There appears to be a new trend with top assistants that could actually benefit SEC schools
I can’t help but wonder if Todd Grantham’s offseason was a microcosm for a new trend in the SEC, and really for big-time college football programs.
We found out last week that despite a multi-million dollar deal to become the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator, Grantham elected to return to Florida. A variety of factors could have contributed to that. Grantham cited his family as part of what led to his decision to stay in Gainesville, which makes sense when you think about the fact that he has been in 8 places in the 21st century.
But the money factor is something that has some interesting wrinkles. Grantham made $1.4 million in his first year with the Gators. At the time, many (even Florida fans) scoffed at the idea of him making more than any assistant in program history. A year later, Gator fans were fired up to see that Florida worked out a new contract to Grantham worth $1.8 million per year.
Oh, and that new deal includes this interesting clause that could really lock Grantham into that new deal:
buyout note on new contract: Grantham would owe 50% of remaining value of contract unless he leaves to take a D-1 HC job, NFL HC job or NFL DC job.
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) February 14, 2019
That raise came after a year in which 21 assistant coaches made 7 figures. In 2012, only 2 assistants made that much. That same year only 18 assistants made at least $600,000 annually, according to USA Today.
At the time, that was deemed big news because assistant salaries rose approximately 29 percent from 2009 to 2012. Four of the top 6 highest-paid assistants that year were from the SEC. The sixth-highest paid assistant was, ironically enough, Grantham at $825,000. Now 7 years later, Grantham is set to make more than double that salary and he climbed all the way up to … No. 4 on the list of highest-paid assistants.
To me, that says a lot about where we’re at when it comes to paying assistants. Schools like Florida, LSU and Clemson have all shelled out big bucks for their top assistants, which have all played a part in keeping them around. It appears that in an era with more personnel movement than ever for the sport, it’s now more common than ever for schools to make it financially worthwhile for their top assistants. At least the schools with deeper pockets.
Take Mike Elko, for example. Last year, Jimbo Fisher lured him from Notre Dame with a fat, $1.8 million annual salary. Elko delivered by overhauling the Aggies’ run defense to help lead the program to its best win total since Johnny Manziel left College Station. In the past couple months, it’s been Fisher’s objective to keep Elko on his staff. To Fisher’s credit, he’s done that.
It’s unknown how rich that Temple offer to Elko was, though no Group of 5 head coach made north of $2.6 million last year. In other words, the pay increase wouldn’t have been all that great. The same was likely true with the Bengals, where Elko was also reportedly in the mix. Unlike Grantham, however, Elko doesn’t have a new deal in place to stay at his current job. At least not yet.
The likely scenario is that Elko does indeed agree to a new deal and reach that $2 million annual salary, which is a mark only LSU’s Dave Aranda and Clemson’s Brent Venables are at heading into 2019.
Venables just agreed to a new deal that’ll pay him $2 million annually, with an annual $200,000 retention bonus that rises to $400,000 in the final 3 years of the 5-year deal. It’s the richest deal ever for an assistant. It surpassed the record-setting contract signed by Aranda last offseason, which paid him a steep $2.5 million annually for the next 4 seasons. That was in response to Fisher trying to luring Aranda, who was his initial target as his new defensive coordinator.
Aranda’s deal was what made me wonder if assistant contracts were reaching an unsustainable rate. Maybe they are. But what they’re also doing is making it much more favorable for an assistant to stay an assistant.
Aranda is entering Year 7 as a Power 5 coordinator having never been a head coach. Venables is entering Year 21 as a Power 5 coordinator — and Year 8 at Clemson — having never been a head coach. If Elko gets a new deal and stays at A&M like it appears he will, it’ll be his sixth season as a Power 5 coordinator.
Maybe one of those coaches or even Grantham will eventually leave to become an FBS head coach. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so.
But it just seems like now is an extremely lucrative time to be a top assistant. We’re no longer dealing with situations like we had in 2009, when Nick Saban ($3.9 million) made more than 10 times more than defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (his deal actually went from $360,000 in 2009 to $1.5 million in his final season at Alabama in 2015). Call it a mix of increased TV revenue, more awareness of administration and boosters of valuing assistants or whatever, but it’s something.
When 2019 kicks off, it appears that at least 4 SEC assistants will make north of $1.5 million annually. That’s without knowing the logistics of Alabama’s new assistant contracts. It’s possible that we’re entering a time in which it doesn’t really make much sense for a well-paid Power 5 coordinator to leave for any job that isn’t a Power 5 head coach. At least not from a financial standpoint.
That’s a win for SEC teams with deep pockets, of which there are obviously many (11 of the top 21 assistant salary pools from 2018 were from the SEC). Not surprisingly, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and Tennessee all ranked in the top 11 nationally.
Does that mean the elite teams are now so rich that they’ll never have another assistant get poached? Of course not. Look at Alabama.
But is the compensation now getting to a level where we could see plenty more situations like Venables and Aranda in the coming years? Absolutely.
Welcome to big-time college football in 2019.