College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

saban forbes College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Nick Saban gets paid a lot

In college athletics, football is king. Any chance schools have at breaking even as athletic departments (most don’t) is to have a thriving football program. It has the most potential to bring in the most money.

College football coaches are the most important hires athletic directors can make. Schools athletic departments that pay big bucks for coaching staffs expect to get what they pay for- good teams.

College football coaches have the biggest impact on their teams’ success of any sport at any level. Their salaries seem to support this notion. Here we analyze college football coaches salaries and whether or not they are being paid according to their team’s success on the field.


The origin of this article comes from the situation at the University of Michigan at the end of the 2008 season. Lloyd Carr had just retired, and Michigan athletic director Bill Martin was pressed into making a quick decision as to which coach he wanted to bring in next to lead the program.

Carr was paid around $1.5 million in his final year of his contract. For elite college football programs, the going rate was about double that amount for head coaches. Martin knew he had to step up his contract offer to the next head coach. Michigan finally decided to go with Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia.

Rodriguez was the hottest name out there at the time with his innovative spread offense. Rodriguez’s salary was bumped up to around $2.5 million per year, much closer to the market rate. Although his offense was the headliner, a big part of Rodriguez’s success at West Virginia was the strength of his defense, coached by defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.

jeff casteel College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Casteel was a key missing part for Michigan
Photo credit:

According to the book “Three and Out” by John Bacon, Michigan refused to match West Viriginia’s offer for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. West Virginia was offering Casteel $275,000 and a two year contract while Michigan was offering $265,000 with no contract. Rodriguez was very hands off when it came to defense, despite being a former defensive back himself. This made his hire for defensive coordinator that much more important.

Without the support of the school, Rodriguez was forced to hire a defensive coordinator he was unfamiliar with. The hire was also interesting because all of his defensive assistants had come along to Michigan without Casteel. Rodriguez’s loyalty to his defensive assistant coaches made it an awkward transition. The result was hiring a defensive coordinator that had to work with assistant coaches he wasn’t familiar with. Because of this, his hires of Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson turned out to be disasters.

What Bill Martin didn’t realize was how important $10,000 and a two year contract would be.

The Rodriguez years produced some of the worst Michigan defenses in history, and changed the way Rodriguez had to coach the game on the offensive side. I know the head coach is responsible for the whole team, but the abomination that was defensive coaching really crippled the entire team.

Michigan’s stinginess backfired on them. Not giving Rodriguez enough resources to assemble his staff ended poorly for both sides.

Rodriguez was fired after 3 years, and Michigan hired Brady Hoke as his replacement. Hoke, who was paid $3.25 million in his first year despite coming in with a career head coaching record below .500, brought in defensive coordinator Greg Mattison from the Baltimore Ravens. Mattison has a long resume of being a fantastic defensive coordinator in both the NCAA and NFL. His salary? $750,000 a year. Even though Mattison may have had a better track record than Casteel, paying that much for a defensive coordinator seems excessive.

GREG MATTISON College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Greg Mattison has been a huge upgrade for Michigan
Photo Credit:

In fact, it was par for course for the “elite.” Last year, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was paid $851,500 and Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was paid $625,000. Those two coaches are considered some of the best defensive coordinators in the nation, and they are paid like it.

In Hoke and Mattison’s first year, Michigan’s defense went from around 100th overall the year before to a top 20 defense- with essentially the same players. Although these “same players” had another year of experience under their belts, any Michigan fan would tell you that the defense did a 180 not only schematically, but also fundamentally. This is a direct reflection of coaching.

It is interesting to note that the Rodriguez regime was paid $4.40 million in 2009 and $4.38 million in 2010, while Hoke’s staff was paid $5.81 million in his first year.

The reason for this drastic difference in salaries was the change in athletic directors. Bill Martin retired in October 2009, being replaced by U of M alum and former Domino’s CEO Dave Brandon. Brandon played for legendary coach Bo Schembechler while he was at Michigan, so it was to be expected that he would be willing to pay for the best coaches.

So this situation brought up the question: do schools that pay more for their coaching staffs get better teams in return?


Using data from USA Today, I compiled head coach and assistant coach salaries from 2009-2011. There were a few private schools that don’t have to disclose their contract numbers like Notre Dame and Northwestern, so those are not included in the analysis. Overall, I had 303 different data points for the 3 years.

In my analysis, I used the entire coaching staff salary rather than just the head coaches salary because of the exact reason above. Offensive and defensive coordinators can get paid a lot of money, and I would argue they have just as big of an impact on the team as the head coach.


