Money - the great coaching equalizer, Part I

AndyVance's picture
December 5, 2012 at 12:03p

It's all about the money...Since we're in the silly season, theories abound as to what drives coaches to move hither and yon - mostly, though, we can put big moves down to a desire to improve one's resume and to improve one's income. For some, Urban Francis Meyer as an example, going home is a powerful motivator, but thus far this season we haven't seen an abundance of great homecoming stories on the coaching carousel.

Two pieces stood out to me this week in analyzing coaching and the state of the B1G in general - the first was Johnny's analysis of which Big Ten play callers were "expendable," and the second was USA Today's database of coaching pay. Looking at these two pieces in tandem may give us some logic behind why the B1G hasn't quite overcome the perception that it is an also-ran conference to the likes of the SEC (and this season, to the Big 12 as well).

Let's look at the numbers for the Big Ten:

School Coach Total compensation 2012 record
Ohio State Urban Meyer $4,300,000 12-0
Iowa Kirk Ferentz $3,835,000 4-8
Michigan Brady Hoke $3,046,120 8-4
Nebraska Bo Pelini $2,875,000 10-2
wisconsin Bret Bielema $2,640,140 8-5
Penn State Bill O'Brien $2,320,000 8-4
Michigan St Mark Dantonio $1,934,250 6-6
Illinois Tim Beckman $1,600,000 2-10
Northwestern Pat Fitzgerald $1,280,751 9-3
Indiana Kevin Wilson $1,260,000 4-8
Minnesota Jerry Kill $1,200,000 6-6
Purdue Danny Hope $970,000 6-6

And now, for the Southeastern Conference:

school coach total compensation record
Alabama Nick Saban $5,476,738 12-1
LSU Les Miles $3,856,417 10-2
S Carolina Steve Spurrier $3,585,000 10-2
Auburn Gene Chizik $3,577,500 3-9
Georgia Mark Richt $2,925,340 11-2
Mizzou Gary Pinkel $2,700,000 5-7
Miss st Dan Mullen $2,600,000 8-4
Florida Will Muschamp $2,474,500 11-1
Texas A&M Kevin Sumlin $2,436,300 10-2
Tennessee Derek Dooley $2,011,000 5-7
Kentucky Joker Phillips $1,704,250 2-10
ole miss Hugh Freeze $1,505,500 6-6
Arkansas John L. Smith $850,000 4-8
Vandy James Franklin Not Available 8-4

Undertaking a "quick and dirty" analysis of the data, we can see that the SEC outpaces the B1G in both its top-tier coaching salaries and in its average salary. Spending a total $35,702,545 on 13 coaches (Vanderbilt does not release its coaches' salary information), the conference schools average $2.75 million per head coach. By comparison, the Big Ten schools spend and aggregate $27,261,261 on 12 coaches, for an average of $2.27 million.

The dividing line appears to be the $2 million threshold. As a word of a caution from a wanna-be economist, understand that correlation and causality are not the same thing - just because two things are correlated does not mean one has an effect on the other. In other words, while spending $2 million or more on a coach seems to be indicative of schools that win 8 games or more, simply jacking your coach's salary to that level ain't gonna guarantee eight games (see the curious case of Kirk Ferentz for more).

In the case of the Big Ten, exactly half of the member institutions pay their chief football executive more than $2 million, and of those only one failed to win 8 games this season; as a corollary, of those paid less than $2 million, only one coach won more than 8 games. Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats went 9-3 again this season, and I contend he is becoming the Joe Paterno of NW: he'll be there forever, consistently winning enough games and making enough Bowl appearances that he will become the essence of his school's football identity.

Looking at the "more competitive" SEC, we see that 10 of 14 schools (excluding Vandy, of course) pay more than $2 million, and of those, only three failed to win at least 8 games this season. Similarly, no SEC coaches earning less than $2 million won 8 contests this year.

Why should this make intuitive sense? It speaks to resources and support. If a school can afford to spend the big bucks for a marquee coach, it likely spends good money on facilities and other factors that make for a successful program. An area getting much more attention from Buckeye and Big Ten fans in recent years is spending on assistant coaches - an exhaustive analysis of assistant coaching salaries will have to wait for another day, but suffice it to say good staffing matters, as our decade long love affair relationship with Jim Bollman can attest.

Here is the other big factor that I think is overlooked in what makes for great programs: longevity. It is damn difficult to build a program in a season or two - Urban Meyer is one of the very few coaches to waltz in to a program and win a national title or go undefeated in a year or two. Young guns like Darrel Hazell do it at the mid-major level from time to time, but their success at the upper tiers of college football is spotty at best. Hell, even a legendary leader like Hurricanes/Cowboys/Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson stub their toes from time to time in the early days of their rebuilding efforts.

Looking at the Big Ten play callers prior to this week's coaching changes, we saw an average tenure of 4.33 years, with three first-year and three second-year head coaches. By contrast, the SEC has an average tenure (again, prior to the start of silly season) of 4.71 years, with three first-year and two second-year leaders. The biggest difference, however, is the tenure of the highest-performing coaches: Among the teams winning 8 or more games in the Big Ten the average tenure is only 3.833 years due to first year phenoms Meyer and BOB; Pelini, Bielema and Fitzgerald each had at least five years' experience.

In the SEC, on the other hand, the average tenure of coaches winning 8 or more games is 5.375 years, a statistically significant difference. Five coaches have at least six or more years in the saddle - Saban looking relatively young with only 6 seasons at 'Bama - with two leaders crossing the decade mark.

Thinking of the "great" coaches in college football history, longevity was clearly a factor in their legendary status: Schembechler, Hayes, Bryant, Paterno, Bowden, and even lesser lights of the modern era like Alvarez and Spurrier all had massive experience under their belts by the end of their careers. Look at it this way - while our culture has moved toward an extreme "I want it now dammit" attitude, those top-shelf coaches had enough good will and political capital under their belts to weather the occasional subpar season (Joe Paterno being a prime example of high highs and low lows in any given decade).

Given the first observation - that winning 8 games or more takes money - the second observation reinforces a long-held management maxim: hire slow, and fire fast. If you're going to commit several million dollars to a marquee employee, you'd better make sure he's the right man for the job before you put the cash on the table. On the other hand, if you can tell in three seasons that it isn't going to work, move on. But if you've got something going, buy-and-hold makes a lot of sense, just like in the market.

Turnover at top-tier institutions is fairly low, compared to other programs; this reinforces a notion of marquee football factories as "destination jobs." Looking at the Top 5 "greatest programs" in college football history, we see a consistent trend toward long-tenured high-performing coaches in the Bowl era (post-1935).

  1. Oklahoma - 13 coaches, averaging 66.8 games in the saddle; three crossed the 170 game mark (Wilkinson, Switzer and Stoops)
  2. Michigan - 9 coaches, averaging 98.4 games at the helm; three crossed the 100 game mark, with Schembechler hitting 247 and Carr hitting 162
  3. Ohio State - 11 coaches, averaging 76.5 games; Hayes, Bruce, Cooper and Tressel all coached more than 100 games
  4. Alabama - 11 coaches (not counting Price and Kines), averaging 82.4 games; only Frank Thomas and Bear Bryant broke 100 games - Bear had 287
  5. Notre Dame -  14 coaches, averaging 61.4 games; only three coaches last more than a decade, each marking 11 years (Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz)

As B1G fans hope schools in the league up the ante in coaching and competitiveness, money and longevity appear to be two big factors worth watching in the next few years.

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