $2.5 million
Bo Pelini, LSU: $2.3 million
Brent Venables, Clemson: $2.2 million
Mike Elko, Texas A&M: $2.1 million

The reasons vary as to why salaries have ballooned. Steele had been making $1.9 million as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. He earned a bump this offseason following a fourth straight season of the Tigers finishing in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. Pelini, recently the head coach at Youngstown State, jumped back into the FBS and commanded a salary that approached what Aranda had made previously. Venables has turned down a number of head coaching opportunities over the last half decade and is considered the top coordinator in the sport. Elko commanded huge dollars in 2018 when Texas A&M pulled him away from Notre Dame to join Jimbo Fisher’s initial staff.

Why Is This Trend Happening?

It’s what the marketplace demands.

College football coaching salaries have skyrocketed since Steve Spurrier became the first $1 million head coach in 1996. In fact, the average salary of an FBS head coach jumped from $1.36 million in 2009 to $2.67 million last year. That’s a 96.3 percent increase, which well outpaces expected inflation rates. Naturally, college assistant salaries have risen in the same period. That’s how you go from a single $1 million assistant in 2009 to 24 of them in 2019.

Could we hit the top of the coaching salary bubble soon? Maybe. But as of now, a system without any sort of regulation is going to continue to see salaries rise. In fact, we saw the first Group of Five assisstant, UCF DC Randy Shannon, hit the $1 million mark this offseason. 

Kevin Steele. (Photo: Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via , Getty)

Defensive Coordinators Dominate Assistant Salary Rankings

One commonality among the above group? They’re all defensive coordinators. In fact, every $2 million dollar assistant in college football history (all five of them) have coached on the defensive side of the ball.

What causes that to happen? Demand, only in a different fashion.

Young offensive assistants don’t often stick around long enough to see their salaries spike to that level. They become head coaches. The three highest-compensated offensive coordinators in 2018 (Ryan Day, Ohio State | Mike Locksley, Alabama | Tyson Helton, Tennessee) each went on to become a head coach the following offseason. 

Of the 24 assistants over the million-dollar mark last season, only six of them were offensive coordinators. One of those (Jeff Scott, Clemson) earned a head coaching job. Another, South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon, was fired. The other four (Tony Elliott, Kendal Briles, Josh Gattis, Steve Sarkisian) either stayed put or accepted a coordinator job elsewhere.

Clemson gave Elliott a pay raise that made him the highest-paid offensive coordinator in college football, joining Sarkisian, who also received a $50,000 bump, at $1.6 million a year. It’s important to note that Elliott opted to stay put at Clemson while Scott (South Florida) pursued a head coaching opportunity, splitting up the co-coordinators for the first time since they took over together in 2015. Clemson paid big to keep Elliott in place. Sarkisian, meanwhile, interviewed for several head coaching jobs this offseason but ultimately chose to stay at Alabama for another year, earning a slight pay bump as well. 

Highly-paid defensive coordinators tend to skew older and, at least in some cases, have likely passed their windows as potential head coaches. For example, the $2 million club for 2020 features four coaches with an average age of 52. Only Elko checks in under 45 years old.

Elliott (40) and Sarkisian (46) are much younger, and Sarkisian has already twice been the head coach at a Power Five program. Other million-plus offensive coordinators like Michigan’s Josh Gattis (36), USC’s Graham Harrell (35), Texas’ Mike Yurcich (44) and Arkansas’ Briles (37) trend younger and are still pursing their first FBS head coaching jobs. 

Offensive coordinators tend to get more head coaching opportunties, leaving the often more proven (and older) defensive assistants to dominate the assistant salary marketplace. 

Who’s Next?

Let’s not pretend that this trend will slow, barring any coronavirus-related financial pause. Assistant coaches are a huge part of the sport’s arms race, and salary pools are spiking across the country.

Michigan State gave head coach Mel Tucker a $6 million pool to pay 10 assistant coaches this offseason. That’s at a school that doesn’t rank among the 10 highest-earning revenue producing programs in the sport. That type of firepower can get people paid. For example, Michigan State’s pursuit of Kentucky tight ends coach Vince Marrow led to Marrow inking a three-year, $2.7 million deal. Yes, a tight ends coach is making $900,000 a season. For perspective, Marrow earned $175,000 in his first year at Kentucky in 2013. Strength coaches are pushing the $1 million barrier, too.

So yes, there will be many more $2 million assistants as we enter a new decade.

Who could be next? It wouldn’t be a shock to see Oklahoma shell out big dollars to keep Alex Grinch ($1.4 million a year) if the Sooners make a defensive leap and head coaching suitors come calling. Georgia’s Todd Monken, who will make $1.1 million this season, could see a salary spike if Georgia’s offensive rework goes well. The 54-year-old former Southern Miss head coach is also the type of presence who’s more likely to stay a coordinator over the long haul. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see USC shell out major dollars this offseason to keep Graham Harrell paired with head coach Clay Helton if things shape up well for the Trojans in 2020. Elliott could also demand those type of dollars if he takes the Venables route and sticks around over the long term. 

It could also be a hot name like Elko in 2018 who is fortunate enough to be caught in a bidding war. It only takes one school to takeat $2-million-a-year plunge, and it’s happening more and more often in this era of college football’s salary bonanza. 

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