The Importance of Wisconsin’s Coaching Hire to the Big Ten

Deshaun's picture
December 10, 2012 at 8:31a

Potential investors in a corporation are, by nature, risk averse.  As such, the terminology used to describe various situations tends to skew towards the positive. In the corporate world a program supported by top management never experiences “failure.”  Rather, the program performed “less than optimally.”  One rarely hears about a “problem” their company is having.  A high-visibility project rarely experiences “concerns” or “challenges.”  Such occurrences are described as “opportunities.”  Wisconsin’s football program has recently found itself with just such an opportunity to excel.

The national narrative immediately following the announcement of Arkansas’s hiring of Beilema was less than complimentary of Wisconsin and the Big Ten.  The stereotypical Big Ten guy (“He's burly, smart, funny and down-to-earth. He believes in power running, physical defenses and big meals.”) won three straight Big Ten titles and was stolen by a mid-rung SEC program.  The way Dan Wetzel describes it, Bret Beilema had the third best job in the Big Ten (presumably after Ohio St and TTUN) and bolted for the seventh or eighth best SEC job.  The natives of the blue collars and Midwestern grey skies* are no longer interested in the local brand of football.  The Big Ten cannot hope to compete with the SEC (never mind that 19-19 bowl record between the conferences in the BCS era) anymore, and Arkansas’s theft of the Big Ten’s best coach is evidence of that.

*(editor’s note: Wetzel actually referred to “grey skis”. Though he may have genuinely been offering admiration for specifically tinted winter footwear, we will assume he was describing the color of sky which best fits the national media’s lazy narrative of the Big Ten.)

But as we said, Wisconsin has an opportunity to excel.  In fact, they have one of the Big Ten’s most important opportunities to do so.  This hire could further the national narrative of the second rate conference who could not hope to compete with the hypercompetitive SEC, or it could serve notice the Big Ten will also be making the commitment to win.  With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the candidates we’ve heard about so far:

• Paul Chryst (Pittsburgh Head Coach)
• Brad Childress (Cleveland Browns Offensive-Coordinator)
• Bob Diaco (Notre Dame Defensive-Coordinator)
• Darrell Bevell (Seattle Offensive-Coordinator)
• Al Golden (Miami Head Coach)
• Paul Rhoades (Iowa St Head Coach)
• William Taggert (Western Kentucky Head Coach)
     o Since hired to same position by South Florida
• Chris Peterson (Boise St Head Coach) – we’ll get to him in a minute

While the individuals listed above have experienced varying levels of success at different points in their respective careers, only one of them could be considered a “win” for Wisconsin.  Guess which one.  It would be hard to argue Chryst, Childress, Diaco, Bevell, Golden, Rhoades, or Taggert would be an improvement over Beilema for Wisconsin.  Certainly none would announce a return to prominence for the Big Ten.

Purdue had a similar opportunity recently.  Purdue’s head coaching position was open as a result of the ineffective and uninspired hire of Danny Hope following Joe Tiller’s retirement in 2009.  Hope’s salary was the lowest for a head coach in the Big Ten in 2011 and 2012 ($925,000 and $970,000, respectively).  Over the past three years, Hope was the #69, #65, and #67 highest paid head coach in FBS football, respectively.  Purdue paid its assistant coaches a combined $1,498,460 in 2011 (most recent data available), good enough for #51 nationally.  Some schools with higher paid assistant coaching staffs in 2011: Boise St #21, Iowa St #41, Connecticut #46, and Utah #49.  The point is not to throw more money at moderately talented coaches, but rather to spend the money required to hire top-flight head and assistant coaches.  During its most recent hiring process, Purdue targeted Butch Jones of Cincinnati.  However, it did not offer a compelling enough package to lure him to West Lafayette and he signed with Tennessee for $18 million over 6 years.  Purdue settled for Darrell Hazell of Kent State and declared victory.  Nothing against Hazell.  We all love when former Buckeye assistants rise through the ranks.  But Darrell Hazell was a head coach for exactly two seasons with a 16-9 record.  His record is strikingly similar that of another formerly hot MAC coach with Buckeye ties, Tim Beckman.  Illinois’s uninspired hire of Beckman prior to this past season has proven so misguided there were calls for his firing halfway through his first season (and they did not win another game all year).  Purdue and Illinois hiring less expensive, non-dominant coaches with limited head coaching experience and no conference championships mirrors Purdue’s approach to the Danny Hope hire of 2009.

