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When Jeremy Pruitt was introduced as the head coach at Tennessee last year, he spoke about changing the culture of the program, to turn the Volunteers into a "big, fast, dominating, aggressive, relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play."
Part of that cultural evolution came in the weight room.
Before long, Pruitt had hired Craig Fitzgerald away from the NFL's Texans, where he had been the head strength and conditioning coach for four seasons. Tennessee gave Fitzgerald a three-year contract worth $625,000 annually, a 67 percent increase over what the school had paid for his predecessor. Then it spent another $660,000 to renovate the weight room.
"We were prepared to make an investment in that area," athletics director Phillip Fulmer said last spring.
With each passing year, the aggression, and spending, in hiring strength coaches such as Fitzgerald continues to grow. Since 2016, when USA TODAY first started tracking their annual compensation, the number of strength coaches making more than $500,000 a year has increased from three to eight. And 17 others now have an annual compensation of at least $300,000.
Iowa's Chris Doyle continues to lead the group, with an annual compensation of $725,000 in 2018. He makes more than all but two head coaches in the Mid-American Conference, and he's in line to receive a raise to $783,000 in 2019 based on a provision in head coach Kirk Ferentz's contract.
Elsewhere, schools continue to put an emphasis on hiring the right strength and conditioning coach, and they're willing to invest significant resources to ensure that such hires are made.
At Michigan, for example, strength coach Ben Herbert received a three-year contract with a $450,000 initial annual salary and a $50,000 signing bonus, as well as a commitment to have a $450,000 salary pool for four football assistant strength coaches and one nutritionist. At Texas A&M, new head coach Jimbo Fisher helped woo Jerry Schmidt from Oklahoma with what amounted to a $236,000 raise from what he made a year ago.
While Power Five schools still have the greatest resources at their disposal, Group of Five schools have made substantial commitments to strength and conditioning coaches, too. Take Florida Atlantic, where the Owls tripled the annual compensation of head strength and conditioning coach Wilson Love from $80,000 to $250,000 and gave the 27-year-old the added title of "assistant head football coach," to boot.
Head coaches often describe their strength coaches as the people who help build and maintain the culture of the program, often in the offseason when contact with the rest of the staff is limited by the NCAA, an integral role in the staff. So as assistant coach salaries continue to rise, strength coach compensation will rise, too. There's no sign of either slowing down any time soon.
Contributing: Blake Toppmeyer of The Knoxville News Sentinel
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