In 2018, at least 24 college football coaches made at least $4 million, per USA Today. At least 82 of the 130 head coaches in FBS made $1 million, and all of them comfortably make six figures.
The arc of coaching compensation has created a market in which the best coaches of amateur athletes are paid like middling Fortune 500 CEOs. And it shows no signs of slowing down on the top end.
Let’s start back at the beginning.
The primitive era (1869-1906)
Note: Context for figures before 1913 does not reflect Consumer Price Index inflation figures, which power most inflation calculators, so I’ve provided estimates.
There were fewer than 10 teams through 1880. By 1901, there were about 35, and then the number doubled to around 70 by 1902 (the NCAA wouldn’t be formed until 1906).
Walter Camp, Yale, 1888: Volunteer
Camp was one of the sports’ first formal head coaches, considered the father of the game due to rule innovations that separated the game from its rugby roots.
Camp was a “volunteer advisor” who received a “small” salary as treasurer of Yale’s Financial Union and oversaw all athletics. But Camp was compensated as an executive for his family clock-making company, the world’s largest by the time he was born, and by his work as an author.
Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago, 1892: $6,000
Coaches were being paid within a quarter century of the first game. Stagg’s job did include more than football, with a salary termed as “enormous”.
In 1892, the University of Chicago lured coach Amos Alonzo Stagg away from Yale, giving him chairmanship of the “physical culture” department
At times during his 40-year tenure at Chicago, he coached basketball, track, and baseball in addition to his duties as athletic director.
2018 buying power: about $158,500
Glenn “Pop” Warner, Iowa State and Georgia, 1895: $447
Warner’s salary was $175 with Iowa State, but that was only what he made with the Cyclones, though he did bet that entire amount on a single game. He had an arrangement to coach Iowa State (they only played in August and September), then relocate to coach Georgia. He was paid $34 per week for eight weeks to coach UGA.
Combined 2018 buying power of those salaries: about $12,500
Fielding Yost, Michigan, 1901: $2,300
Athletics were already outstripping academics.
When Yost accepted the offer to be UM’s football coach, his salary increased to $2,300, plus living expenses. Coaches in those days were on campus only during the football season. By comparison, instructors received $1,000, assistant professors $1,600 and full professors $2,500, all for a full year.
2018 buying power: about $64,650
John Heisman, Georgia Tech, 1904: More than $2,550
Heisman had it written in that he’d get 30% of Georgia Tech’s ticket revenue in his three-year deal.
John Heisman's first contract with Georgia Tech. He got 30% of the gate a year! pic.twitter.com/zcpYQjT5mz— BUM CHILLUPS (@edsbs) September 15, 2016
Heisman had come to Tech from Clemson, where his salary was paid by passing the hat around. That arrangement was put in place by the father of Tiger football, Walter Riggs.
2018 buying power of that $2,550-plus*: over $69,000
* 30% of Georgia Tech’s most recently available ticket revenue (2015) is $3.9 million. 1904 ticket revenue is hard to estimate, since Tech was playing in a public park with nowhere near the capacity of a modern stadium.
Bill Reid, Harvard, 1905: $7,000
Perhaps the highest-paid coach at the time, per a story in the 39th volume of Public Opinion. The article shows that over a century ago, there was already handwringing about salaries.
2018 buying power: about $188,000
The NCAA begins (1906-1941)
Bennie Owen, Oklahoma, c. 1912: $3,500
The Oklahoma legislature felt the salary was too high for an athletics staffer and fired him. But the president of OU, Dr. Stratton Brooks, intervened so quickly that Owen didn’t even know about the turmoil until a week later.
2018 buying power: about $87,250
Jumbo Stiehm, Indiana, 1916: $4,500
Stiehm coached at Nebraska until 1915, and the Huskers were invited to the Rose Bowl. Nebraska turned the bid down because the trip was too expensive.
Later, Stiehm asked for a $750 raise on his $4,250 salary. That was also declined, since it would’ve made his salary higher than the school’s top professor. He left for Bloomington and a more modest raise.
2018 buying power: $108,409
Robert Neyland, Tennessee, 1925: $750
The man who has the stadium in Knoxville named after him didn’t start out making a mint. He’d prove worth the small initial investment by winning four national titles.