In 2012, Wisconsin has to think bigger than Purdue and Illinois have recently.  With Mark Emmert’s punitive punishment of Penn St, the Big Ten needs a nationally relevant Wisconsin.  Penn State will likely be better than we originally expected when Emmert made his announcement, but any AP top-25 ranking should warrant an automatic national coach of the year award for O’Brien.  Purdue and Illinois have hired decent MAC coaches hoping to build the kind of programs on a budget that can compete for Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl appearances rather than Rose Bowls.  Indiana appears to have made a strong hire in ex-Oklahoma Offensive Coordinator Kevin Wilson, but there is a long way to go before they could be considered a legitimate top-25 program.  The Big Ten needs Wisconsin to be the team to compete with Ohio State for the Leaders Division for years to come.

The Big Ten needs Wisconsin to land the kind of coach the national media will refer to as “a coup.”  They need to get someone with the kind of cache to be able to recruit nationally, not just in Chicago and Ohio.  Everyone in the Big Ten recruits those two areas.  Wisconsin will not be a nationally competitive program with players exclusively from Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin.  They need a new coach who creates the perception that the program is better off now than it was a month ago with Beilema, similar to the perception of the post-Tressel hiring of Urban Meyer.

One of the biggest problems Beilema had in his time at Wisconsin was pay for assistant coaches, particularly those who received assistant coaching position offers from other programs.  “They were talking money that I can’t bring them at Wisconsin.  Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point.”  Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez disputes Beilema’s claim he was losing assistant coaches to higher paying programs. 

“I think our pay scale for assistant coaches is competitive and fair,” Alvarez said. “As an athletic director, I have to make decisions. I know what people are making. And every time someone has a hint they may take another job, it’s not prudent to throw a pile of money at them.  We all see what the salaries are. I know what the salaries are. I get charts with them. We’re more than competitive.”

Alvarez went on to mention how he was able to keep a staff together for 15 years as coach at Wisconsin.  Here’s the thing, Mr. Alvarez.  This is not the 1990’s anymore, which means two very important things.  First, the game has changed and keeping a talented staff together for 15 years requires adequate compensation.  Second and more importantly, people have access to far more information than we did while you were head coach at Wisconsin.  When you say, “we’re more than competitive,” anyone can look that up rather than taking your word for it.  For example, in 2010 Wisconsin had the #41 highest paid assistant coaching staff (excluding 21 programs who are not required to report, such as Penn State, USC, TCU, Miami, etc) with a combined $1,619,165 salary.  That dollar figure remained the same in 2011, but the ranking actually dropped to #48.  By comparison, Auburn spent $4,196,450 on assistant coaches in 2011.  Heck, even Louisville spent $2,396,800. 

With whom is Mr. Alvarez attempting to compete?  I have the upmost respect for Barry Alvarez’s accomplishments as both a coach and an administrator.  There is a strong correlation between assistant coaching staff salaries and success on the field.  Let’s take a look at some figures from the 2011 season (most recent data available) comparing assistant staff salary with final AP finish.  Here are the facts:

-Of the top 14 schools in the final AP poll, 8 of the teams rank among the 25 highest paid assistant coaching staffs, 4 are private or land grant institutions and do not report (USC, Stanford, Baylor, TCU), and 2 are ranked well outside the 25 highest paid staffs. 

-Yes, Boise State’s assistant coaching staff ranks #21 nationally, higher than any Big Ten school but Ohio State and TTUN.

-Those two low paying schools in the top 14 of the AP are Wisconsin and Michigan St, with assistant coaching staffs ranked #48 and #45, respectively.

