Rise of the Assistants

By Kyle Rowland on June 10, 2013 at 9:30a
Luke Fickell: Ohio State's most well-paid assistant.

During Jim Tressel’s decade at the helm of the Ohio State Buckeyes, the football program enjoyed an unprecedented period of success that included more than 100 wins, a national championship and eight Big Ten titles. He was compensated handsomely for the victories, raking in a salary that ranked among the top-10 of the country. But his assistants did not join that elite group.

Arms races have existed in college athletics for years, and Ohio State athletic Gene Smith wasn’t about to get caught up in the hoopla. It started in 2009 when Lane Kiffin was allocated $2.5 million to pay four of his prominent assistants at Tennessee, including $1.2 million for his defensive coordinator – and father – Monte.

The rise in assistant coaches’ pay started in the deep-pocketed SEC but has since spread around the country like an out of control wildfire. The increases weren’t thought to be sustainable when first processed. That mindset seems to have gone the way of the dodo. In a win-at-all-costs era, athletic departments are able to attract big boosters willing to help Old State U. keep up with the Jonses.

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds infamously said, “We are the Jonses,” when referring to the Longhorns. But they’ve fallen on hard times in recent seasons, posting a 22-16 record since 2010. However, don’t think that’s affected salaries on the football staff. Coordinators received raises after a 5-7 season in 2010.

At the same time, the Buckeyes’ four top-level assistants – Jim Bollman ($275,400), Jim Heacock ($260,510), Darrell Hazell ($236,250) and Luke Fickell ($183,600) – made less than $1 million combined.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Urban Meyer’s current staff.

“Assistant Coach salaries have continued to rise, especially over the last two years,” Smith told Eleven Warriors. “Considering that, we needed to compensate our staff consistent with the market and talent.”

While he was tormenting the SEC and accumulating national championships at Florida, Meyer assembled an impressive collection of assistants, many who’ve gone on to become head coaches. Meyer’s pedigree helped lure them to Gainesville, but the pay also factored into the decision-making.

When he was hired by Ohio State, Meyer, who is due more than $4 million this season, vowed to hire the best group of assistant coaches in America, saying it’s what the Buckeyes and their fans deserved. To attract them, it would take a sales pitch that included tradition, winning, facilities, and money. Consider it a success, as all three of Ohio State’s coordinators – Fickell ($600,000) Everett Withers ($580,000) and Tom Herman ($550,000) – make more than a half-million dollars.

“We are at the top of the Big Ten and probably in the top third nationally,” Smith said.

“we needed to compensate our staff consistent with the market and talent.”

Less than three years ago, he – and other influential figures in college sports – called skyrocketing salaries for assistants “irresponsible” and even said money derived from fans could be better spent. Then again, all fans want is a winner.

As the SEC and other leagues have upped the ante – LSU pays two assistants more than $1 million and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the highest paid assistant in the country at $1.3 million – the Big Ten has been left behind not only in salaries but respectability.

That era is quickly coming to an end. In times when CEOs get chastised for oversized incomes, fans encourage the athletic department of their favorite team to open up the checkbook. The Big Ten listened.

The Detroit Free Press reported that the conference is investing $1.72 million more into assistant coaches for the upcoming season (Data was gathered from 10 schools – Northwestern and Penn State are not required to respond to open-records requests) than in 2012.

“I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators, so we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more,” Smith said at the Big Ten meetings in May. “Any time there’s change, you have that opportunity.”

Over the past four years, assistant coaches’ salaries have risen 29 percent, eight percentage points higher than head coaches during the same timeframe. Not surprisingly, the SEC leads the pack with its average assistant coach pay at $315,000.  The Big Ten average is $268,000, with Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison – Meyer’s coordinator at Florida – topping the list at $750,000.

And it’s not just Ohio State and Michigan who are paying more money, every school in the conference, even the Purdues and Minnesotas, has made a stronger commitment.

Six years ago, 42 head coaches made at least $1 million. There are now 42 that make $2 million. Still, it’s the upsurge in assistants’ pay that is drawing headlines.

“Everyone’s always focused on head coaches salaries, but I think really when you look at the changes, it’s really been assistant salaries across the country, not just in the SEC – the Big 12, the Pac-12, all across the country,” Smith said.

The effects were felt most at Wisconsin. First, head coach Bret Bielema fled for Arkansas, and one of the biggest reasons was what he felt was a lack of commitment in compensating assistants. Enter new head coach Gary Andersen and a group of assistants that will receive nearly $2.5 million – $500,000 more than Bielema’s 2012 staff.