Below is a plot of schools 3 year average total coaches salaries (head coach plus all assistant coaches) against their 3 year average ELO rating:

college football coaches salaries College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Click the image if you want a better view of the graph.

The ELO rating was originally developed for chess to compare player’s skill and was also used in the (former) BCS computer calculations. The main reason I used it is because it was the only system I could find that ranked every team in Division 1 FBS. For what it’s worth, ELO only takes into account teams wins and losses, not margin of victory.

The chart gives you a good idea of what schools have made good football coaching hires and those that have not relative to their pay. Please remember that the graph doesn’t give you the whole picture. Since the data is only from the last 3 years, it is subject to making schools like Texas look like they have overpaid their coaches due to one down season.

To determine if schools actually made good football coaching hires, I used linear regression to predict what teams 3 year average ELO rating would be based on how much their coaching staff was paid (3 year average). “Good hires” are the coaching staffs whose 3 year average ELO rating far exceeded what was expected based on regression, and the opposite is true for “bad hires.”

Note on ELO rating: To give you an idea of what each team’s ELO rating represents, consult the chart below for a rough idea of where each rating puts each team:

ELO RatingApproximate Team Success
90+BCS Bowl
80-90Major Bowl/Possible BCS
75-80Solid Bowl
70-75Minor Bowl
65-70Fringe Bowl or Around .500
Below 65Definitely Below .500/Poor Teams

Below in parentheses are (3 year average total coaches salary, 3 year ELO rating average). Comparable schools salary means the schools were usually within $250,000 of that schools total salary (above or below) and has their 3 year ELO average in parentheses.


Baylor ($1.56 million, 81.49) Head Coach: Art Briles

Briles brought Baylor from a Big 12 doormat to a program that was on the national stage thanks to a certain quarterback named Robert Griffin III. Although RG3 played a large part in the team’s success, Briles has helped usher in a new attitude at Baylor. Baylor is getting a steal right now by only paying his staff around $1.5 million per year. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain the success they have had the past few years without Griffin III.

Comparable Schools Salary: Wyoming (67.91), Army (60.66), UNLV (60.52)

Utah ($2.73 million, 80.50) Head Coach: Kyle Wittingham

Kyle Wittingham has been a name that is always thrown around every winter as to whether or not he will jump to a bigger program. Luckily for Utah, they joined the Pac 12 and thus decreased his incentive to leave. The coaching staff has been paid like it is a low level BCS team, yet Utah has had tremendous success the past few years. These next few years in the Pac 12 will be crucial for Wittingham and Utah.

Comparable Schools Salary: Minnesota (67.03), Arizona State (72.70), Cincinnati (79.01)

Boise State ($3.19 million, 90.48) Head Coach: Chris Petersen

chris petersen College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Chris Petersen has set the standard for building a program at Boise State
Photo Credit:

Chris Petersen has built the Boise State program into one that is feared. After beating Virginia Tech on a neutral site and upsetting Oregon, teams are wary put the Broncos on the schedule. Boise State is wise to pay what Chris Petersen wants. The football program is integral to the school’s identity now, and losing Petersen and his staff would be catastrophic. His former offensive coordinator Brent Pease has already jumped ship to Florida. It will be interesting to see how Boise State performs this season after losing so many starters, including Heisman candidate quarterback Kellen Moore.

Comparable Schools Salary: UCLA (72.69), West Virginia (79.49), North Carolina (75.51)

Wisconsin ($3.67 million, 85.04) Head Coach: Bret Bielema

Bielema carries on the rich tradition of Wisconsin football. Under his tenure, Wisconsin has been a mainstay in the Top 10, lead by its brutal running attack. The Wisconsin athletic department is also getting Bielema and his staff at a pretty good price. If they keep winning, expect that salary to increase.

Comparable Schools Salary: Louisville (70.04), Virginia (67.89), Kentucky (69.50)

Oregon ($4.15 million, 90.38) Head Coach: Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly flirted with the NFL briefly, but finally decided to return to the dynasty he is building at Oregon. With one of the most progressive offenses in college football, Kelly and his staff get paid like they should. It seems as if it is only a matter of time until Kelly wins a national championship at Oregon.

Comparable Schools Salary: Texas Tech (77.17), Georgia Tech (74.44), Washington (76.86)

Oklahoma State ($4.42 million, 87.42) Head Coach: Mike Gundy

Mike Gundy College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Mike Gundy: He’s a man, he’s 40
Photo Credit:

Oklahoma State’s coaching staff salary is 17th highest over the past 3 years, but one could argue that it should be higher. Gundy has done an excellent job in Stillwater. Only a devastating loss to Iowa State in 2011 denied the Cowboys a national championship appearance. Gundy has also been fortunate to have tremendous assistant coaches in the past: Larry Fedora (head coach at UNC), Dana Hologrosen (head coach at West Viriginia), and Tim Beckman (head coach at Illinois).

