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When Arkansas State athletics director Terry Mohajir went to hire a football coach six years ago for a program that had been a reliable launching pad to the Power Five, he looked to the staff of one of the most profitable athletics departments in the country.
At the time, Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin wasn't just a highly regarded rising assistant in college football, he was also attainable for a Sun Belt program whose total athletics budget is roughly one-fifth of schools such as Texas.
"He was making ($700,000), and that was pretty high," Mohajir said. "It was pretty good money, but I was able to pay him more to be a head coach."
Fueled by an explosion in the cost of hiring and retaining top-level assistants, however, the economics of grooming the next generation of head coaches has been turned on its head in less than a decade.
Whereas only five assistants in the country were making $1 million or more five years ago, that number has exploded to 21 in the latest USA TODAY college coaching salary survey, with eight of those making at least $1.5 million.
Led by LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, whose total basic compensation for this year is $2.5 million, the motivation for top programs to retain elite assistants has turned many of those jobs into more lucrative and potentially more secure opportunities than a significant portion of head coaching gigs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"A lot of people wanted to be head coaches because the money was so significantly different, but it's not any more," said Chad Chatlos, who specializes in coaching and executive searches for Ventura Partners. "So what's the incentive unless you're just driven to be a head coach? You're seeing some guys say, 'I want to just coach my defense' without having to deal with the other stuff that comes with being a modern-day head coach."
Whereas the path to lifetime financial security in college football almost always came through success as a head coach until the last few years, the lines have recently blurred.
Aranda's contract, which is guaranteed through March 31, 2022, makes him more highly paid than four head coaches in the Pac-12 Conference. Missouri's Barry Odom, a head coach in Aranda's own league, the Southeastern Conference, made slightly less ($2.35 million) this season.
Aranda, 42, was a little-known commodity as recently as six years ago. After working his way up from places such as Cal Lutheran and Delta State to the FBS level at Utah State in 2012, his reputation blossomed when he followed Gary Anderson to Wisconsin and ran a defense that finished in the top 10 nationally for three consecutive seasons even though his roster wasn't loaded with blue-chip recruits.
Known for a 3-4 defensive system that confuses opponents with unique blitz packages and pre-snap deception, Aranda's work planted a seed in the mind of former LSU coach Les Miles in the 2014 season opener against Wisconsin, which LSU won 28-24. Though the job wouldn't come open until the end of 2015, Miles lured Aranda to Baton Rouge with the opportunity to put some of the best athletes in the country in his scheme.
"We interviewed a lot of guys, but the absolute star was Dave Aranda," Miles said at the time. "That defense was the toughest defense for us to scheme and go against (that) year."
Though Miles was fired only a few months later, Aranda had made himself so integral that the viability of LSU's plan to promote Ed Orgeron to head coach largely hinged on making him the nation's highest-paid assistant at $1.8 million a year. Then, when Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M attempted to hire him last year, LSU redid his contract, giving him a fully guaranteed four-year, $10 million deal that was simply unprecedented at the time for an assistant.
"And I'm not sure they would have stopped there — that's how valuable he is to LSU," said Scott Roussel, who owns and operates FootballScoop, a website that specializes in coaching transactions. "It's a big, big business, and a systemic breakdown that could occur without one of those (elite coordinators) is potentially more costly than the $2.5 million in salary or versus the salary you'd have to pay somebody else. You run a huge risk if you lose one of those guys. That's how an athletic director is looking at it."
Taking a pay cut for a promotion?
The size and security of Aranda's deal doesn't necessarily entrench him on Orgeron's coaching staff forever. But it does make Aranda, and other superstar coordinators, much harder to attain these days, even for schools that can offer head coaching opportunities.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables ($2.2 million this year) has been notoriously picky if not outright dismissive of job openings. Meanwhile, other highly paid defensive coordinators including Auburn's Kevin Steele ($2.05 million), Texas A&M's Mike Elko ($1.8 million), Oregon's Jim Leavitt ($1.7 million) and Ohio State's Greg Schiano ($1.5 million) are less likely to become head coaches because, in large part, of how much money they make.
In the American Athletic Conference, which has tried to keep pace with the Power Five, the pay scale has mostly been between $1 million to $2 million for head coaches. The market in both the Mountain West and Conference USA has been roughly $1.5 million on the high end, with some head coaches on the low end barely clearing the $500,000 bar. In the Sun Belt, where Mohajir has helped build a consistent winner through aggressive fundraising and facilities improvements, his head coach, Blake Anderson ($825,000), would barely be among the 35 highest-paid assistants this year in the Power Five.
If Anderson left this year, it's possible Mohajir wouldn't be able to draw the attention of many of those assistants, even for a job that previously launched Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Harsin to promotions.
