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An explosion 35 years in the making: The astronomical rise of pay for college football coaches

While the average American family's income has nudged up in three decades, college football coaches' pay has taken off.

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USA TODAY Sports has been tracking and analyzing the terms of college football coaching contracts on an annual basis for 15 years now.

But its first investigation into coaching pay actually dates all the way back to 1986.

In a special report titled "Money and college athletics: Coaches, administrators cashing in on perks" that was published on Sept. 24, 1986, USA TODAY reporters revealed that football coaches like Mike White of Illinois and Howard Schnellenberger of Louisville were making crazy amounts of money – salaries and perks that totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Well, the amounts seemed crazy at the time, anyway.

In the 35 years since, college football coaching salaries have ballooned, buyout clauses have expanded, bonuses have skyrocketed and the various perks that coaches receive as part of their deals have become both increasingly intricate and significantly more valuable.

Overall, the average total compensation for football coaches at 10 Power Five schools that USA TODAY featured in its 1986 report has increased by 957%, when adjusted for inflation. The average household income, by comparison, has risen about 20% in the same time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

35 years of pay increases

Perhaps the most notable shift has come at the top of the pay scale, where salaries that were once unfathomable have now become commonplace.

In 2006, for example, the highest-paid Football Bowl Subdivision coach was Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, who made a little more than $3 million. The highest-paid coach this year is Alabama's Nick Saban, who is pocketing more than triple than amount: $9.75 million.

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In fact, USA TODAY Sports found that just nine head coaches at FBS public schools pocketed $2 million or more in 2006. Stoops was the only one to make $3 million.

By 2014, 27 coaches were making in excess of $3 million.

This year, there are 53.

Growth in highly paid college football coaches

While each of the Power Five conferences have at least one coach who was scheduled to make $7 million or more this season, two leagues continue to set the pace on coaching pay: The Big Ten, and the Southeastern Conference.

Eighteen of the 28 highest-paid coaches in this year's data reside in one of those two conferences, led by Saban in the SEC and Penn State's James Franklin in the Big Ten. (Franklin was scheduled to make $7 million this season.)


See salaries for college football coaches through the years

In the Group of Five, meanwhile, only two coaches are pocketing more than $3 million this year: Houston's Dana Holgorsen, at $4 million, and Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, who is due to make $3.4 million.

Which conferences have the highest-paid coaches

Pay does not necessarily translate to performance, of course.

USA TODAY compared the 2021 compensation and winning percentages of a specific group of coaches: Those who are both among the 50 highest-paid in the country and have been at their school for five or more years, not including the 2021 season.

Of that group – which consists of 23 coaches – five have won fewer than half of their games, including three coaches who will make $4 million or more this year. 

Pay for performance?

For many highly-paid coaches, the length of a contract can provide security and time – either to continue chasing a national title, or turn results around.

Of the FBS coaches whose contracts are publicly available, 14 have deals that run through the 2026 football season. Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher, who is earning $7.5 million in 2021, has the longest deal, thanks to a recent extension that runs through 2031.

The longest contracts

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