2018 buying power: $10,861
Wallace Wade, Duke, 1930: $15,000
He coached Alabama to the Rose Bowl that Tide fans still sing about, then left after a secret negotiation with the Blue Devils to become coach and athletic director. He made double that of basketball coach Eddie Cameron, but both men have stadiums in Durham named after them.
2018 buying power: $219,777
Knute Rockne, Notre Dame, 1931: $75,000 (including off-field revenue)
He had won two straight titles by the time of his death in 1931. And Rockne had monetized his profession in a novel way, a glimpse into the future.
From clinics and endorsements, he turned his fame into cash like no coach before him -- and none for decades afterward -- a pursuit as zealous for him as victory. “He died, in a sense, chasing the dollar,” Sperber said. Rockne boarded his doomed flight because he needed to get to California to sign a movie contract. That kind of highrolling, high-risk, high-reward decision defined Rockne’s life. Just as he polished teams into synchronized championship machines, he pushed himself far beyond the boundaries of the football field.
2018 buying power: $1,181,820
Dana Bible, Texas, 1937: $15,000
After bossing the region with both Texas A&M and Nebraska, Bible returned to the Lone Star State to coach and serve as AD. His salary was “eye-popping.”
2018 buying power: $266,538
From World War II to full integration (1941-1972)
Television revenue became a factor, despite the NCAA fiercely controlling broadcasts (more on that later).
Paul Brown, Ohio State, 1941: $6,500
The future NFL coach was the youngest head coach in the Big Ten’s history and the first the Buckeyes hired away from a high school. He won a national title before leaving in 1944.
2018 buying power: $115,499
Woody Hayes, Ohio State, 1951: $12,500
This means the going rate for a first-year head coach in Columbus nearly doubled in the span of a decade, but the buying power didn’t. Hayes, then 38, was only five years older than Brown at the time of his hiring.
2018 buying power: $123,300
Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma, 1957: $102,000
Bear Bryant, Alabama, 1958: $40,000-plus
Bryant’s contract at Texas A&M paid him $15,000 plus a 1% take of gate receipts. It’s a deal he took after resigning from Kentucky, where urban legend has it that he left due to being gifted a cigarette lighter while Adolph Rupp got a Cadillac. He left College Station because “momma called,” but momma offered a raise, the AD post, and a 10-year deal too.
Bryant was at the forefront of a salary boom, and by 1970, Bryant was making $80,000. His weekly TV show began featuring Bama highlights, which Bryant owned the rights to. In addition to his salary, he was paid $3,000 per episode at the start.
Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson had a similar arrangement and reportedly paid income tax on $102,000 in 1957, much attributed to his own television show.
2018 buying power of that $102,000: $925,930
Paul Dietzel, LSU, 1959: $16,500
After LSU’s first consensus title, Dietzel was rewarded with a five-year contract and a $2,500 raise.
2018 buying power: $142,552
Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame, 1964: $20,000
Another legendary Notre Dame coach didn’t have quite the income of Rockne, but was still near the top of the pay scale after coming from Northwestern.
The bump, though, was modest--Parseghian’s salary rose from $18,000 to $20,000 a year.
”And they gave me a bonus of $5,000, so it’s $25,000,” Parseghian said. “What does that translate into in today’s dollars? It’s not $2 million, I know that.”
In his final year, 1974, Parseghian made $36,000, after 11 seasons, 95 wins and two national championships.
2018 buying power of 1964 salary: $162,165
Johnny Vaught, Ole Miss, 1970, $27,000
Vaught’s salary in his final full season shows base salaries still hadn’t come that far, and reportedly he turned down offers from other schools that would have come with raises. Vaught’s salary in 1960 had been $17,500.
2018 buying power of 1960 salary: $115,993
2018 buying power of 1970 salary: $178,961
The beginning of the modern era (1972-1984)
In the 1970s, salaries became structured as “total compensation packages” that included benefits off the field. Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden became the first to sign Nike deals in the early 1980s, and coaches raked in speaking fees and endorsements.
Bear Bryant, Alabama, 1982: $450,000
Bryant was making $450,000 in his last year, with $104,000 being base salary and $300,000 from TV and radio benefits, and he paved the way yet again.
