By Sofia Scekic
As NCAA football coaches’ salaries continue to rise, members of the public have voiced their disapproval through numerous op-ed articles and, more recently, a proposed federal law to provide oversight to prevent salaries from continuing to spiral out of control. In response to such conversations, here is a breakdown of the salaries of all Power 5 football coaches to allow readers to draw their own conclusions about collegiate coaching salaries.
Methodological note: The pandemic has made the 2020-21 college football landscape look very different; over 100 Division I games were postponed or cancelled, numerous teams opted out of Bowl Games and multiple Bowl Games themselves were cancelled as well. For that reason, I focused on coaches’ win percentages and non-salary statistics through the 2019 season; coaches who were hired after 2019 do not have any associated statistics because 2020 is their first season leading their team. However, I looked at 2020 salaries because they are the most accurate representation of how much each coach now earns, and these current numbers are plotted for nearly all Power 5 coaches. As much as possible, the salary numbers referenced in this article take into account pay reductions due to the pandemic, as reported by USA Today.
This season, and its accompanying coaches salaries, come at a time when universities across the country — Stanford included — have cut varsity sports and made other controversial decisions across universities due to the financial burdens brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to the pandemic, a number of FBS coaches, including many Power 5 coaches, agreed to take pay cuts. USA Today reported that pay cuts range from the removal of an $80 per month cell phone allowance for Louisiana-Lafayette’s head coach to a $1.25 million temporary reduction for Clemson’s head coach, Dabo Swinney.
Stanford’s David Shaw ’95 took an undisclosed pay cut. In comparison, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell both disclosed that they took voluntary 20% salary reductions.
Shaw’s salary is about $200,000 more annually than the second-highest paid Pac-12 coach, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham. Shaw is the second-longest tenured head coach in the conference and also had the second-highest overall win percentage entering 2020. In overall win percentage, he trails only Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, who led the Ducks to a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin in 2020.
In Whittingham’s 15 years with Utah, he holds an 11-3 record in Bowl Games. While Utah has never won a Pac-12 title, he led the Utes to a Mountain West Conference title before they moved into the Pac-12. His two Pac-12 Coach of the Year titles trail only Shaw, who currently has four conference awards to his name.
UCLA’s Chip Kelly entered the 2020 season tied for the worst overall win percentage with Oregon State’s Johnathan Smith (who has also held his head coach position since the 2018 season) at 29%, yet Kelly is the fourth-highest paid coach in the conference while Smith earns the lowest salary as the only coach in the conference making less than $2.5 million.
Clay Helton, whose Trojans just lost to Cristobal and the Ducks in this year’s conference championship game, has led his team to 12 wins over ranked teams in his five year tenure, owns one of the best overall win percentages among current Pac-12 coaches and is the third-highest paid coach in the conference.
Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, whose salary fell in the middle of the pack and who never led the Wildcats to a winning record in his 2.5 seasons as head coach, was fired earlier in December following his team’s 70-7 loss to the in-state rival Arizona State Sun Devils.
Highest salary does not always correlate with highest overall win percentage, as evidenced by Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s $8.04 million annual salary (over $1 million more than the next-highest paid coach). Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst both owned better overall win percentages than Harbaugh entering the 2020 season, but Day is paid over $2 million less than Harbaugh. The Wolverines made it clear that one of their main goals following the Harbaugh hire was to consistently beat rival Ohio State and ascend to the top of the Big 10, but Harbaugh holds a 0-5 record versus the Buckeyes. Chryst, with the second-highest win percentage among all Big 10 coaches, is the fifth-lowest paid coach in the conference and makes less than half of that of Harbaugh.
Harbaugh coached at Stanford from 2007 until 2010, leading the Cardinal to a 29-21 overall record. His top season in 2010 ended with an 11-1 record, quarterback Andrew Luck ’12 was the Heisman Trophy runner-up and the Cardinal finished with a No. 4 ranking in the final AP Poll after a win against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Despite his success on the Farm, USA Today reported that Harbaugh was paid approximately $1 million in 2010 — nearly one-eighth of his current salary with the Wolverines.
Jeff Brohm, who is in his fourth year as Purdue’s head coach, is the conference’s third-highest paid coach according to the LA Times but entered the 2020 season with an overall winning percentage under .500 and only one season in which the team finished with a record better than .500. Kirk Ferentz, who has coached Iowa since the 1999 season and is currently the longest-tenured coach with one FBS program, owns a career win percentage above 60 but ranks in the bottom half in conference coach salaries.
Illinois’s Lovie Smith, who coached the Chicago Bears from 2004 until 2012, was fired in December 2020 after winning less than one third of his games with the Fighting Illini since the 2016 season. Former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema was hired on Dec. 19, 2020 to take over head coaching duties in Champaign.
Swinney has won three national championships with Clemson, and excluding all the victories during the 2012 and 2013 seasons that were vacated from Brian Kelly and Notre Dame, is the only current ACC coach to have led his team to a national title game. Swinney’s annual salary of $8.32 million is nearly twice that of the next-highest paid ACC coach, Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech. Swinney’s overall win percentage entering 2020 is also 15 percentage points higher than Kelly, who owns the second-highest in the conference at .657. The Fighting Irish, typically an Independent school that is not associated with any conference, joined the ACC for the 2020-2021 season as many schools only scheduled conference games to limit travel during the pandemic.