"When a head coach has a good coordinator, they don't want to lose them," Mohajir said. "At the end of the day, if a guy is making $1.5 million, does he want to come to a Sun Belt or Conference USA school and make $1 million? Do you want to take half the pay to be a head coach?"
The irony, though, is that the path for advancement in the coaching business hasn't necessarily changed much. A year ago, out of the 13 new hires made by Power Five schools, eight had previous head coaching experience at a Football Bowl Subdivision school. The year before, five Power Five schools hired their new coaches directly from the mid-major ranks.
Though it's certainly not unheard of for high-profile coordinators to move directly into elite head coaching jobs — Georgia's Kirby Smart and Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley would be the most recent successful examples — stories like Matt Campbell going from Toledo to Iowa State or Dino Babers turning around Syracuse after he did the same at Bowling Green remain the bread-and-butter of the business.
"There is so much pressure on ADs at every level to make sure they get a coach who is going to be successful that I think ADs still prefer a head coach that has head coaching experience," North Texas athletics director Wren Baker said. "I think it's most coaches' dreams to be in a job one day where they can make a lot of money and compete for a national championship. And if you want to do that, the best path to get there is still being a Group of Five head coach."
Under Baker, North Texas has pushed to invest resources in coaching and made Seth Littrell the highest-paid coach in C-USA this year at $1.425 million. However, winning nine games in each of the last two years has put Littrell on the radar of bigger programs, and like most athletics directors in his position, Baker monitors the market in case he has an opening to fill.
If Littrell left, it's possible that some coaches whom Baker might naturally be interested in because of their success as assistants might already make more money.
"It certainly puts another wrinkle into the whole process," Baker said. "I don't see it as vastly limiting your pool, but it's definitely a factor."
But following Baker's point about the appeal of hiring a Group of Five head coach and perhaps influenced by prominent Power Five assistants' pay, two schools from the Group of Five have looked to the Football Championship Subdivision for their openings. This week East Carolina hired Mike Houston, who led James Madison to the FCS national title in 2016, and Charlotte named Will Healy its head coach after he revived Austin Peay's program.
Less risk, less pressure
While the salaries, of course, reflect how much revenue top college football programs generate, they also indicate the value of specialization. A decade ago, a coach might have to chase jobs that were out of their comfort zone because the financial difference was so significant. Now, someone who is really good at one thing can become wealthy just doing that one thing.
For some people, the upside of being a coordinator now might be even greater than becoming a head coach. Signaling how much it wants to keep Venables, Clemson reworked his deal to $2 million a year in February and five months later extended his contract to five years through January 2023 and added a retention/deferred compensation plan in the form of a life insurance policy for a package worth $11.6 million.
"In a business that is highly unstable traditionally, now you've got a school saying we're going to pay you three to four years guaranteed at $1.3 million, that means a lot to be able to give back some stability to their wives and kids," Chatlos said.
There are also fewer external pressures in terms of fundraising or media obligations (Aranda, for instance, is off-limits to the media during the season), and nobody is going to fly a banner over the stadium demanding that the school fire a coordinator.
Though safe harbors don't really exist in coaching, there is a certainly appeal to a lifestyle where the entire focus goes to the on-field product.
"If you love to coach and you love to work with young men and specifically mold them for their future, which a lot of these guys really love that stuff, being a position coach or a coordinator is a really good place to be right now," Roussel said. "A lot less risk, a lot less pressure than the head coaching seat for sure."
The other side of that, though, could have some significant implications for the industry. As assistant salaries grow and programs such as Clemson, Ohio State and LSU invest in coaching staff stability, what's the incentive for promising young coaches to go prove themselves at smaller programs?
Before Mohajir hired Anderson, who had been the offensive coordinator at North Carolina, he recalled interviewing another highly rated assistant at a top-five program who was already making more money than Arkansas State had allocated for the position.
Mohajir, who declined to name the coach, said he could tell during the conversation that the possibility of taking a pay cut was going to be an issue and they went their separate ways.
He said that experience, however, wouldn't stop him from inquiring about Power Five assistants who make more than $1 million the next time he has an opening.
After all, there are still a lot of people who want to be head coaches and there are only 130 of these highly coveted FBS jobs, even though half of them have financial limits due to the inequity in television money.
"To be very candid, the ones that are willing to take the pay cut are the ones that are the most attractive because you know they really, really want to be the head coach," Mohajir said.
"It's a challenge sometimes. If you want to hire Dave Aranda, is he going to come work in the Sun Belt for $1 million when he has a (four-) year contract? If he takes your job, you know he really wants the job."
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