Does Wisconsin Underpay Assistants?

by Richard Branch 

Bielema.jpg

The soon-to-be-concluded off-season has been a peculiar one for Wisconsin football.  A 3rd straight Pasadena heartbreaker would be enough disappointment in most years, but the turnover at the top of the program created a reaction amongst fans that no one could have predicted.  The departure of a head coach who was never fully embraced by Badger fans elicited surprising and near-universal hostility. 

In their minds, it was as if the brusque, rough around the edges coach, whom they had tolerated for years due to his – mostly - winning ways, slipped off in the dead of night with little more than a cursory good bye for the players and even less for the community that had invested so much in his time in Madison.  For a fan base that felt it had been on balance pretty patient with a coach who had to learn on the job and live with his mistakes, it was tough to take.

As if to pour salt in the wounds, Bielema criticized the athletic department’s unwillingness to compensate assistants as a prime motivator in his acceptance of the Arkansas position:

“The driving forces were an opportunity to be a head coach in the SEC…And the second thing was to jump up my assistants’ salaries. There was a contract situation and a salary pool that just didn’t allow me to retain assistants [at Wisconsin]…If I had the same salary pool here…at Wisconsin, I would have never left.”

This claim has been oft cited and generally accepted as reality, despite Barry Alvarez’s claims that Wisconsin is “competitive” in this regard, but it hasn’t been checked against fact.  Using the USA Today coaching salary database, what follows is a compilation of staff departures since 2009 with all publicly available salary information.

 

2009 Season

Coach

Position

’09 Salary

’10 Team

’10 Position

’10 Salary

Replacement

Salary

Kerry Cooks

DB

$141,400

Notre Dame

DB

Not Avail.

Chris Ash

$163,600

Randall McCray

S/Recruit Coord.

$131,300

Mid Tenn. St.

Def. Coord.

$110,746

Greg Jackson

$120,000

2010 Season

Coach

Position

’10 Salary

‘11 Team

’11 Position

’11 Salary

Replacement

Salary

Dave Doeren

Def. Coord.

$249,979

N. Illinois

Head Coach

$371,000

Chris Ash

$211,600

John Settle

RB

$129,792

NFL

RB

Not Avail

Thomas Hammock

$150,000

Greg Jackson

DB/LB

$120,000

NFL

DB

Not Avail.

Dave Huxtable

$195,000

2011 Season

Coach

Position

’11 Salary

’12 Team

’12 Position

’12 Salary

Replacement

Salary

Paul Chryst

Off. Coord.

$406,750

Pitt

Head Coach

$1.75M

Matt Canada

$265,000

Bob Bostad

OL

$251,600

Pitt

Off. Coord.

Not Avail.

Mike Markuson

$255,000

Joe Rudolph

TE

$211,300

Pitt

TE

Not Avail.

Eddie Faulkner

$200,000

Dave Huxtable

LB

$195,000

Pitt

Def. Coord.

Not Avail.

Andy Buh

$215,000

DeMontie Cross

S-Sp.Tm

$160,00

Kansas

LB

$175,000

Ben Strickland

$103,000

DelVaughn Alexander

WR

$136,300

Arizona St.

WR

$175,000

Zach Azzani

$200,000

While the data is somewhat incomplete, the simple “Wisconsin isn’t competitive in paying assistants” narrative doesn’t fit the data.  The reality is more varied; three years of coaching changes paints a far more complex picture. 

To be sure, there are instances of coaches leaving for more money.  John Settle and Greg Jackson left in lateral moves to take positions in the NFL.  While the league doesn’t release assistant salary information, it’s generally accepted that NFL position coaches make roughly double what their counterparts do at upper tier BCS schools.  This problem is shared by all but a select few college programs.  Unless a school is amongst the hyper-elite – which Arkansas is not - it’s impractical and impossible to match NFL pay scales. 

Notre Dame is about as hyper-elite as you can get in the FBS, and although salary information for the university is unavailable (as is the case with the vast majority of private institutions) it’s likely Kerry Cooks was able to secure a significant raise when he left Madison for South Bend in 2009.  Of any coach on the list, Cooks best fits Bielema’s account.

