The days when the salaries of big-time football and men's basketball coaches would shock and surprise have probably long since passed for most observers. Several head football coaches blew past the $3 million mark years ago, and topped the $4 million a year barrier in 2007 . And even new data about Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) football coaches published Tuesday  by USA Today, showing a doubling since 2007 in the number of head coaches earning more than $2 million a year, is likely to be explained away by those who argue that spending top dollar for top leaders is not only smart, but necessary.
"If we let him go because we're not willing to pay market, we'll pay a huge price," USA Today quotes Sandy Barbour, athletics director at the University of California at Berkeley, as saying about its head coach, Jeff Tedford, and his $2.8 million a year pay. "Because I don't know that we can go out and find another coach with that combination of skills and (academic) emphasis."
Arguments like that, which tend to be the same ones that universities and other entities make when they spend big bucks on presidents, tend to fall a little flatter the further down the administrative ladder you go in an organization. Which is why the most startling data in the new USA Today survey of football coaches' pay may be those on assistant coaches, which the newspaper has collected for the first time.
Of the 893 assistant coaches listed by about 100 colleges that provided information to the national newspaper, 217, or nearly one in four, earn at least $200,000 a year, 66 are paid at least $300,000, and 5 top $600,000 a year. Four universities -- including three in the Southeastern Conference, Louisiana State University and the Universities of Alabama and Tennessee -- are paying their assistant coaches an average of $300,000.
Average Salaries, Assistant Coaches and Full Professors
|2009 Coaches' Average Salary||2008-9 Full Professors' Average Salary|
|Louisiana State U.||$302,809||$110,600|
|U. of Alabama||$300,283||$115,700|
|U. of Tennessee||$369,000||$100,800|
|U. of Texas at Austin||$327,000||$132,300|
Sources: USA Today, American Association of University Professors
Not only that, but more than 200 of the coaches have multiyear contracts that ensure they will be paid those hefty salaries for at least two years, and in some cases as many as five. Assistants at numerous institutions have clauses that assure them five-figure bonuses if they stick around until the following year.
Sports officials and university administrators certainly cite market-based arguments as reasons for high pay for assistant coaches, too; several of the highest-paid aides in the USA Today survey are beneficiaries of an emerging trend in which some athletics departments are locking up coaches highly sought elsewhere by making them "coaches in waiting,"  to succeed their current bosses whenever they choose to retire.
But at a time when colleges and universities around the country are freezing if not shrinking the size of their staffs, as well as the salaries of the employees they keep, the fact that the average assistant coach at many universities is earning several times the pay of the average professor or staff member is likely to stir resentment on some campuses. (Tension over sports spending is high at some universities including Barbour's Berkeley campus.) The lowest-paid assistant football coach at the University of Alabama, according to USA Today's database  of assistant coaches' pay, has a $225,000 salary -- nearly double the mean salary for full professors  and four times the average pay for assistant professors there -- and is also eligible for annual bonuses of $45,000.
Football assistants average nearly $370,000 at the University of Tennessee, and $327,000 at the University of Texas at Austin. Tennessee's average is weighted upward by the fact that its top assistant, Monte Kiffin, is paid $1.2 million a year as defensive coordinator for his son, Lane, the head coach.
The table below shows the number of assistant coaches at Football Bowl Subdivision universities with salaries over certain thresholds:
|$600,000 or more||5|
|$400,000 or more||13|
|$300,000 or more||66|
|$250,000 or more||106|
|$200,000 or more||217|
Source: USA Today
For those curious about trends in head coaches' pay, here are some summary data from USA Today's report:
Number of Coaches Earning ...
|...At least $1 million||42||50||56|
|...At least $2 million||9||12||25|
|...At least $3 million||1||4||9|
|...At least $4 million||0||0||3|
Source: USA Today