Bryant, the winningest coach in the college ranks, also does commercials for a home builder, kerosene heaters and South Central Bell on a regional level. Bryant also endorses Ford pickups nationally, is expected to receive an undisclosed amount from the sales of 315 customed vans costing $19,000 each and decorated with a bear’s footprint on the back tire. Bryant also commands up to $15,000 for a speaking engagement, the Herald reported.
2018 buying power: $1,195,606
Jackie Sherrill, Texas A&M, 1982: $240,000 ($95,000 base)
The Aggies upset the market in 2017 when they hired Jimbo Fisher to a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed deal (we’ll come back to him). But the Aggies have done such a thing before.
While Bear’s salary was the highest per year, Sherrill’s was the highest in total value. Sherrill inked a six-year deal worth up to $1.7 million, per the New York Times, where it was reported as the richest for any American university employee ever.
Sherrill confirmed in a farewell news conference at Pitt that it was for six years and said that his base salary would be $95,000 a year. But the addition of benefits - including a home, new cars, insurance policies and money-fund investments - brings the entire package, the sources in Texas said, to an average of more than $280,000.
It was later reported to be a bit less than $280,000.
A&M had offered Michigan’s Bo Schembechler a 10-year deal at $200,000 per year in ‘77, which he declined. They upped the offer to lure Sherrill and briefly topped Oklahoma’s $150,000 annual package to Barry Switzer as the sport’s most lucrative. It was quite a raise for Sherrill, who’d made $60,000 per year at Pitt.
2018 buying power: $637,656
Barry Switzer, Oklahoma, 1982: $270,00 ($48,000 base)
Between Sherrill’s hiring and a Miami Herald investigation of coaching salaries in May, Switzer got a raise to become the #2 salaried coach behind Bryant.
The Cincinnati Enquirer showed a breakdown of Switzer’s salary, including a $48,000 base, $150,000 from TV and radio, a $5,000 housing allowance, and speaking fees.
The tide had truly risen, and 20 head coaches were making six figures.
Arkansas’ Lou Holtz, $226,000; Kentucky’s Jerry Claiborne, who previously coached at the University of Maryland, $152,500; Miami’s Howard Schnellenberger, $150,000; Colorado’s Chuck Fairbanks, $150,000; Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, $147,500; Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, $140,500, and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, $140,000, the Herald reported.
Other top 20 notables are Tennessee’s Johnny Majors at $128,500; Florida’s Charley Pell at $123,000; USC’s John Robinson and Penn State’s Joe Paterno at $102,500, and Georgia’s Vince Dooley at $100,000.
2018 buying power: $717,363
The seven- (and eight-) figure era (1984-present day)
In the ‘80s, much of what is now known as Power 5 banded to negotiate television rights. The NCAA had controlled the process and threatened sanctions against schools participating. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of schools. Game broadcast money eventually made coaches annual millionaires.
Bobby Bowden, Florida State, 1995: $975,000
When he was hired, Bowden was making $37,500 per year. By the end of his tenure, he was making over $2 million. His contract signed in 1995 was, in a way, the sport’s first million-dollar deal.
Not included in the contract’s value are bonuses that could push Bowden’s annual earnings past $1 million. There are incentives for high graduation rates and bowl bids.
By 2009, his contract became toxic due to his age and the program’s downturn. Bowden had been reportedly offered a lifetime contract in 1990, but by the end, it was clear that wasn’t official.
2018 buying power of that $37,500: $168,983
2018 buying power of that $975,000: $1,625,298
Steve Spurrier, Florida, 1996 and 1997: $1 million, and then about double that
Spurrier has a claim as the first million-dollar earner by average contract value. His near-$1 million salary topped Bowden’s, and then Florida up and doubled it, thanks to suitors.
‘’We’re talking about a completely different ballgame than a year ago,’’ Foley said, referring to UF’s 1996 national championship. ‘’Just like last year, we’re trying to be pro-active in regard to Steve’s contract.’’
The new numbers - which would average nearly $2 million per season through the year 2002 - will place Spurrier third among all football coaches in annual salary, trailing only the New York Jets’ Bill Parcells ($3.3 million) and the Miami Dolphins’ Jimmy Johnson ($2 million).