Beyond these three, the rest of the group paints a more typical pictures of coaches coming to town, acquiring experience for their coaching resume, and moving on to bigger coaching opportunities elsewhere.  Randall McCray left the Badgers (taking a pay cut) to run the defense at Middle Tennessee State.  After four seasons running the defense for Wisconsin, Dave Doeren took over the program at Northern Illinois and hasn’t looked back since. 

Despite the lack of salary information, the Paul Chryst-led exodus to Pitt follows much the same pattern.  Bob Bostad joined Chryst as offensive coordinator.  Dave Huxtable was promoted to defensive coordinator.  Joe Rudolph eventually became offensive coordinator with Bostad’s departure to the NFL.  In each case, an expanded role on a new staff offered better opportunities than were available if they stayed put.

The case of DelVaughn Alexander further complicates the story.  He left for Arizona State set for a 30% pay hike that on the surface appears to affirm Bielema’s contention.  But his replacement adds a wrinkle to the story as Zach Azzanni was hired on earning more than Alexander was paid in Tempe.  In fact, the majority of hired replacements from 2009 onwards made more than their predecessors.  This can partly be attributed to the rise in assistant pay in general (Wisconsin’s assistant pay pool has increased over 60% since 2010, mirroring trends across college football in general) but the facts nonetheless poke holes in the theory.

While his idea doesn’t work on the micro level, there is credence to his complaints on the macro.  Until this season – when the Badgers increased their assistant salaries by more than $500,000 – the team routinely ranked in the bottom half of the conference in total compensation for coordinators and position coaches.  In spite of that, Wisconsin has gone toe to toe with Ohio State, Oregon, and Nebraska the past several seasons despite paying their coaching staff significantly less.  Wisconsin offers exposure and opportunity that attracts quality candidates, but an expanded salary pool might do more to retain the best ones a little longer. 

If a little better compensated, perhaps Dave Doeren passes on the Nothern Illinois job and stays in Madison for the 2011 season.  Rather than a defense with a nasty habit of miscommunication in the worst situations, the Russell Wilson Express is complemented by a defense running the same system it’s had in place for years.  Maybe they could have beaten Oregon in the Rose Bowl.  Maybe they could have done more…

Ultimately, the accuracy of Bielema’s assessment will be measured in part by Gary Andersen’s ability to sustain Wisconsin’s successes.  In his first press conference as Badger coach Gary Andersen stated all the tools necessary to compete at the “highest level” were at his disposal in Madison.  He’s seen his salary pool increase from under $800,000 at Utah State to $2.5 million at Wisconsin.  Much of the staff that came with him from Logan saw their salaries nearly triple.  Thomas Hammock is now making double what he did when hired back in 2011.  Coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig are making nearly half a million each.  The trend of late certainly bucks Bielema’s complaints.

As has been stated here before there is potential for Bret Bielema’s departure to do more to get the Wisconsin program over the hump from very good program to an elite one than anything he could’ve done had he remained Madison.  The stadium upgrades, revamped facilities, and (it’s painful to hear) increased ticket prices were all done to put Wisconsin in that last game of the year, but despite gleaming weight rooms and massive replay screens, a program with too much change in its coaching ranks will always be fighting an uphill battle against bigger spenders.

His departure was so cutting to Badger fans due to his outright rejection of everything the athletic department has been working for in recent years, that unspoken goal of being counted amongst the great national programs.  Bielema undercut that idea with accusations of trying to win on the cheap.  His parting shots hurt, but airing the program’s dirty laundry publicly and repeatedly may effect more change than internal, private pressure from an incumbent ever could.  Despite the athletic department’s repeated insistence that salaries in Madison are competitive, the additional half million dollars allotted to assistants makes it clear his complaints were heard.  It remains to be seen if more money equates to less turnover.

Bielema’s accusations were a bitter pill to swallow.  But perhaps they were just the prescription the program needed.