High-paid as­sis­tants choosier on top jobs

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USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Dan Wolken, Steve Berkowitz and Christo­pher Sch­naars

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 com-

pen­sa­tion 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 mod­ern­day 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 of­flim­its 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 top­five 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.”

GLENN BEIL/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Clem­son de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brent Ven­ables is mak­ing $2.2 mil­lion this year.

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