SEC football has always been known for its arms races, the aggressive way SEC schools pursue recruits, the culture of competition that drives teams in the conference to fight tooth and nail for top-10 classes.
But there has been another arms race brewing in the SEC for the past decade, and it shows no signs of slowing in the wake of six straight national titles.
During the SEC’s title stretch, coaching salaries have risen exponentially. Updating a survey the Ledger-Enquirer did in 2007, the Ledger-Enquirer has compiled the salary figures and coaching contracts for 13 of the 14 coaching staffs in the SEC under the Freedom of Information Act, and the amount schools spend on their coaching staffs has exploded.
Vanderbilt is a private university and therefore not required to release the information.
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Based on the salaries of 12 SEC coaches — Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith is on a 10-month contract worth $850,000, and therefore excluded — the average salary for an SEC head coach is more than $2.6 million.
Alabama’s Nick Saban ($5.3 million), Auburn’s Gene Chizik ($3.5 million) and Georgia’s Mark Richt ($2.81 million) rank first, third and fifth among SEC head coaches. LSU’s Les Miles is second at $3.7 million and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier is fourth at $3.3 million and In 2007, the league average for assistant coaching staffs was more than $1.5 million. Five years later, that figure has risen to more than $2.3 million. According to a USA Today report in 2011, the national average is only $1.6 million.
“It’s been incredible that over the last X amount of years the salaries have escalated, but here’s one thing you pretty much know in the business world,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “When the salaries go up, they’re usually never going down.”
Five years ago, Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borg-es made $325,000 per year, second-most in the SEC, after four years of service with the Tigers.
Now, that salary seems almost quaint. In today’s SEC, Borges’ salary would be third-to-last among the 13 schools that release public records.
Auburn’s current offensive coordinator, Scot Loeffler, is already making $500,000 per year.
For the most part, one thing has been driving the explosive growth in coach’s salaries:
The three highest-paid staffs in the SEC — Alabama, Auburn and LSU — own four of the SEC’s six straight national championships. Alabama, the only school among them to win two in that period, pays its coaching staff more than $9.1 million per year. Auburn and LSU have $7.135 million allotted for their staffs.
“It’s imperative that we keep continuity, and we have an opportunity to be competitive salary-wise with other schools who are trying to hire our coaches,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
The trickle-down effect of success has meant that a coach doesn’t have to win the national championship to earn a raise. At South Carolina, Steve Spurrier’s salary has doubled in the past five years as he has turned the traditionally-mediocre Gamecocks into an SEC contender.
A little closer to home, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham received a $75,000 raise, to $825,000, for turning the Bulldogs’ defense into the nation’s fourth-ranked unit last year. Grantham’s new salary ranks behind only Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart ($950,000), LSU’s John Chavis ($900,000) and Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder ($850,000).
“I’ve said with all our coaches, I pay close attention to where they stand with their peers,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said when Grantham and Richt received new contracts earlier this summer.
Grantham’s raise also signaled another shift in coach’s salaries. In the SEC, defensive coordinators come at a high price.
No SEC offensive coordinator makes more money than his defensive counterpart on staff, and only three schools — Arkansas, Kentucky and new SEC member Missouri — pay equal salaries to both coordinators.
Among offensive coordinators, Alabama’s Dog Nussmeier leads the way at $590,000. Tennessee’s Jim Chaney is second at $550, followed by Loe er.
“When you talk about paying assistants these days, if you’re going to go out and hire assistants that have proven themselves by their body of work, it’s about market value,” Chizik said. “You have to be able to stay within the range of the market, or you have no chance of getting the top guys that you’re interested in.”
Chizik knows a little something about paying market value for top assistants.
To poach VanGorder from the Atlanta Falcons, Auburn had to put the experienced coordinator near the top of the SEC.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, at $1.3 million, is the highest-paid coordinator in the country, matching the salary paid to former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn after he led the Tigers’ offense to record-setting numbers with Cam Newton.
In the near future, Malzahn might not be the only SEC assistant to break the $1 million mark. Smart, the Alabama defensive coordinator, is the conference’s highest-paid assistant. He is only $50,000 away from the mark.
Faced with excessive pressure to win, athletic directors across the SEC are likely to keep raising the bar for the nation’s top coaches.
“The market is what it is,” Saban said when most of his staff got raises in March, following the national championship. “And if we’re not willing to pay that to the best people that we have, they’re not going to be here.”
When wins are at stake, the salary race isn’t likely to end anytime soon.
— Kevin Price, Seth Emerson and Michael Casagrande contributed to this report.