Following the 2021 regular season, the college football landscape erupted into something of a bidding war for coaches: former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley shocked the world by announcing he’d accepted the job at USC — taking several highly-ranked recruits with him — on a contract rumored to be close to $110 million for an unspecified number of years. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly tripled his salary by taking the head coaching job at LSU and a 10-year, $95 million contract, while the University of Miami shelled out $80 million over 10 years for former Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal. This article compares each Power 5 head coach’s 2021 salary to the overall win percentage at the school at which they coached in 2021.
This article is purely informational and is not intended to discuss whether coaches’ salaries are justified. Several coaches were fired during or after the 2021 regular season, but the head coach listed for each school was the head coach at the beginning of the 2021 season. Salary and overall win percentage numbers are updated as of Dec. 15, 2021, so any bowl games that were played after that date are not included in overall win percentage. Salary numbers come from USA Today’s list of 2021 salaries, while overall win percentages come from each coach’s individual Wikipedia page.
One notable coach left out of the following sections is former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. The Irish, often one of the top teams in the nation, are not affiliated with any particular conference; rather, they play as an Independent school. Notre Dame athletics joined the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) before the 2020 season and the football team plays numerous ACC schools each year, but still remains an Independent. Because the football squad is not fully integrated into the ACC, Kelly’s salary and overall win percentage are not included with that conference.
Without further ado, here is each coach’s overall win percentage and 2021 salary, as compared to the rest of the coaches in their conference:
Stanford’s David Shaw has the highest salary in the Pac-12 by over $3 million — leading some to question whether he is overpaid, as the Cardinal have not been one of the top football teams in the conference for several years. He is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the conference, however, and has the third-highest overall win percentage. It is worth noting that in previous years his salary was closer to $5 million and the $8.9 million that he was paid this past season includes a retroactive salary and signing bonus.
Kyle Whittingham has coached Utah since the Utes’ 2004 bowl game and is the winningest coach in Utah football history. His overall win percentage of 68% has earned him the conference’s third-highest salary in 2021 at $5.2 million.
UCLA’s Chip Kelly boasts the conference’s second-highest salary despite owning one of the lowest win percentages during his tenure in Los Angeles. Kelly’s teams have won less than half of their games since the 2018 season and finally made their first bowl game in 2021. Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, hired before the 2021 season, has the lowest overall win percentage and second-lowest salary, while Johnathan Smith of Oregon State is the lowest-paid coach and has the conference’s second-lowest overall win percentage. Smith’s Beavers were toppled in the LA Bowl this year by Utah State in Smith’s first bowl-game appearance.
Several Pac-12 schools will see new faces on the sidelines for the 2022 season: Cristobal left Oregon for Miami, while Washington State, Washington and USC all fired their coaches mid-season for various incidents including refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, striking a player during a sideline altercation and getting blown out by Stanford.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day has the highest overall win percentage out of all Big Ten coaches since joining the Buckeyes in 2018, but Penn State’s James Franklin earned around a quarter of a million dollars more than Day in 2021. Franklin, who has won two-thirds of his games at Penn State since the 2014 season, sits at fourth among Big Ten coaches in overall win percentage behind Day, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
Despite Harbaugh’s success at Michigan, including leading the Wolverines to their first win over Ohio State since 2011 and an appearance in one of the CFP Playoff games in 2021, he is the third-lowest paid coach in the Big 10 — making less money than coaches like Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, whose team has not even won half of its games under his direction.
Scott Frost is among the higher-paid coaches in the conference, yet is tied for lowest overall win percentage at Nebraska, where he has coached since 2018. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is paid the same amount as Frost — $5 million — but has won over 60% of his games at Iowa since 1999 and is Iowa’s all-time wins leader. Maryland’s Mike Locksley is tied for lowest overall win percentage in the conference with Frost, and is the lowest-paid coach by far, making just over $2.5 million in 2021.
Unlike the Pac-12, no Big Ten coaches were fired midway through the 2021 season, nor have any been fired or left voluntarily following the regular season. It remains to be seen whether there will be any changes to the conference’s head coaches roster following this season’s bowl games.
The highest-paid Big 12 coach was Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, and he also holds the conference’s highest overall win percentage by a large margin: he has won 85% of his games with the Sooners. TCU’s Gary Patterson, the second-highest paid coach in the conference, holds the second-highest overall win percentage at 70%.
Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy is among the conference’s highest earners and is the longest tenured coach in the Big 12, leading the Cowboys since 2005. While Patterson has coached TCU since the 2000 season, TCU did not join the Big 12 until the 2012 season and switched conferences four times during Patterson’s tenure before joining the Big 12 for good. Gundy has led Oklahoma State to 16 straight bowl games — achieving the feat in all but his first season with the Cowboys.
