Huskies' Nick Holt is one of the latest to cash in on big salaries for assistants.
It wasn’t long after Washington’s disheartening 24-17 football loss at Arizona State on Saturday night that the message boards crackled, call-in talk shows buzzed and a highly critical ESPN.com piece took on the Huskies’ defensive coordinator.
“Why exactly is Nick Holt being paid $2,100,000 for his three years?” was the question that keyed a long thread on a message board.
What do we take from this? Well, when you get paid the big bucks, you’re potentially a target of big heat.
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In the late 1980s, when Holt was starting out as an assistant at UNLV, he remembers pulling down $16,000 to $17,000 a year.
Oh, yes, and “I got a dealer car,” Holt says. “I thought I was in heaven. I thought I was a big-time guy.”
Now you could say he really is, making $600,000 in the first season of a three-year deal.
For Holt and a good many assistant coaches, it’s a new day in college football. While a lot of focus has been trained on the sharp rise in head-coaching salaries — eight are making $3 million or more a year, 21 are at $2 million-plus, according to The Orlando Sentinel — assistant-coaching salaries have been pulled along, mostly out of the spotlight.
Consider: An August 2007 ESPN.com story cited several assistant coaches making $300,000 to $400,000, in what constituted a sharp rise from earlier this decade.
Today, those numbers don’t even register among the nation’s highest. According to the Orlando paper, Holt is one of the nation’s top-five paid assistants — but only No. 5. Lane Kiffin, the first-year Tennessee coach, is paying his veteran dad Monte a cool $1.2 million to coach his defense.
Will Muschamp of Texas, one of the country’s coveted assistants in recent years, got $900,000 just to chill and wait until Mack Brown retires. Ed Orgeron, who earned a reputation as an uber-recruiter while head coach at Mississippi, got another $650,000 of Tennessee’s money to coach the defensive line.
When Washington hired Rick Neuheisel in 1999 at about $1 million annually — to considerable controversy — he was the fifth coach nationally at that level. Now it seems possible that within a couple of years, there could be that many assistant coaches at the same level.
The rationale advanced by the head coaches paying the big bucks falls generally into three parts: It’s a natural trickle-down effect from the boom in head-coaching salaries; the game is simply big business; and they’re merely reflecting market forces.
Steve Sarkisian, the Washington coach, notes the big salaries paid to NFL head coaches and assistants, and says those affected the money going to college head coaches and, eventually, to the assistants.
“And I think it’s well deserved,” says Sarkisian. “These guys do a great job. As much as it’s a game, it’s also a business. There’s a lot of money at stake.”
No doubt. Texas’ Brown says the school grossed $72 million last year from football. Numbers like those argue against those who say the salaries paid not only to head coaches, but assistants, are out of line.
“I think it’s a smart move by athletic directors at major programs,” Lane Kiffin said recently. “We invest all kinds of money into our facilities and stadiums. What better way to invest to get money back than in your staff?
“Look in your own backyard. You guys paid Nick Holt a lot, and I bet as you guys were beating USC and holding them down on defense, I don’t think anybody was worried about his salary. Nor did anybody worry about my dad’s salary as he was doing a great job against Florida.”
Perhaps recalling how ex-assistant Gene Chizik took a job in 2006 to become head coach at Iowa State, Brown says, “What we do at Texas, we’re competing with head coaches across the country. Instead of [assistants] taking a risky head-coaching job, we’re paying ’em to stay here.
“We’re also competing with the NFL for our assistant coaches.”
The groundbreaker in this derby, not surprisingly, is believed to have been USC coach Pete Carroll. In 2001, he was reported to have paid $350,000, including incentives, to lure offensive whiz Norm Chow from North Carolina State. Only a season before, in 2000, Washington was paying its coordinators $134,016.
“I don’t know about the trends,” says Carroll. “I just got in a battle to compete to get him to come.”
Carroll, eminently successful at USC, kicked up the salary structure there, and that no doubt was an influence in Sarkisian giving Holt a lucrative deal. In the Pac-10, however, while coordinators’ salaries have increased, they haven’t gone up as meteorically as elsewhere. After Holt, the highest-paid assistant among the Pac-10 public schools bound to release salaries is defensive coordinator Mark Stoops at Arizona ($281,014).
Few would contend it’s a glamorous job at the assistants’ level. Says Holt: “People really don’t realize all the other stuff we sacrifice, the family life, not being around our kids, all the stuff we do other than Saturdays, being away from home, traveling, not having a lot of holidays.”
The spike in assistants’ salaries comes at a time of cries for fiscal restraint from everybody from an NCAA subcommittee on responsibility in spending to a Knight Commission warning about revenues unable “to keep up with a runaway train of spending.”
No matter. University presidents cite the marketplace, and they recognize the need to win football games. There’s no chance of what Florida State coach Bobby Bowden idly proposed recently — a coaching salary cap.
“I wish they’d declare a level and set it,” he mused. “They probably ought to do it for head coaches, too.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org