The assistant coach in college football is finally getting to bat last, to get some swings that matter. There is climate change.
What started as a trickle a decade ago when Norm Chow was hired as an assistant coach at North Carolina State for a hefty sum of $225,000 a year has become a spigot that has been opened to a flow. That N.C. State staff was the first million-dollar assistant coaching staff in college football.
Monte Kiffin, Tennessee defensive coordinator, earns $1.2 million a year. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp at Texas gets $900,000. Nick Holt, an assistant coach at the University of Washington, receives $600,000 per season over three years. Steve Sarkisian, in his last season at Southern Cal before becoming the head coach at Washington, made $1 million after a bowl bonus.
Bud Foster, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator, turned down the Georgia coordinator position reportedly to sign a deal where, if he stayed at Tech for five years or head coach Frank Beamer retired, Foster would be eligible for a significant annuity on top of his $402,000 salary, according to USA Today.
Foster and two other Tech assistants also have multi-year, rollover deals. Twenty years ago, if a head coach wanted to guarantee one of his aides more than one year of work, the head coach had to sign off on the deal with his own money because the school wasn’t going to offer an assistant more than one year.
For years, the assistant coach was swallowed up, spit out, kicked to the curb. His 90-hour work week, which could stretch to 100 hours if a rival was on the other sideline that coming Saturday, became an $8 an hour job because he was working so many hours.
“I don’t think fans understand what assistant coaches go through 12 months out of the year,” said Richard Bell, 72, a former assistant at Georgia and Georgia Tech, who retired after 45 seasons. “I’m happy for them when I see some of these salaries today. I’m overjoyed. I just wish I had started 10 years earlier.”
Bell was a South Carolina assistant coach in 1978 when a neighbor called on a Tuesday morning excited that he had a tee time at 9:30 a.m. and asked if would Bell like to join him. It was fall, football season, and Bell was about to go into a meeting at 6:30 a.m.
“He said I would be back by 1:30, in plenty of time for practice that afternoon,” said Bell, who lives in Smyrna. “I just couldn’t begin to explain the nature of my job and how, in the middle of football season, it would be impossible to get on a golf course.”
The new angle to the arms race in college football is paying the assistant coaches more to work those 16-hour days. Among administrators and watchdogs, it raises the same concerns as the boom in skyboxes and luxury weight rooms 20 years ago.
The big-money contracts are fine until the cheering stops. Notre Dame gambled and lost on Charlie Weis. Texas A&M lured Dennis Franchione from Alabama with big money and that went from sizzle to fizzle. Nebraska thought a boom was on the way with Bill Callahan and he didn't last.
Speaking of Nebraska, the Cornhuskers will give a significant pay raise to defensive-line coach Carl Pelini, from $208,360 to $375,000, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
It used to be bragging rights went to the coach who could cut costs, get a coach at a bargain, make a deal. Now, there is almost a macho thing to announce extravagant salaries, as if it were a recruiting edge. Trumpets blare.
Damon Evans, Georgia athletic director, said he is starting to see more multi-year deals for assistant coaches, not just the one-year, hope-we-don’t-fired experience. Evans said none of Georgia’s assistant coaches are on multi-year deals, though.
“It’s different for every institution, whether it can sustain paying a coach,” Evans said. “We’re going to do what is appropriate for us. We’re going to be mindful of things, but we’re also going to be competitive in the Southeastern Conference. If we have to pay more to get the individual we want, we’re willing to do so for a competitive edge.
“There are institutions out there who feel they have to do some things and it makes it tough on them from a financial standpoint.”
Dan Radakovich, Georgia Tech athletic director, said the preference of administrators is to not offer multi-year contracts to assistant coaches.
“At some places, at some times, they are appropriate,” Radakovich said. “I have seen them work in order to keep really good assistant coaches.”
“It’s market driven,” Radakovich said of the chase for good coaches. “As people have available revenue and see there is an opportunity to gain recognition for the department and the university, they are going to make whatever investments they feel are necessary.
“It still comes down to people and student-athletes executing whatever sports it is.”
Les Robinson, who was the North Carolina State athletic director in 2000, was meeting several years ago with Richard Howell, his lawyer and an Atlanta-based sports agent, when the subject of escalating salaries came up in the discussion.
“I said to Richard, the Sunday morning Alabama fans wake up and don’t care whether they lost to Auburn is when the salaries will stop going up,” Robinson said. “The fans care and they push it.”
Considering the climate in today’s game, the fans are pushing it for the assistant coaches as well as head coaches.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com