Coaching salaries have become the lifeblood of college sports dynasties. The days of collegiate football franchises keeping legendary head coaches for the duration of their career on a shoestring budget and "love of the game" officially ended with Joe Paterno's passing. Data compiled and released this week by USA Today reinforces one of the key reasons the Southeastern Conference outperforms the Big Ten on the field: shifting demographics be damned, the SEC simply ponies up the dough to hire better leaders.
In a sport where you can't (legally, anyway) spend money to acquire better players (again, legally, that is), the most obvious single place to invest assets with an eye toward improving performance is in your coaching staff. Staffing a team with high-caliber play callers who can recruit, train, motivate and guide the best players to executive better game plans is the surest way to improve performance.
Our own experience is a perfect example: John Cooper won a lot of games, but not the big ones. Ohio State hired a better coach, and won more, important games. Jim Tressel was taken from us before his time, so Ohio State hired the best available coach on the planet in Urban Meyer. The results in both cases speak for themselves. Head coaches are only one piece of the equation, of course, as assistants make every bit as much difference as does the chief executive of the team. This has been discussed at length throughout the silly season on the front page of this site, including a great piece here.
So that brings us to the new data from USA Today. I went back and updated my spreadsheet of coaching salaries to reflect the 2012 head coaching and assistant coaching salaries available to the USAT reporters and compared the Big Ten and SEC in two tables. First, the B1G:
|Team||Head Coach||Tenure||Record||Salary||Assistants||Total coaching|
|Ohio State||Urban Meyer||1||12-0||$4,300,000||$2,553,550||$6,853,550|
|Penn State||Bill O'Brien||1||8-4||$2,320,000||N/A||N/A|
|Michigan st||Mark Dantonio||6||6-6||$1,934,250||$2,201,000||$4,135,250|
+ Left to coach Arkansas
*Fired after the season
And now, the SoEvilConference:
|Team||Head Coach||Tenure||Record||Salary||Assistants||Total Coaching|
|S. Carolina||Steve Spurrier||8||10-2||$3,585,000||$4,727,500||$8,312,500|
|Miss state||Dan Mullen||4||8-4||$2,600,000||$1,990,000||$4,590,000|
|Texas A&M||Kevin Sumlin||1||10-2||$2,436,300||$1,847,499||$4,283,799|
|Ole Miss||Hugh Freeze||1||6-6||$1,505,500||$3,724,690||$5,230,190|
|Arkansas||John L. Smith*||1||4-8||$850,000||$2,338,600||$3,188,600|
So let's put the numbers in perspective:
- The average SEC school outspends the average B1G school on Head Coaching by $474,578, or 20.9%
- The average SEC school outspends the average B1G school on Assistant Coaching by $936,476, or 46.3%
- The average SEC school outspends the average B1G school on total coaching by $1,316,766, or 30.4%
In total then, the average SEC school spends roughly a third more in aggregate than the average Big Ten member - a significant difference. Looking at the teams who won at least 8 games this season, we notice that by and large those head coaches earned more than $2 million in compensation, with only one Big Ten coach failing to win 8 games at >$2 million (yes, Kirk Ferentz, I'm pointing at you), and only three SEC coaches failing to do so at that level of compensation.
For Big Ten schools, we can see that Iowa under performed its spending, while Northwestern significantly outperformed. We can also see that schools in the Big Ten that spent more than $4 million in total coaching generally won 8 games or more, with Iowa and Michigan State being the two schools to break that rule.
With the SEC data we can see that Generally schools had to spend at least $4 million as well, to get to the 8 win mark, though Ole Miss, Tennessee, Mizzou and Auburn each failed to do so. Interestingly, 50% of those schools replaced their head coach following the season.
One thing that I think is overlooked in the entire discussion over coaching and staffing expenditures is the simple fact that strong compensation yields longevity, and longevity in coaching - stability, in other words - yields dividends in the form of recruiting, coaching systems, and overall program development. The longer you are at a program as a good coach, the more chances you have to recruit high-quality coaches and players who can best execute your system.
Getting coaches to stick around takes paying them well enough to keep them from taking off the minute more money hits the table (yes, Wisconsin, I'm talking to you). Look at the Big Ten's longest-tenured coach, Kirk Ferentz. He's also been one of the league's best-paid coaches for more than a decade. He's not going anywhere, and although his teams' performances have been nowhere near what they should be for the money invested, the omnipresent Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God has a good deal to do what that.
Consider our own James Patrick Tressel. If he had left Ohio State of his own volition, it wouldn't have been for more money; he would have more likely retired than coached somewhere else. While many discuss Ohio State as a "destination job," part of that destination status is because it pays well. You're not going to make better money too many places outside the SEC, and Urbz compensation competes with the top-tier of that conference.
Look at the longevity of the head coaches steering top half of the SEC, by the way - see anything striking? The best-paid coaches are the longest-tenured in the conference, and those coaches are typically winning the most games. Saban, Miles, Spurrier, Richt and Pinkel have all been at their schools at least 6 years, all make more than $2 million, and four of the five won 10 games or more this season. Muschamp at Florida and Sumlin at A&M, likewise, each won 10 games and make more than $2.4 million - think they're going anywhere any time soon with those numbers?
Winning 10+ games, winning conference titles, and winning bowl games takes the right combination of several interrelated factors. Coaching salaries are one factor, but one factor that has a significant affect on several other factors critical to winning at a high level.