Fun Times in Nebraska
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Fun Times in Nebraska, But the Huskers Are Serious

March 31, 2019

There are no excuses now . . . 

. . . is the sort of thing you write the day after Nebraska landed one of the top basketball coaches on the market and that coup comes just 15 months after the same athletic director secured perhaps the most in-demand football coach of the 2017 fire-and-hire cycle. Maybe, Nebraska was always the favorite to land Scott Frost given his deep ties to the program.

Fred Hoiberg, though? He has a few Husker ties, too, but he also wasn’t a new head coach seeking his first power-conference gig, not a guy on his way up the ladder. He could’ve stuck with the NBA or looked really hard at UCLA, a place that’s synonymous with hoops.

Instead, he’ll be in Lincoln and Nebraska will be paying the two head coaches in its two biggest revenue-producing sports more than $8 million per season combined. Frost was signed to a seven-year, $35 million deal at the end of 2017, Hoiberg a seven-year, $25 million deal.

Based on USA Today’s salary databases, which do not included schools not required to publicly report salary figures, Nebraska ranked 19th in combined football-basketball pay this year. The Huskers were behind the heavy-hitters you’d expect on that list, but also Michigan State, Louisville, Illinois, Virginia and TCU. Nebraska was one spot ahead of Utah.

More on Hoiberg: By the Numbers | Recruiting Strategy

Swap in Hoiberg’s salary for the $2.375 million listed for Tim Miles this past season, and Nebraska would’ve been one of 14 schools in the $8 Million Club, ranking 12th. The Huskers should be somewhere in the vicinity of that ranking for 2019–20 combined pay.

Not the drastic jump you were perhaps expecting? Consider this first. Of the 13 schools actually in the $8 Million Club this year, 12 were paying at least one coach who had coached, at minimum, in a final four in his sport (CFP semifinal for football). Seven had coaches with a national title already under their belts. Florida, which won football titles in 2006 and 2008 and basketball titles in 2007 and 2008, was the only school paying more than $8 million combined without at least a semifinal appearance built in to the price tag, a price tag at least somewhat informed by what those programs had just accomplished.

Kentucky M. Stoops $4.01m J. Calipari $9.27m
Alabama N. Saban $8.31 A. Johnson $3.06
Michigan J. Harbaugh $7.50 J. Beilein $3.80
Ohio St U. Meyer* $7.60 C. Holtmann $3.01
Texas A&M J. Fisher $7.50 B. Kennedy* $2.45
Georgia K. Smart $6.60 T. Crean $3.20
Duke D. Cutcliffe $2.54 M. Kryzewski $7.05
Auburn G. Malzahn $6.70 B. Pearl $2.60
Clemson D. Swinney $6.54 B. Brownell $2.75
Texas T. Herman $5.50 S. Smart $3.20
Florida D. Mullen $6.07 M. White $2.61
Nebraska (19-20) S. Frost $5.00 F. Hoiberg $3.57
Michigan St M. Dantonio $4.39 T. Izzo $4.15
Oklahoma L. Riley $4.80 L. Kruger $3.20

Source: USA Today 2018–19 Database; * no longer at school

That’s the company Nebraska is poised to keep in the year ahead. (The Huskers also might have the highest-paid women’s volleyball coach in the country, too.)

The bigger shock, given Nebraska’s history in both sports, might be the split between football and basketball. Frost’s salary accounts for 58 percent of the annual total, Hoiberg’s 42. Only Michigan State, which pays Mark Dantonio $4.39 million and Tom Izzo $4.15 million, had a more equitable split. Kentucky pays John Calipari $9.27 million, 70 percent of the Wildcats’ nation-leading $13.29 million on football-basketball head coach salaries. Alabama spent 73 percent of its 2019 salary cost on Nick Saban.

Frost’s salary ranked 11th last year among football coaches according to USA Today. Hoiberg’s new Nebraska salary would rank 11th among this year’s group.

And that’s how you get, pretty quickly, to “no excuses now.” Nebraska has invested heavily in top-tier coaches twice in a little over a year now and, by all accounts, gotten its top pick both times. Bill Moos is 2-for-2. Nobody is going to miss that fact. Couldn’t if they wanted to.

That said, there’s more to winning than simply paying the going rate (though that’s a good starting point). It’s entirely possible that three, four or five years down the road there will be excuses. Legitimate ones. On either side of the equation. You never really know.

Paying top dollar doesn’t eliminate risk, merely reduces it. That’s worth doing. Mike Riley cost relatively little for a football coach at one of the 10 winningest programs in history, but he came with a lot of risk. That his tenure fell within the “risk” portion of the graph rather than the “reward” doesn’t prove the point on its own, just an example of what Nebraska has minimized with its two biggest coaching hires of the Moos era.

That’s the game, but we never really talk about it that way in real time or after the fact. The game is simple, but you have to respect it: How small can you make that sliver of the graph? 

I, like most others, think Nebraska has very good odds here. Yes, there’s a chance that Hoiberg’s tenure won’t end up being in the future what we think it will be today (small). Same with Frost (smaller). And maybe even both of them (smallest).

But Nebraska has paid a lot of money to reduce that risk, and that’s after you consider all of the work it must have taken to even get in on the bidding for guys a lot of programs would’ve wanted.

Some doubted if Nebraska had the clout to land such names any more. Hoiberg will be introduced on Tuesday, the off day between two spring practices under Frost and his staff.

Nebraska had the clout. It had the cash. It’s in the game.

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