“In the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst boldly told reporters that on the day he fired coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers had just won nine games for a seventh-straight season, capping that stretch with a stirring-if-strange 37-34 comeback win in Iowa City.
Sure it mattered that NU beat the Hawkeyes, Eichorst said. But then again...
“I’m trying to look at who are championship-caliber football teams at that moment and how competitive were we in those games,” Eichorst said.
So a comparison to 7-5 Iowa — a program mud-stuck in true mediocrity — isn't good enough.
Which makes USA Today's Wednesday release of its 2014 assistant coaching salary database a curious thing.
By paying its nine assistants $2,709,538, Nebraska finished 31st among teams that reported their salaries.
Iowa finished 28th. Kansas State finished 27th. Minnesota finished 29th.
Kentucky — the nation's premier basketball school, whose football team has a 19-41 record in the last five years — finished 30th. Michigan State paid its assistants $3.206 million, which ranked 21st nationally. Missouri – long the gum on Nebraska's shoe — paid its assistants $3.169 million. That's 22nd nationally. The Big Ten's big poobah — Ohio State — finished 8th nationally at $3.592 million.
And don't forget that USA Today's list doesn't include, among others, the following schools that didn't report: Notre Dame, USC, Stanford, Baylor, TCU, Miami (Florida), Northwestern, BYU and Penn State. So it's more likely that the assistants' salary compensation at Nebraska ranked closer to 40th than the top 25.
In terms of total pay, offensive coordinator Tim Beck — who according to the database made $715,281 — had the nation's No. 21 assistant salary package. But he was the only Nebraska assistant in the top 100.
Next up: Defensive coordinator John Papuchis, making $318,102, at No. 185. That less than former Husker assistant Corey Raymond earned as the defensive backs coach at LSU. That's only $18,102 more than former Husker assistant Terry Joseph made as the defensive backs coach at Texas A&M. At $275,900, former Nebraska graduate assistant Vince Marrow — who couldn't even get a job on Pelini's staff — made more than every current Husker assistant other than Beck and Papuchis.
One critique levied at Pelini was his assistants didn't develop players well enough. I tend to put development on players squarely on the head coach — it's his staff to hire, fire and lead — but was the money there for Pelini to pursue, or retain, the guys he always wanted?
The “Pelini” portion of the question now belongs with the debate over his era that I'm sure will continue for years to come.
But it shouldn't even be a question in the Mike Riley era.
Even if Riley hires some “below-market” assistants — which can prove sneaky smart if some young, hungry guy turns out to be a hit — Nebraska's financial commitment to assistant coaches needs a big boost. There isn't any particular reason — since Riley is a relative bargain with a head coaching salary of $2.7 million — why Nebraska can't be well above $3 million and running the race with Ohio State for the Big Ten's lead. The Huskers probably aren't headed for $4 million, although I can't imagine Clemson and Auburn, which both topped that mark, have that much richer coffers than Nebraska does. Matching LSU and Alabama, both topping $5 million, seems unnecessary.
Then again, if you want to guarantee coaching staff stability, the new thing is to pay the men below “the man.” Most head coaches don't take these jobs primarily for the money — they get paid well, yet put in some hellish hours — but the idea of helping take care of nine more coaches' families (many of whom include small kids) appeals to them. That might be one of the biggest perks of being a head coach, in fact. In such a transient business money doesn't equal security, but it does make expensive job transitions easier. You can convince guys who haven't spent ten minutes in Nebraska to spend five years here.
And assistant coaches are less likely to burn you on buyouts, too. A lot of them want head coaching jobs, for one thing. They're not going to loaf. And if you have to fire one, they're much less likely to take a season to decompress. They're not sitting on a head coach's nest egg, after all. So if you're into the “Moneyball” approach, which Eichorst claims to be, it's better to spread out the available cash over more folks who can help the coach Riley deliver his vision.
Twice — once at the Pelini firing press conference and once at the Riley hiring press conference — I've asked Eichorst just how competitive Nebraska will be with assistant coaching salaries.
“Mike and I will engage in more fruitful conversations in the next couple days about that, but we will provide the resources necessary for him to put a top-notch staff together,” Eichorst said the second time.
Riley was paid $1.5 million in head coaching salary at Oregon State. He's getting $2.7 million now. Riley's assistants were paid $2,347,200 at Oregon State. If you use the same ratio increase for Riley's assistants — whoever they are — as you would for Riley's bump, the assistants should make at least $4.22 million. I personally wouldn't blink an eye at $3.5 million. That attracts some guys who have made a living developing talent and recruiting it.
Or maybe a good benchmark is $3.2 million. The four teams in the College Football Playoff — Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State — all paid their assistants at least that.
In 2014, that's what championship-caliber football costs. It should be what Eichorst allows Riley to offer, especially in a state where four-star prospects don't grow on trees.
Note: A previous version of this blog had Riley's Oregon State salary at $2.1 million. It was $1.5 million, and the blog has been updated to reflect the correction.