If you want to be elite, you’ve got to pay like the elite. If you want to be elite, you’ve got to have facilities like the elite. If you want to be elite, you’ve got to recruit with the elite.
Over the last four years all three things have been offseason talking points as to why the Big Ten isn’t competing at the top of the college football mountain. However, without the elite coaches (and thus the higher salaries) the other two aren’t likely to come.
The Big Ten needed to change its competitive level with coaching salaries first. And, with 10 coaches being with their Big Ten schools for less than four years, there’s been ample opportunity for the conference athletic departments to deal with that first issue.
That was borne out on Wednesday, as USA Today released its annual list of coaching compensation. According to the database, the Big Ten has four of the top 10 coaches compensation packages in the country.
However, the names that top the Big Ten list may come as a bit of a surprise and also hold part of the lingering problem that’s happening in the conference.
Leading the pack is Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, who is No. 2 in total compensation ($5.64 million). He’s sandwiched in between Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops — two coaches with multiple national championships on their resumes. There’s little wrong with paying Dantonio top-level money, as he’s produced better results than any coach in more than 30 years.
However, he’s kind of the exception to the rule in pay for Big Ten coaches.
Next on the list is Ohio State’s Urban Meyer ($4.54 million) who comes in at No. 6 nationally. He’s followed up by Penn State’s James Franklin (4.3 million) at No. 8 and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz ($4.08 million) at No. 9.
Meyer has the pedigree of national championships on his resume, but despite winning ever regular season Big Ten game since arriving in 2012, he’s failed to win a Big Ten title or compete for the one reason he was brought to Columbus — a national championship.
He’s got his team on the verge of a second-straight trip to the Big Ten title game, so it’s hard to argue he hasn’t put his team in a position to be successful. Yet, this is Ohio State, and winning Big Ten titles are expected, not just hoped for and at some point he needs to produce one. Losing a second-straight Big Ten title game could put him under some immense pressure in Columbus coming in to 2015.
As for Franklin and Ferentz? Well, the jury is definitely still out on Franklin given it is just year one for him in Happy Valley, but it’s clear he’s going to have his work cut out for him to get this program back to the top of the conference heap. The good news is that Franklin has killed it on the recruiting trail already, has the program in a bowl game despite horrible scholarship numbers this season and will be done with any and all Sandusky-related sanctions in the next two years.
Ferentz continues to disappoint some, as he’ll fail to hit double-digit wins for the fifth straight year in 2014 unless his Hawkeyes go on a three-game win streak to end the season (and doing that against Wisconsin, Nebraska and a bowl game opponent to be named).
However, a look further down the Big Ten pay scale shows that the conference has been able to up the ante on pay, but has gotten next to nothing in terms of results for the added expenditures.
Outside of Minnesota’s Jerry Kill ($2.1 million) and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen ($2.29 million) it is hard to say the Big Ten is getting any bang for its buck. The pair both come in the 40’s in terms of national compensation, and it could come down to their matchup in Week 14 of the season as to who represents the West division in Indianapolis this year. Compare that to Ferentz, who has nearly double the salary and baring a miracle will be without a sniff of a Big Ten title in the past decade.
Further down the list lie the greatest examples of the Big Ten taking a big swing and missing on the coaching front.
Indiana splashed some good cash at Kevin Wilson when they hired him, just about doubling his salary ($1.3 million) over Bill Lynch’s. For all that effort they’ve got a coach who has failed to get his team to a bowl game for a fourth straight year, took too long to make a change to get his defense right and has won a grand total of five Big Ten games in 30 tries to date.
Yes, that’s $1.3 million dollars per year for a coach to come up with 13 overall wins, or put another way — Wilson has earned approximately $400,000 per win. That’s a pretty poor investment over the course of four years time.
Don’t even get me started on Illinois’ disaster of a hire in Tim Beckman. Make no mistake; I think Beckman is a quality man, a straight shooter and someone I have grown to respect a lot over my talks with him the last few years. However, the results aren’t there on the field and the empty stands speak loudly when you’re paying the man $1.95 million a year in Champaign, Ill.
That’s the difference between the Big Ten and some of the other conferences making hires in recent years. As Auburn slipped up in hiring Gene Chizik, they cleaned it up with Gus Malzahn. Mississippi State went from bottom feeder to top of the heap by finding Dan Mullen and sticking with his steady progression.
Heck, even perennial national bottom feeder Duke has found a way to hit a home run with the hire of David Cuttcliffe.
If those schools can compete on a national level for multiple years now, how in the heck does a school with some old-school tradition like Illinois not find the right coach twice in a row now? They even went the “let’s hire a wronged SEC coach who can recruit down south” route in Ron Zook and got burned.
So, while it can be great that the Big Ten is swinging for the fences with coaches salaries on some occasions, the conference needs to also be making the right hires.
Here’s the a harsh truth about the coaches arm’s race: The Big Ten will never be able to compete from top to bottom with the SEC, and that shouldn’t be a bad thing.
I mean, just look at this nugget from ESPN.com’s Brian Bennett:
The difference between the Big Ten and the SEC in salaries is much like the on-field rankings: depth. Twelve of the 14 SEC coaches are ranked in the Top 30 in salary and all 14 are ranked in the Top 34. Just six of the Big Ten coaches are in the top 30, which is one less than the Big 12 has. The SEC also boasts eight of the top 20 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, while half of the Big Ten’s 14 coaches are ranked No. 41 or lower.
The Big Ten and SEC are two very different campus cultures. Winning is amazing, very nice and something to strive hard for on Big Ten campuses. However, it’s the ONLY thing that matters on SEC campuses, academics be damned, build us some football palaces first please.
Overall, the conference can’t improve its image just by splashing cash at the latest and greatest MAC coach, or the hottest name on the national coordinator front.
Athletic directors in the Big Ten need start out thinking, not just keeping up with the jones on pay in order to change the conferences perception.
Where’s the Gus Malzahn or Dan Mullen or even the Steve Sarkisian-type hires? You know, guys that took programs from the bottom to the top in relatively short order, all while also getting P-A-I-D to just W-I-N baby.
There could be some big time changes coming at places like Indiana, Illinois and the biggest of them all — Michigan — this offseason. If the conference wants to find a way to go from bottom to the top, hitting the right balance between paychecks and dynamic hires would be a good place to start for a change.