Overpaid or worth it? Evaluating the 10 highest-paid assistant football coaches

Tom Schad
USA TODAY

It's not just head coaches who are cashing in.

Three assistant coaches at public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision are making north of $2 million this year, according to contracts compiled and analyzed by USA TODAY Sports. The group is led by ex-Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whose total pay this season was a whopping $2.5 million. (Venables has since been hired as the head coach at Oklahoma.)

In fact, all of the 10 highest-paid assistants in the country are pocketing at least $1.5 million in 2021 – more than a whopping 44 head coaches in the FBS will make during the same time period.

Some of those assistants' salaries now look like bargains, given how their units performed. Others look like wastes.

A breakdown of the 10 highest-paid assistants, and which of their units did enough to justify their massive compensation during the 2021 season:

1. Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator

Total pay: $2.5 million

Verdict: Worth it. Venables has long been one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in the country, but his defenses have also long been among the best. Even in a subpar campaign for Clemson this season, the defense ranks second in points allowed (15 per game), ninth in yards allowed (308.4 per game) and fourth in sacks. It's a lot of money for a coordinator, of course, but the Tigers have gotten a return on their investment.

2. Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator

Total pay: $2.13 million

Verdict: Overpaid. Clemson has been generally terrific over the years with Elliott at the helm, but not so in 2021. The Tigers scored 21 points or fewer in five of their first six games, including three losses. And the passing game has been particularly anemic, averaging fewer than 192 yards per game despite fielding a five-star quarterback and ample talent all over the field. 

3. Mike Elko, Texas A&M defensive coordinator

Total pay: $2.1 million

Verdict: Worth it (barely). When you're making more money than a significant chunk of FBS head coaches, including most of the Group of Five, the expectations should be high. Elko's unit just barely cleared that bar. No, the Aggies' defense hasn't been otherworldly. But it ranks inside the top 20 nationally in a number of key defensive categories, and only Clemson and Georgia have surrendered fewer points in 2021.  

4. Todd Grantham, Florida defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.801 million

Verdict: Overpaid. The Gators fired Grantham on Nov. 7 after a dismal three-game stretch in which his defense gave up a combined 123 points to LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. When you're the third highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country, that's just not good enough.

5. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.8 million

Verdict: Overpaid. Grinch, who recently followed Lincoln Riley to Southern Cal, has coached stellar defensive units in past years. But his group at Oklahoma this year has been mediocre at best, especially in pass coverage – which is Grinch's specialty. The Sooners are among the worst teams in the nation in both passing yards allowed (108th) and passing efficiency defense (100th).

6. Barry Odom, Arkansas defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.75 million

Verdict: Overpaid. Arkansas has had an excellent season, but Odom's defense has been a bit too inconsistent – shutting down teams like Texas A&M, then getting ripped apart by Georgia and Ole Miss. It's not that the Razorbacks have been terrible. Just not good enough to justify their coordinator's $1.75 million paycheck this year.

t-7. Pete Kwiatkowski, Texas defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.7 million

Verdict: Definitely overpaid. The Longhorns finished below .500, went 3-6 in the Big 12 and had one of the worst defenses in the Power Five under Kwiatkowski. They were particularly bad on the ground, giving up more than 200 rushing yards per game. But giving up 57 points to Kansas was probably the low point.

t-7. Dan Lanning, Georgia defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.7 million

Verdict: Worth it. No FBS team gave up fewer points per game than Georgia this season, and the Bulldogs finished inside the top-three in both passing and rushing yards allowed. It helps to have a defensive-minded head coach in Kirby Smart, but Lanning deserves a lot of credit here, as well.

9. Pete Golding, Alabama defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.63 million

Verdict: Worth it. While Golding's unit at Alabama hasn't been quite as good as Georgia's, or as suffocating as it's been in years past, it's still been excellent – and a key reason why the Crimson Tide won the SEC and made the College Football Playoff. The defensive front has been especially solid, helping Alabama rank third in the country in sacks and fourth in rushing yards allowed.

10. Derek Mason, Auburn defensive coordinator

Total pay: $1.5 million

Verdict: Worth it (barely). The Tigers only forced 10 turnovers in 12 games during Mason's first year at Auburn, but they proved to be fairly stingy on the whole, ranking just outside the top-30 in scoring defense. They also have the distinction of being one of just two teams to hold Alabama to fewer than 30 points. 

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.