Twenty years ago, Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges embarked on the same job at Portland State, a Division II college.
A young man who hadn’t been in the collegiate coaching ranks long, Borges said he earned a whopping $20,000 in his first year.
It’s a long way from where he is now as he enters his fourth year at Auburn. Borges is second in the Southeastern Conference among offensive coordinators with a base salary of $325,000. That trails only LSU’s Gary Crowton, who will make $400,000 this year.
"The market value for assistant coaches has gone up, like head coaches," Borges said. "When you’re breaking in, they tell you if you want to be a football coach, you seldom make the money. In the early part of my career, I didn’t make much money. You just hope you catch up to it."
Borges makes more than double the salary of Bobby Petrino, $150,000, when he served in the same capacity at Auburn in 2002. His salary is also well above the $190,000 he received when he first joined Auburn's staff. A 1999 study by USA Today showed there were just five college head coaches who made $1 million per year. Now, college football has its first $4 million man, Alabama’s Nick Saban.
The typical college football assistant now easily earns more than a professor at his university. Across the SEC, average salaries for professors range from $57,000 for an assistant professor to as high as $135,000 for a full professor, according to the latest information provided by the American Association of University Professors.
League-wide, SEC athletic directors and coaches say they will wait to see what impact Saban’s contract will have on the rest of the league — as well as the rest of the country.
"It will be interesting to see," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. "I don’t think you can judge the market on one particular move. We’ll see how it impacts the next few hires."
In addition to Saban’s new contract, the SEC boasts four coaches who make as much as $2 million per year, including Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville, Georgia’s Mark Richt, Florida’s Urban Meyer and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, Arkansas’ Houston Nutt and LSU’s Les Miles all make more than $1.5 million and are closing in on the $2 million mark.
The Ledger-Enquirer compiled salaries from 10 of the 12 SEC schools. Alabama has not completed contracts for Saban’s staff and Vanderbilt, a private university, is not bound by the Freedom of Information Act to disclose such information.
The league average for assistant coaching staffs is more than $1.5 million per year, closing in on the typical salaries for head coaches. Not including Alabama, which is believed to have a $2 million budget for its assistants, LSU has the highest budget for its assistants at $1.88 million, closely followed by Auburn with $1.87 million.
Of the 10 schools providing salary figures, Mississippi State ranks last, although its $1 million budget doesn’t include the salaries of three coaches who were either recently hired or received increases with new duties. South Carolina has a budget of $1.3 million for its assistants.
Among assistants, LSU boasts the two highest paid in Crowton and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who each make $400,000.
The dramatic increase in coaching salaries has created unease among athletic directors, who wonder how much is too much.
"I would say it’s going up a little too fast," Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said. "If you look a few years back at what coaches made, I didn’t think it would be where it is now. It has moved up relatively fast.
"The concern is where will it go? While there are some institutions who can handle it, some can’t."
Dr. B. David Ridpath, an assistant professor at Ohio University and exectuive director of the Drake Group, agrees. The Drake group monitors academic integrity and intercollegiate athletics.
“No coach deserves $4 million,” Ridpath said. “You can argue for capitalism or free market, but it's hard to argue these salaries do anything to support the education mission of universities. There's really no measure to control spending in college athletics right now."
Ridpath said schools often take a "He who spends most, wins most" approach, which can leave smaller schools struggling to keep up in an "arms race" they can't win.
Head coaches typically battle just as much during contract negotiations for their assistants as for themselves. Kentucky coach Rick Brooks, who just received a new contract worth $1 million per year, fought to get raises for his assistants after Kentucky completed one of its best seasons in recent years.
"I think it’s wonderful that assistant coaches can make a good living," LSU's Miles said. "It’s free market enterprise. I’ve always wanted to pay assistant coaches very well."
Miles said that, in his experience, it’s not money driving the assistants.
"I think the guys that are successful in this business don’t coach for money, but they do coach with passion," Miles said. "To me, that passion should be rewarded with fair market value."
Borges said Tuberville has been quick to make sure his assistants are well-compensated.
"That’s one of the reasons it remains such a cohesive group," Borges said.
Richt said much of the rise has to do with competitiveness in the league.
"It’s a little surprising," Richt said. "When you have teams that are as passionate about winning as we have in our league — and other leagues — people understand the value of a great assistant or coordinator. If you want to win, you have to make sure you secure and keep the very best."
Competing with the rising salaries in the NFL also has led to teams increasing their salary budgets, especially for top-notch offensive and defensive coordinators. Saban, who recently left the NFL ranks to go to Alabama, said the NFL is dipping into the college ranks a lot because college coaches are accustomed to the turnover which is now happening in the NFL.
"Now, there’s a system where players turn over more now," Saban said. "You don’t have the same and teams turn over. That puts a real premium on coaching, teaching and development. College coaches do that all the time."
Saban said that at the very least, salaries for college coordinators need to be competitive with the NFL. "Several (NFL) coordinators make $2 million now," Saban said. "The market is created by all the leagues."
Richt said he never thought he’d see a time when college salaries could compete with the NFL.
"It probably never will across the board," Richt said. "But guys are getting NFL offers and getting close to that range and deciding to stay at the (college) level."
There’s also competition for top assistants among some of the top college programs.
"If a school like Texas or Notre Dame comes after a guy, you know they’re good and you want to keep them," Evans said. "You don’t want to get into bidding wars, but a lot of times, money talks."