Texas hired Steve Sarkisian prior to the 2021 season in the hopes that he could return the Longhorns to the top of the college football world. Getting paid $5.45 million in 2021, Sarkisian only managed to win five of 12 games this past season and did not make a bowl game. His 42% overall win percentage is one of the lowest in the conference, but it seems like he will have at least a few more seasons to earn his paycheck with winning seasons in Austin.
Kansas’ Lance Leipold, also a new hire before the 2021 season, is the lowest-paid coach in the conference and has the worst overall win percentage: Kansas won just two of 12 games this past season. Liepold, however, has shown that he can coach winning teams, having led Division III University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to six national championships before coming to Kansas.
Baylor does not release its head coach’s salary because it is a private university, so Aranda’s contract is unknown.
Several teams will see new faces on the sidelines for the 2022 season: Riley left Oklahoma prior to its 2021 bowl game for USC, while Texas Tech’s Matt Wells and Patterson both left their positions after eight games in 2021. Wells was fired, and Patterson and TCU mutually agreed to part ways mid-season.
All but three coaches whose salaries are made public by their respective universities earn under $4 million in the ACC. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is the highest-paid coach in the conference by nearly $4 million, and for good reason: since 2008, he has led Clemson to six straight conference titles and two national titles. He also has the second-most wins in Clemson football history.
Boston College and Miami do not release head coach salaries; however, before Miami’s Manny Diaz was fired, an administrator from the athletics department at Miami told the Miami Herald that he would make between 6.5 and 8 million dollars in 2022 and 2023 combined if he met incentives, suggesting he was one of the higher-paid coaches in the ACC. Jeff Hafley was reportedly making nearly $3 million each year under the original contract he signed in 2019, but recently signed a contract extension that may have increased his salary at Boston College.
North Carolina paid Mack Brown $3.43 million in 2021; he has won 60% of his games in two stints with the Tar Heels. Meanwhile, Florida State’s Mike Norvell, who has the conference’s second-lowest overall win percentage, was paid $3.75 million — lower than only four other coaches in the ACC. The coach with the lowest overall win percentage was paid the lowest salary in 2021: Georgia Tech paid Geoff Collins $2.88 million, and he has won just one quarter of his games in Atlanta.
Numerous ACC schools will not retain the same head coach going into the 2022 season. Diaz was fired following the regular season and will not coach Miami in its bowl game; he was recently hired as Penn State’s defensive coordinator. Virginia Tech, Virginia and Duke will also be searching for new head coaches after all three coaches agreed to part ways with their schools after the 2021 season.
The SEC is where the coaches earn the big bucks: five of the 12 coaches in the conference made over $7 million in 2021. Coaches also win most of their games in the SEC — all but two coaches had overall win percentages of 50% or better after the 2021 regular season, and of the remaining, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach has won 48% of his games in Starkville. Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea is the lone outlier; after one season in Nashville, he has only won two games. Vanderbilt does not release its head coach’s salary, but it is likely that Lea is not making nearly as much as some of the more successful and proven coaches in the conference.
Nick Saban has coached the Crimson Tide since 2007 and has won an impressive 88% of his games; he is the highest-paid coach in the SEC and in all of college football. Saban has six national championship titles to his name, as well as eight conference titles in what is arguably the most prestigious football conference in America.
Ed Orgeron’s salary at LSU is not far behind Saban, as he is the only other coach who earned over $9 million this past season. He joined LSU’s coaching ranks as the head coach in 2016 and brought a national championship back to Baton Rouge in 2019. His overall win percentage is the third highest in the conference.
Of the four coaches who have won exactly half of their games at their respective schools, their salaries vary widely, between $5 million and $2.75 million in 2021.
Despite the successes that Orgeron and Dan Mullen have had at LSU and Florida, respectively, both schools will be searching for new head coaches before the 2022 season. Orgeron and LSU mutually agreed to part ways after the regular season, so LSU will play its 2021 bowl game under an interim head coach. Florida fired Mullen after 11 games this past season after the Gators started the season 5-6. In three seasons in Gainesville, Mullen led the Gators to three New Year’s Six bowl games and won two of them.
The 10 highest-paid coaches
Five of the 10 coaches earning the most money coached in the SEC in 2021. Each conference is represented at least once: the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC each have one coach amongst the top-10 earners, while the Big Ten has two. Somewhat surprisingly, three coaches who earned some of the highest salaries will not be coaching at the same schools in 2022, although for different reasons: Riley left after being hired by USC, Orgeron stepped down at LSU and Mullen was fired by Florida.