What does one normally associate with the position of college football head coach?
Leaders of men. Wisened skippers. Veteran teachers offering support to the many student athletes that look to them for guidance.
Most important, however, may be this final distinction: wealthy beyond belief.
As college sports have become massive money-makers, it stands to reason that the most lucrative sport in the land, football, has brought in absurd amounts of money for Power 5 schools and beyond across the nation.
Unlike in professional sports, where most head coaches are given a short leash and plenty of blame, those in the college ranks are typically tasked with building up a program. Not only do universities need to find the right person for the job, but they must also invest heavily in factors such as recruiting and on-campus amenities while taking advantage of alumni networks and any other willing donors.
With so many moving parts involved in the process of turning around a football team, schools must court prospective coaches by out-bidding their rivals.
The end result is a seemingly never-ending process where Division I coaches either bolt for greener pastures or sign top-dollar extensions.
However, big paychecks are nothing new to the sport; in fact, college football was far ahead of most sports in giving head coaches salaries.
The college head coach as a position, let alone occupation, was born near the end of the 19th century as football itself continued to evolve dramatically. Famed head coaches such as Amos Alonzo Stagg among the first to earn a paycheck, even if noticeably smaller (even after inflation) compared to today's deals.
By the time of the NCAA's foundation in 1906, salaries had already expanded into the thousands. The legendary Knute Rockne was ahead of the pack in this regard, as his already solid salary was boosted by a number of off-field advertisements, including a then-record $75,000 deal with Studebaker Motors in the late 1920's.
As the game began to grow, and new technology such as radio and television led to a windfall in advertising revenue, coaching salaries went up. No coach better showcases this than Bear Bryant. Then a promising coach from Texas A&M in 1958, Bryant signed a 10-year contract with an average annual value of $17,500. The deal, which was seen as shockingly large in the late 1950's, would be dwarfed over two decades later when Bryant made over $450,000 a year.
The trend of coaches making six-figures would continue well into the 1980's, with 20 head coaches across the country reaching the mark.
In the next decade, those contracts eventually expanded into million-dollar deals. The first to hit the mark was Bobby Bowden of Florida State, who agreed to a contract that paid him $1 million a year through 2000.
Today's Big Earners
In a financial landscape that has been altered dramatically due to the recent NIL decision, the future for college head coach salaries is unknown.
What we do know is that today's coaches are rich. By rich, we're talking mega rich.
The floodgates seemed to open right at the turn of the century, in part due to the million-dollar extensions Bowden and then-Florida head coach Steve Spurrier signed in the 1990's.
A brief look at where today's coaching money goes should be no surprise to those who don't even follow college football. Predictably, the dominant SEC leads the way with a whopping total of $68,703,036 total dollars, which comes out to an average of over $5 million amongst its head coaches. That sum is more money than the non-Power Five conferences combined.
*Figures courtesy of USA Today Sports; totals from 2020 season
The two biggest earners within the SEC, and the country, are Alabama's Nick Saban ($9,100,000) and LSU's Ed Orgeron ($8,687,500). Since USA Today published these numbers, Saban has agreed to a new extension, one that could earn him over 84 million over the next eight years.
It should come as no surprise that Saban, the best college football coach on Earth, and Orgeron, a recent National Champion in 2019, are being paid handsomely, even if the contract details are mind-boggling. Look further down the list however, and one can see that six of the ten highest paid coaches hail from the SEC. The spending power of its member schools seems to be the one thing that can rival its dominance on the gridiron.
As for the rest of the Power 5, the order of spending tends to reflect where the sport's current strength lies. The top-heavy Big 12 is last in total spending (but third in average salary), which reflects its limited number of teams and top-heavy nature, where teams such as Oklahoma and Texas tend to run the show (not for long). The Pac-12, which hasn't seen one of its teams reach the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016, predictably is near the bottom in total coach spending. The Big 10 and ACC, the only conferences to see a CFP winner this decade other than the SEC, finished second and third respectively.
College coach spending can even reflect inter-conference power dynamics. Clemson's Dabo Swinney, arguably the only coach who can rival Saban, predictably slots in at third overall behind Orgeron. Look further down the list however, and the next ACC coach to appear is Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente, all the way at no. 25. While it makes sense that the six-time reigning ACC champions would pay their coach the most in the conference, it speaks volumes to how weak the rest of the ACC has been in recent years that Swinney is the only man who even flirts with the upper-echelon of earners.
College football has long been a sport driven by money. Even with student-athletes finally beginning to gain some traction as far as compensation, it is unlikely that the powers-that-be will stop spending wildly on the next big head coach who can lead their team to glory.
With Nick Saban now set to eventually become the first head coach with an annual salary of over $10 million, one thing alone feels certain: the bubble that is head coaching salaries is unlikely to burst any time soon.