It’s separated the haves and have-nots even more. When it comes to hiring head coaches, mid-majors are finding it more difficult because high-profile assistants would be required to take a paycut in some cases to become head coaches. If you’re a coordinator at a major conference program making more than $500,000, taking comparable pay with more stress and less stability isn’t attractive.  

All of a sudden, being the head man in-charge isn’t always the most desirable career route. 


Comments Show All Comments

kmp10's picture

"Northwestern and Penn State are not required to respond to open-records requests."
I understand why Northwestern, a private university, isn't required to comply with open records requests... but why not PSU?

Kyle Rowland's picture

State law allows them to skirt requests. 

gumtape's picture

Fickell is so hot I can't even talk right now.

High and tight boo boo

ArTbkward's picture

That's not the first time I've heard someone say that in the last five days :)

We should strive to keep thy name, of fair repute and spotless fame...

(Also, I'm not a dude)

mh277907's picture

Just like any business, you have to pay for talent so I am not bothered in the least by how much these guys make. I would much rather have coordinators who have the desire and drive to become a head coach someday than "yes" men who are content with where they are at. Sure, the turnover will be higher and it will be difficult dealing with change, but ultimately I believe it would be good for the program.


OSUs12-OH's picture

I have to admit...these figures boggle my mind.  My wife and I together don't make as much as these assistant coaches back in the day.  I'm kind of jealous to be quite honest;-)
In all seriousness, I can't see why this is necessary to pay the assistants that much.  They're eventually going to go get Head Coaching jobs elsewhere no matter what.  Unless it's like LSU's or Morris getting over a mill to be an assistant (even then they may still take other high paying HC jobs).  As for OSU's, if they keep winning, expect it to rise even higher.

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

One Bad Buckeye's picture

Yeah, but at least they're a lot less likely to bolt for other assistant jobs.  How many assistants from LSU and Bama did Urban unsuccessfully try and uproot?  

"I'm One Bad Buckeye, and I approve this message."

Russell438's picture

It's all economics. Supply/demand. That's the going market rate for assistant coaches.

CC's picture

I'm not sure what is so hard to understand.  You get what you pay for by in large.  If you want the Greg Mattisons of the world you need to pay for it.  Look what he did in 1 year with the same players...
Look what Herman did vs. the walrus.
If people are willing to pay for tickets and merchandise to fund then they can demand it.

AndyVance's picture

The upshot about the trend toward increasing assistants' salaries is that it allows coaches who are successful in coordinator or position coaching roles to stay in those roles rather than chasing the much higher-paying head coaching gig. Given the notion of the Peter Principle, there are coaches who are exceptional assistants who would make terrible head coaches - by compensating them at a higher level, perhaps more will be content to stay in a secure position rather than feeling compelled to chase the bigger dollars.

Chief B1G Dump's picture

I gotta feeling Vrabel is on the rise and may very well end up our next head ball coach...
Guy makes $250k which apparently is chump change now, so we'll see how is salary plays out the next few years.

ArTbkward's picture

He's a bit of an exception though.  After coming off of playing in the NFL for 14 years, he likely doesn't need to chase money.  Today's minimum NFL salary starts at about $300K though, granted, that's up from when he would have started in '97 but how much would he have made in that time?

We should strive to keep thy name, of fair repute and spotless fame...

(Also, I'm not a dude)

Chief B1G Dump's picture

He's got NFL $$$ no doubt. I'm just talking about keeping an eye on the "value" OSU puts on his services.
I would think there's a direct correlation to his career arc/ ambitions here and his salary increase(s).
I don't see him going elsewhere, just more of a barometer of his coaching.
Who knows though, maybe he's set and just having a good time being a position coach???

45has2's picture

PSU does not respond to open records requests. No surprise there.

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

Phillips.449's picture

Am I wrong or does Fickell "only" make $150,000 less than he did as the interim head coach?  Not too shabby! 

AndyVance's picture

It's kind of a win-win, really... He makes enough money that most FCS and mid-major head coaching jobs don't look more attractive from a money standpoint, so he gets to make enough money to live the lifestyle to which he's become accustomed and Ohio State can feel a little comfortable that he's not going to run off chasing the next gig on account of finances.

buckskin's picture

If you want the best, then you have to pay for the best.  I am glad to see some of our assistants finally making money that is on par for a top notch program.  I know Urban will be making sure they earn that money!