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

Tennessee's disturbing salary spree (cont.)

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Next came the obsession over facility upgrades, with schools across the country spending hundreds of millions apiece to turn out the most souped-up, aesthetically pleasing weight rooms and coaching offices with which to dazzle recruits.

Now, it appears the spending craze has trickled down to assistant coaches' salaries, which is great for the coaches (they are, after all, the guys who work 100-hour weeks, do the heavy lifting and, ultimately, make the head coach look good) but bad news for less-rich schools than Tennessee, which will be hard-pressed to keep pace in the coming years.

Hamilton, the Tennessee athletic director, chooses to portray the Vols' spending spree as "a different model," one where the head coach's salary doesn't dwarf his top assistants'. Coupled with Kiffin's "modest" $2 million salary, Tennessee's total coaching expenditure ($5.325 million) is still only fourth-highest among SEC schools (based on 2008 salaries), behind Alabama, LSU and Florida.

"In this situation, Lane has used the team concept to spread the money in a little different way than it's been spread in the past," said Hamilton.

That may well be true, but it doesn't change the consequences other schools will now be facing.

First of all, Tennessee's unique "model" was spawned out of necessity. Kiffin is a first-time college head coach who needed experienced assistants around him to have any hope of contending in the SEC. Should he achieve quick success, however, you better believe he'll be promptly rewarded with his own $3 million contract -- and it's not as though the assistants will then get pay cuts.

Meanwhile, the pay-scale for coveted coordinators and recruiters has now been irreparably changed. Last year, Texas designated Will Muschamp its "head coach in waiting" and bumped him to $900,000 a year primarily to ward off suitors and retain him as its defensive coordinator. LSU recently paid $525,000 a year for former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis.

For comparison's sake, renowned Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong makes $313,000.

For a handful of highly endowed athletic departments -- Florida, Texas, Ohio State, Georgia, et. al. -- these rapidly escalating assistant salaries will merely become another part of doing business. They can afford it. However, the vast majority of Division I-A schools cannot. Already feeling the pinch of massive increases in travel costs and tempered donations from boosters hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis, these programs will be hard-pressed to retain assistants that achieve any level of notoriety.

"This is what shocks me the most: We're on the front end of a very serious economic downturn," Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association, recently told The State in Columbia, S.C. "For the first time, we're seeing coordinators receive multiple-year contracts and levels of compensation that have actually caused some schools in some conferences to be at a major disadvantage."

As is usually the case with the coaching market, this latest trend is being driven primarily by schools in the football-crazed SEC, which has long been ahead of its peers in head-coaching salaries and is now driving up the market for assistants as well.

While Oklahoma State is synonymous with silly-rich benefactor T. Boone Pickens, even the Cowboys had little chance of retaining receivers coach Trooper Taylor and running backs coach Curtis Luper when Auburn came calling earlier this month. The SEC school offered them a staggering $400,000 apiece.

Why would Auburn shell out that much dough for a pair of position coaches? Because of their lofty reputations as recruiters. (Luper has already helped Auburn reel in four-star QB Tyrik Rollison.)

Which brings us back to February 2010, when -- mark it down now -- Tennessee will be sitting atop the recruiting rankings.

A large part of this assumption is based on a long-standing recruiting trend I like to call the "second-year bump." Whenever there's a coaching change at one of the nation's elite programs, almost inevitably, the new coach "takes the recruiting world by storm" with his first full class (the second upon his arrival). When Ohio State hired Jim Tressel, when USC hired Carroll, when Florida hired Meyer, when Notre Dame hired Weis and when Alabama hired Saban, all signed classes a year later that were ranked at or near No. 1 nationally.

Tennessee already figured to be the "hot" recruiting school this time next year regardless -- but with recruiters like Orgeron and Thompson on the job, the sky's the limit.

That being said, the Vols are no strangers to the upper reaches of recruiting rankings. Under Fulmer, Tennessee reeled in Scout.com's top-rated class in 2005 and Rivals.com's No. 3 class in '07. The problem is, landing those blue-chippers hasn't translated into Ws.

With more money comes more pressure. While the faithful in Knoxville would be wise to brace for at least a year's worth of rebuilding, they'll be expecting a certain return for that $5.325 million sooner than later -- and we're not talking an Outback Bowl berth.

But Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Auburn can't all play for the SEC title every season. For all the money being invested in their coaching staffs, someone's bound to feel ripped off. When that day comes, count on that someone throwing even more money at a whole new set of recruiting whizzes.

 
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