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Posted: Thursday January 29, 2009 12:03PM; Updated: Thursday January 29, 2009 4:41PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Vols setting disturbing precedent with salary spree for assistants

Story Highlights

In 2009, Tennessee will spend an unparalleled $3.3 million on asst. coaches

Few schools will be able to compete with this latest 'arms race' development

Vols have all but wrapped up a top 2010 recruiting class with these coaches

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Thanks to Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton's seemingly bottomless checkbook, new head coach Lane Kiffin (right) was able to assemble an accomplished -- and expensive -- coaching staff.
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While recruiting junkies anxiously wait to see which team -- LSU? USC? Alabama? Florida? -- winds up winning the 2009 recruiting wars, we can already pencil in the No. 1 team for 2010.

Congratulations, Tennessee.

How can we sit here, with only a smattering of commitments on the board, and predict which team will sign the best class in the country more than a year in advance? It's simple. Tennessee has spent more than $11 million to make sure it comes out on top.

After spending $6 million to buy out longtime coach Phillip Fulmer last fall and another $2 million to hire his replacement, Lane Kiffin, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton gave Kiffin a seemingly bottomless checkbook to assemble what is arguably the most accomplished (and definitely the highest paid) set of assistant coaches in the country. And nearly every one is known for his recruiting prowess.

First, the Vols spent $1.2 million to hire Kiffin's father, renowned NFL guru Monte Kiffin, as defensive coordinator. A typical coordinator earns about a third of that. Then came the astounding $650,000 paycheck to lure defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, a guy whose recruiting zeal at both USC and Ole Miss made for the subject of a popular book. It cost $350,000 to land Nick Saban's top recruiter, Lance Thompson, as linebackers coach. Running backs coach Eddie Gran (formerly of Auburn), receivers coach Frank Wilson (Southern Miss; Ole Miss before that) and quarterbacks coach David Reaves (South Carolina) were all considered the top recruiters at their previous schools as well.

All told, the Vols' assistants will make a combined $3.325 million in '09, shattering the totals at SEC rivals Alabama ($2.405 million), Florida ($2.035 million) and Georgia ($2 million), according to data compiled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tennessee is so proud of this feat, it sent out a press release last week listing each assistant's salary.

"Coach Kiffin has done a tremendous job assembling one of the best staffs in the SEC and the country," said Hamilton. "Our funding model requires football to be successful in order to fund other sports and not detract from the University's mission. This team of experienced coaches understands that vision."

For Hamilton, the spending spree was a no-brainer. Tennessee has a 102,000-seat stadium to fill and an $87 million athletic department to fund. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, football revenue accounts for 85 percent of that budget. The Vols can't afford 5-7 seasons (last year marked their second losing season in four years), and the best way to right that in a hurry is to bring in better players. They've certainly assembled a staff capable of turning things around.

In terms of the greater implications, however, Tennessee's complete obliteration of the prevailing salary scale for assistant coaches could not be more disturbing, coming as it does at such a bleak time for the nation's economy. While college football is generally considered a "recession-proof" industry, college athletic departments are not immune to the current downturn. Florida State recently announced it is considering a 10 percent budget cut in athletics for the next school year, and Stanford has said it may be forced to cut sports.

If Tennessee can afford it, it's hard to argue against the logic behind Hamilton's investment. (Like the rest of the SEC, the school is banking on an expected windfall from the conference's recent $2.25 billion deal with ESPN and $825 million deal with CBS.) The problem is, like anything, there's now going to be an inevitable ripple effect across the rest of the sport.

College football's ever-escalating arms race has been going full speed for more than a decade now. As soon as one school upped the ante (like when LSU gave new coach Saban a $1.2 million salary in 1999, third-highest in the country at that time), others had no choice but to follow suit. The next thing you knew, $1.2 million had become chump change for most BCS-conference schools, with high-end coaches like Saban, Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer and Charlie Weis making close to $4 million a year.

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