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Money Talks

“What today brings is an opportunity for me to stand in front of you and chase a dream,” Bret Bielema told the reporters and hog-calling cheerleaders assembled at the December press conference announcing him as the next head coach at Arkansas.

It’s the sort of thing you’ve got to say when you leave one high-profile football school for another, but Bielema made it pretty clear the real reason he decided to ditch Wisconsin days after winning his third straight Big Ten title for a program that had just finished a disastrous 4-8 season. That reason was money.

Not for Bielema himself — though he, of course, got a nearly half-million dollar bump too — but for his assistants.

“My assistant salary coaches pool almost doubled,” Bielema told the Dan Patrick Show a few days after taking the Arkansas job. “I’ve lost a lot of assistant coaches in the last few years.”

Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez didn’t particularly like that comment, but it underscored one of the hottest topics in college football right now — assistant coaches’ salaries. As money has flowed into the sport at unprecedented rates thanks to mega-TV deals spurred by conference networks, paying your head coach a ton of money is an expectation now if a school wants to win a bunch of football games. Paying the assistants a similarly princely sum is getting there. Big deals for big time head coaches will still grab headlines, yes, but the thing that an expensive head coach really wants these days is a highly competitive salary pool for his assistants. That’s the new front in the ever-changing college football arms race.

The Big Ten is an interesting player in this relatively recent phenomenon because, at the moment, the Big Ten has more money than any other conference. Over the weekend, the Detroit Free Press released a database of the assistant salaries for each team in the conference minus Northwestern and Penn State, which aren’t required to report that data. In total, Big Ten teams are spending about $1.7 million more on assistants in 2013 than in 2012, an increase of more than 7.5 percent.

This has been hailed as good news in Big Ten circles, but how good is it? A December study by USA Today found that assistant coaches’ salaries across all of college football increased by “more than 10 percent” last year. It seems unlikely that salary increases are going to slow down this season but we’ll have to wait until all of the data is compiled. My guess is that the Big Ten’s 7.5 percent increase will probably be below average.

But we don’t have to guess about last year. The chart below utilizes the USA Today database to calculate the average head coach salary and the average salary pool for assistants by BCS conference in 2012. (Note: Private schools are not required to report this data, so they were not used to factor the conference averages below.)

The Big Ten ranked third in average head coach salary in 2012 behind the Big 12 and the SEC, but fell to fifth in the average amount of money it paid to its assistants. What this chart perhaps does a better job of visualizing is the current salary dynamic at work in major college football. The Big Ten was one of two BCS conferences where the average head coach salary was greater than the average amount paid to assistants. The Big 12, which has two of the three highest-paid coaches in the country in Mack Brown and Bob Stoops, was the other.

That’s the old model.

The other four BCS conferences all have an average assistant salary pool that’s more than the average head coach’s salary. Clemson is the biggest spender on assistants, dropping $4.25 million last year. That was more than double head coach Dabo Swiney’s salary in 2012 ($2.04M) and as much as Urban Meyer was paid to coach Ohio State last year.

So maybe Bret Bielema had a point. If you look at coaching salaries as a lump sum, does it make sense to spend more than half of the coaching budget on one guy?

Fewer and fewer coaches are asking schools to do that. Wisconsin got on board. The Badgers’ assistant salary pool increased by 40 percent after Bielema left. Some of that was offset because  head coach Gary Andersen is making $840,000 less than Bielema did, but it doesn’t change the fact that Andersen’s coordinators — guys who were coaching at Utah State and San Diego State last year — are both making more ($480,000) from the very start than anyone on Bielema’s staff did over the last four seasons.

That’s sort of crazy when you consider that Wisconsin won three conference titles over that span. But the Big Ten does appear to be getting the message. With Wisconsin flipping the head coach-assistants ratio, six of the 10 reporting schools in the Big Ten are spending more on assistants than the head coach this year, a percentage that’s in line with where the Pac-12 (60%) and SEC (62%) were last year. This year will be the first for the Big Ten where the assistants are getting more than the head coaches on average for the conference as a whole.

But the average spent on assistants in the Big Ten in 2013 — $2.408 million — is still less than what the SEC, Big 12 and ACC spent in 2012. You can assume all of the numbers in those conferences will go up as well. In the case of the SEC, the schools there would still have more than $400,000 additional dollars to spend on assistants on average if assistant spending doesn’t increase at all this year. That’s nearly $50,000 more per assistant.

Does that make sense given the Big Ten’s very rosy financial outlook? We talk about the talent gap between the Big Ten and teams in the South all time, but it’s rarely applied to coaches.

Maybe it’s time to start. The Big Ten is making an effort to change the assistant spending gap, I’m just not sure it’s getting there quickly enough.