With salaries for college football assistants spiraling, coaches can be pickier about taking top jobs

When Arkansas State athletics director Terry Mohajir went to hire a football coach six years ago for a program that had been a reliable launching pad to the Power Five, he looked to the staff of one of the most profitable athletic departments in the country. 

At the time, Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin wasn’t just a highly regarded rising assistant in college football, he was also attainable for a Sun Belt program whose total athletic budget is roughly one-fifth of schools like Texas. 

“He was making ($700,000) and that was pretty high,” Mohajir said. “It was pretty good money, but I was able to pay him more to be a head coach.” 

Fueled by an explosion in the cost of hiring and retaining top-level assistants, however, the economics of grooming the next generation of head coaches has been turned on its head in less than a decade. 

Whereas only five assistants in the country were making $1 million or more five years ago, that number has now exploded to 21 in the latest USA TODAY Sports college coaching salary survey, with eight of those making at least $1.5 million. 

Led by LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, whose total basic compensation for this year is $2.5 million, the motivation for top programs to retain elite assistants has turned many of those jobs into more lucrative and potentially more secure opportunities than a significant portion of head coaching gigs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

DATABASE: Salary data for nearly every FBS assistant coach

“A lot of people wanted to be head coaches because the money was so significantly different, but it’s not any more,” said Chad Chatlos, who specializes in coaching and executive searches for Ventura Partners. “So what’s the incentive unless you’re just driven to be a head coach? You’re seeing some guys say, ‘I want to just coach my defense’ without having to deal with the other stuff that comes with being a modern-day head coach.”

Whereas the path to lifetime financial security in college football almost always came through success as a head coach until the last few years, the lines have recently blurred.

Aranda’s contract, which is guaranteed through March 31, 2022, makes him more highly paid than four head coaches in the Pac-12 Conference. Missouri’s Barry Odom, a head coach in Aranda’s own league, the Southeastern Conference, made slightly less ($2.35 million) this season.

Aranda, 42, was a little-known commodity as recently as six years ago. After working his way up from places like Cal Lutheran and Delta State to the FBS level at Utah State in 2012, his reputation blossomed when he followed Gary Anderson to Wisconsin and ran a defense that finished in the top-10 nationally for three straight seasons even though his roster wasn’t loaded with blue-chip recruits. 

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