-The remaining assistant coaching staff salary rankings of top 14 teams are as follows (in order of AP finish): #3 highest paid assistant coaching staff Alabama, #2 LSU, #9 Oklahoma St, #19 Oregon, #18 Arkansas, #21 Boise St, #17 South Carolina, #12 Michigan.
The point is, spending money does not guarantee success.  But, refusing to spend it almost certainly precludes success.

(Edit: The data for 2012 assistants has been released. It’s amazing to see the coach by coach breakdown, which you can do here. What jumps out to me is that every Buckeye coach except 28 year old Zach Smith made more than every Badger assistant. That’s not an exaggeration.  Tight ends/fullbacks coach Tim Hinton made more ($275,000) than Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator Chris Ash ($265,000). Guess how much Ash will make as defensive coordinator at Arkansas this year: $550,000.  Again, with whom does Barry Alvarez believe Wisconsin’s salaries are competitive?)

Wisconsin has to make the commitment to success and get this head coaching hire right.  To do so, it has to think bigger than Bob Diaco, Darrell Bevell, and Paul Rhoades.  Wisconsin has to go after the types of people on this list:

• Chris Peterson – Boise St – Won two BCS bowls with 5 finishes in the top 11 of the AP poll with a WAC (now Mountain West) school. Has been the target of as many major BCS programs’ wish lists as John Gruden. Is rumored to be interviewing with Wisconsin.
     o 2012 salary* - $1,959,833 (#43)
     o 2011 Staff Pool* - $2,279,590 (#21)
     o Career record: 83-8
     o Years: 2006-2012
• David Shaw – Stanford – BCS bowl and AP top-10 finish in both years as head coach with run-based offense and tough defense.
     o 2012 salary – $1,500,000 (*per CoachesHotSeat) (approx #57)
     o 2011 Staff Pool – N/A
     o Career record: 22-4
     o Years: 2011-2012
• Butch Davis – advisor for Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Guided Miami through NCAA sanctions and rebuilt them into a national power. Gave North Carolina its best seasons since Mack Brown in the mid-90’s. Was not implicated in any wrongdoing in NCAA notice of allegations to North Carolina. History of success with physical, speed-based pro-style offense and defense.
     o 2010 salary - $1,752,000 (#37)
     o 2010 Staff Pool - $1,985,000 (#23)
     o Career record: 28-23 (North Carolina) and 51-20 (Miami)
     o Years: 2007-2010 (North Carolina) and 1995-2000 (Miami)
• Charlie Strong – Louisville – Has built Louisville into a Sugar Bowl program with 3 consecutive winning seasons in BCS conference.
     o 2012 salary - $2,305,000 (rumored recent raise) (#32)
     o 2011 Staff Pool - $2,396,800 (#16)
     o Career record: 24-14
     o Years: 2010-2012
• Jim Tressel – administration at University of Akron – Won 7 Big Ten championships, national championship in 2002, had 5-3 record in BCS bowls, and finished in the top-5 of the AP poll seven times. Has an NCAA show-cause penalty requiring him to miss the first 5 games plus the bowl game of his first season, but has no other restrictions on recruiting or team activities.
     o 2010 salary - $3,888,389 (#6)
     o 2010 Staff Pool - $2,238,450 (#13)
     o Career record: 106-22
     o Years: 2001-2010
• Bobby Petrino – unemployed – Won Orange Bowl at Louisville and Cotton Bowl at Arkansas. Prolific offense everywhere he has been. Has 5 AP top-20 finishes in 8 years, including three in the top-6. No NCAA issues, although contract would have to be structured to protect the school after motorcycle incident in Arkansas.
     o 2011 salary - $3,638,000 (#6)
     o 2011 Staff Pool - $2,338,600 (#18)
     o Career record: 34-17 (Arkansas) and 41-9 (Louisville)
     o Years: 2003-06 (Arkansas) and 2008-11 (Louisville)

*Salary and Staff Pool data refers to the rank of that figure in the most recent year that person was a head coach.  Data for assistant coaches for 2012 was not yet available at time of post.