10 of the 15 current ACC coaches have coached their respective schools for five years or fewer, and only seven own winning percentages above .500 — one of the reasons their average salary is not quite as high as other conferences.
The University of Miami did not release Manny Diaz’s 2020 salary, but the LA Times reported that his 2019 salary totaled $3.1 million.
The Big 12 is the only conference in which there was one new head coach entering the 2020 season; all other conferences contained at least two. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, the eighth-highest paid coach in Power 5 football and the highest paid in the Big 12, has won three conference titles, led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff three times in his first three seasons as head coach, and has an 85% overall winning percentage.
Gary Patterson, who has coached TCU since the 2000 season and is the second-longest tenured head coach with one FBS team behind Iowa’s Ferentz, is paid nearly the same as Riley but owns an overall winning percentage of .710. Patterson’s $6.13 million salary in 2020 also makes him the ninth-highest paid coach in Power 5 football. TCU has changed conferences four times during Patterson’s tenure, most recently joining the Big 12 before the 2012 season. Nevertheless, Patterson’s teams have won conference titles seven times and played in 17 Bowl Games, posting an 11-6 record.
While Dave Aranda, whose salary was not reported by Baylor, was the only new Big 12 head coach entering 2020, the conference’s four lowest paid coaches — Chris Klieman of Kansas State, Matt Wells of Texas Tech, Neal Brown of West Virginia and Kansas’ Les Miles — were all hired prior to the 2019 season. Klieman’s Wildcats hold the distinction of the only team in the conference to post a winning record with a new head coach in 2019.
Finally, Tom Herman, the third-highest paid coach who also owned the fourth-best overall win percentage entering 2020, was fired by Texas on Jan. 2 after just four seasons in Austin. While he led the Longhorns to the Big 12 championship game in 2018 and entered the 2020 season with a 3-0 Bowl Game record, his lack of conference and national titles ultimately led Texas to part ways with Herman.
While holding six of the 10 highest-paid Power 5 coaches, the SEC has also experienced the most coaching turnover recently: Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Mississippi State all hired new head coaches entering the 2020 season, and Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt fired their coaches during the 2020 season.
Gus Malzahn, who had won nearly two-thirds of his games with Auburn since the 2013 season and led the Tigers to the 2013 BCS National Championship game, earned the fifth-highest salary in the conference and also owned the fifth-highest overall win percentage. Seven Bowl Game appearances and numerous National Coach of the Year honors, as well as one SEC Coach of the Year award, were not enough to save his job, however, as Auburn decided to enter 2021 with a new coach.
Alabama’s Nick Saban, one of the most successful college football coaches in history and arguably the most well-known current coach, is, unsurprisingly, the highest-paid coach in all of NCAA football, earning $9.3 million in 2020. His .869 overall win percentage entering 2020 is also one of the best in Power 5 football, and he has led the Crimson Tide to six national titles since 2007.
Ed Orgeron and Kirby Smart, the second- and fourth-highest paid SEC coaches, respectively, have each led their team to one CFP championship game during their tenures; LSU won the 2019 national championship under Oregon and Smart led Georgia to the 2017 title game, which the Bulldogs ultimately lost to Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Derek Mason, a former defensive backs coach, associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator at Stanford from 2010 until 2013, held the worst overall win percentage in the SEC entering 2020, as Vanderbilt only won 36% of its games since 2014. While the Commodores’ status as an elite, academics-first private school in the ultra-competitive SEC may make it more difficult for Vanderbilt to find success in its conference, Mason only won 20% of his SEC games over six years, and Vanderbilt fired him before the end of the 2020 season.
Salary breakdown by conference
The SEC, the conference where most football powerhouse programs reside, unsurprisingly pays its coaches more than any other Power 5 conference. All but one coach is paid more than $3 million annually — Sam Pittman of Arkansas earns only $2.9 million. By contrast, three Big 12 coaches, four Pac-12 coaches and 3 ACC coaches earn less than $3 million annually.
The Big 10 also only has one coach paid less than $3 million (Mike Locksley of Maryland). However, the sum of its head coach salaries is still more than $10 million less than that of the SEC.
Since Baylor did not report Aranda’s 2020 salary, it is unknown whether the sum of Big 12 or Pac-12 coaches is smaller, although both likely hover at just over $40 million total. The Pac-12 is the only conference in which one of its coaches is not one of the ten highest paid coaches in the Power 5; Shaw’s $4.81 million salary makes him the 18th-highest paid coach overall.
When looking at the average coach salary by conference, the Big 12 owns the third-highest value. While the sum of the Big 12 coaches salaries is the smallest, the fact that there are only 10 teams in that conference — while every other conference has at least 12 teams — makes its average coach salary higher than some of the larger conferences. Aranda and his salary were not included in the calculation of the Big 12’s average salary.
The SEC still pays its coaches the highest on average; after all, six of the top 10 coaches with the largest salaries coach in the SEC. The Pac-12, which only has one coach among the top 20 highest-paid coaches, predictably pays the lowest average salary.