Comparable Schools Salary: South Carolina (82.25), Nebraska (80.09), Ole Miss (69.20)

Nevada ($1.36 million, 74.42) Head Coach: Chris Ault

Chris Ault has been the head coach at Nevada since 2004, yet he has coached on and off at Nevada since 1976. Ault is credited with inventing the pistol formation, and recently coached 2nd round pick quarterback Colin Kapernick. The total coaching salary of $1.36 million is incredibly low considering the amount of success Ault has had over his career. In 2010, his team upset #3 Boise State in overtime to spoil the Broncos undefeated season.

Comparable Schools Salary: Louisiana Tech (66.21), UAB (59.45), UTEP (60.58)


Ole Miss ($4.73 million, 69.20) Head Coach: Houston Nutt

houston nutt College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

His middle name is Dale
Photo Credit: The Birmingham News

After 2 consecutive wins in the Cotton Bowl in 2008 and 2009, Nutt’s teams went a combined 6-18 the next 2 years, including not winning a single SEC conference game in 2011. His coaching staff was paid a tad more than Oregon and Oklahoma State’s coaching staffs. Ouch.

Comparable Schools Salary: Oklahoma State (87.42), Virginia Tech (83.12), Nebraska (80.09)

New Mexico ($1.76 million, 52.83) Head Coach: Mike Locksley

Locksley was given a shot at being a head coach after a mildly successful stint as offensive coordinator at Illinois. His first 2 seasons he went a combined 2-22. His 3rd season he started 0-4, including a loss to FCS Sam Houston State, which led to his immediate firing. New Mexico’s coaching staff had roughly the same total salary as Baylor, yet was one of the worst teams in the nation over the past 3 years.

Comparable Schools Salary: Southern Miss (71.52), Fresno State (66.73), Baylor (81.49)

derek dooley 207x300 College Football Coaches Salaries: You Get What You Pay For?

Is Derek Dooley in over his head?

Tennessee ($5.24 million, 72.56) Head Coaches: Lane Kiffin/Derek Dooley

Lane Kiffin went 7-6 in his only season with the Volunteers, only to jump ship to his alma mater USC. Dooley was hired from Louisiana Tech and has not reached the standards Tennessee is used to. Volunteer fans have been in pain ever since Phillip Fulmer left. Dooley’s two teams both finished under .500.

Comparable Schools Salary: Arkansas (90.41), Iowa (81.30), Ohio State (84.63)

Eastern Michigan ($1.03 million, 51.76) Head Coach: Ron English

Ron English was hired after a year as defensive coordinator at Louisville. He took over one of the worst programs in the FBS and has actually had steady improvement from year to year. Despite not winning a game in his first season, the Eagles went 6-6 in 2011. Eastern Michigan pays it’s coaching staff one of the lowest total salaries in all of college football. Keep an eye on the Eagles and Ron English as they could eventually evolve into a “good hire.”

Comparable Schools Salary: Ball State (55.83), Louisiana-Lafayette (60.84), Utah State (63.10)

Memphis ($1.88 million, 52.28) Head Coaches: Tommy West/Larry Porter

West coached Memphis from 2001-2009, but was fired after a disastrous 2009 season in which he went 2-10. He was replaced by Larry Porter, who played at Memphis back when it was called Memphis State. Porter went a combined 3-21 in his 2 years at Memphis before he was fired.

Comparable Schools Salary: San Diego State (70.20), Navy (71.67), Colorado State (59.57)

Akron ($1.02 million, 46.65) Head Coaches: JD Brookhart/Rob Ianello

Akron has arguably been the worst FBS program in the last 3 years. They have one of the lowest coaches salaries in the FBS, and Akron, Ohio isn’t exactly every recruit’s dream location.

Comparable Schools Salary: Eastern Michigan (51.76), Bowling Green (59.68), Florida Atlantic (54.04)


College football coaches have arguably the largest impact on their team at any level in any sport. Coaches salaries are largely representative of their skill in leading a team. Some teams like Alabama and Texas break the bank for the football program while others resort to trying to find the coaching equivalents of diamonds in the rough. Generally, paying more for your football coaches results in better teams.

Are there any coaching staffs that you think should be on the over/under paid list? Any up and coming coaches that are due for big pay days? Other comments? Please post them below.