So, how does Wisconsin go about attracting one of the first five names on this list?  Barry Alvarez could start by asking the following question during an interview with a candidate, “What resources do you need in order to win championships here?”  Barry Alvarez, in that interview with Evan Cohen and Steve Phillips on SiriusXM, was asked if he thought the new coach would have the ability to win the national championship at Wisconsin.  Alvarez replied, “Yeah, I do. I do.”  The best way to attract the type of coach who can win (or has won) national championships is to ask them what they need in order to do so, and then collaborate on a plan to achieve exactly that.  For example, when Ohio State announced its hiring of Urban Meyer, Gene Smith was asked about pay for assistant coaches.  “We'll put in place the resources necessary to attract the staff that Urban feels he needs,” he said. 

As one looks at the above list of candidates for Wisconsin’s coaching search, it should be clear Wisconsin will have to pay a salary in the $3 million to $4 million range.  However, to attract a top-flight coach, a school much offer more than the same salary said coach can receive from 20 or so other schools in the country.  Offering an assistant coaching salary pool of up to $2.5 million - $3 million would allow the candidate the flexibility to attract the coaching talent needed to win on the national level.  The good news for Wisconsin is they have one of the richest athletic departments in the country, with revenue of $96,038,912.00 in 2011.  That figure will only increase with the growth of the Big Ten Network.

Wisconsin should have a recruiting budget second to none.  Proximity to both the Dane County Regional Airport (Madison, WI) and General Mitchell International Airport (Milwaukee, WI) makes a recruit’s access to Madison easier than several schools in smaller towns.  Facilities upgrades are reportedly on the way.  This is good because ESPN has Wisconsin’s team facilities ranked #11 in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern (who has a “game changer” indoor facility coming soon).  The interview should include input from the candidate regarding aspects of the team’s practice facilities, academic center, meeting rooms, etc that could aid recruiting and enhance the team’s likelihood of championship caliber success.  Any practice/team equipment the candidate feels is necessary should be made available.  The Adidas sponsorship could be leveraged for endorsement potential.  I’m generally not a fan of alternate uniforms, but kids between 15-18 like fresh gear.  Based on the uniforms in the Wisconsin-Nebraska game this year, I’m guessing Adidas has some ideas for merchandising.

Sometimes people fall in to the trap of thinking of coaches as football-teaching robots.  We have to remember these are real people who have needs and lives outside of football.  Madison was listed as one of the top 100 cities to live in 2010 by CNN.  Madison is known for being a great place to raise a family, both safe and entertaining for kids.  Similar to Columbus and Ohio State, Madison is a city which supports the Badgers in a way few other communities support their school.  To ensure the coach is able to tend to family outside the state of Wisconsin, Alvarez could include use of a private jet to allow the new coach access to the entire country.  Alvarez’s job is to identify the best possible coach, and then to sell him on everything the University of Wisconsin-Madison has to offer.

The point is Wisconsin needs to make a commitment to success on a larger scale for the health of the entire Big Ten.  Wisconsin has all the resources required to make just such a commitment.  Yes, there is more to attracting a great coach than simply throwing money at him.  Wisconsin has everything it needs in order to attract one of the best college football coaches in America.  However, they will have to change their thinking from “Who are the best head and assistant coaches we can comfortably afford” to “Who is the best we can get.”  Wisconsin must think bigger than competitive MAC coaches and coordinators of national powers.  Wisconsin needs a coach who can run a program that can compete with Oklahoma, USC, LSU, and Florida State.  Then it needs to put in place the resources necessary to do exactly that.  If Barry Alvarez settles for an affordable mid-tier coach on a budget, they will have made the conscious decision not to compete for championships, national or otherwise.  If a Big Ten team on the heels of a third straight Rose Bowl bid makes the decision not to compete, then we really are what Dan Wetzel thinks we are.

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