Spurrier rejected an offer to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January 1996 and turned down the Atlanta Falcons last December. Both teams threw offers in excess of $2 million annually his way.
2018 buying power of that $1 million: $1,622,707
2018 buying power of that $2 million: $3,149,541
The average head coach, 1998: $417,000
The Division I-A Athletic Director’s Association found that average total packages included a $165,340 average base.
The average package for a Division I-A coach increased almost 11 percent from the 1997 to 1998 season, according to figures provided by the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association. The average base salary increased 9.35 percent. Even the single highest base salary increased from $501,000 to $525,000 per year in 1998. That’s a boost of $24,000 or 4.8 percent.
In 1999, Oklahoma pried Bob Stoops away from Spurrier’s staff. Midway through OU’s title-winning 2000, OU doubled his salary to $1.4 million. It was the third-largest salary, going to a man who wasn’t yet 40.
By 2004, at least 23 college football coaches made $1 million annually in total compensation.
2018 buying power: $646,520
Les Miles, 2008, LSU: at least $3.75 million
Miles’ contract was the highest in the SEC, structured to stay that way.
Saban, who is guaranteed $3.75 million, was the SEC’s highest-paid coach. Miles’ new contract states he will be paid no less than the highest-paid coach at a public university in the conference, plus $1,000.
Miles’ initial contract extension through 2012, agreed to in December, called for him to earn no less than the third-highest salary among all NCAA football coaches nationwide.
2018 buying power: $4,451,144
Jim Harbaugh, 2016, Michigan: $9 million
Harbaugh came from the 49ers for $5 million per year in December 2014. That was re-done after an impressive 2015 season to get to $7 million per year. However, he got to $9 million in 2016 with some insurance gymnastics.
How it works is Harbaugh owns this insurance policy.
If he is coaching the team on Dec. 6 of each year from 2016 through 2021, Michigan makes the $2 million annual premium payment to the insurance company.
Then, because Harbaugh owns the policy, he can take withdrawals or loans from the policy.
The university will get its money back, without interest, when Harbaugh dies.
By 2016 there were seven head coaches who made $5 million or more, and the median for every conference was at least half that amount.
The SEC had the highest median coach salary at $4,172,500, followed by the Big 12 ($3,540,788), the Pac-12 ($3,102,960), the Big Ten ($2,753,100) and the ACC ($2,562,485).
Nick Saban, Alabama, 2017: $11.1 million
The latest in a series of Saban re-setting the market. In 2018, the salary dropped to a more modest $7 million-plus for the rest of its life.
In 1999, Saban’s salary doubled to $1.2 million when he arrived at LSU. Saban has signed multiple extensions in Tuscaloosa and has earned nearly $50 million from Alabama since he arrived in 2007 (when his salary was a head-turning $4 million, over $500,000 more than Stoops’ market-topping deal).
Dave Aranda, LSU defensive coordinator, 2018: $2.5 million
Aranda’s not a head coach, but he’s paid like one. In fact, Aranda makes more than as many as 70 or so FBS head coaches.
Aranda’s salary is the product of the ongoing assistant boom. Nine FBS assistants made more than $1 million in 2015. Alabama’s pool has been nearly $6 million for its on-field assistants alone and $535,000 for its strength coach.
This trend will continue. When hiring an unproven coach, high-priced assistants are a way to protect the new guy.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M, 2018: A fully guaranteed $75 million over 10 years
By this point, the total values on these deals are hitting new levels.
Sure, the deal’s a ton of money. It’s barely more than Saban’s most recent deal. But as eye-popping as the numbers are, just as eye-popping is that the contract included no buyout from Fisher if he were to leave A&M. It is a stunning bit of business.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson, 2019: 10 years, $92 million
The largest total by nearly $20 million, eventually taking him up to $10 million a year.
Over the generations, college football has moved from club leisure activity to professional endeavor.
And many people — besides the athletes — have generated generational wealth while participating in it. Because the athletes can’t be paid above a cost-of-attendance stipend, the money has to go somewhere. By continually increasing amounts, coaching salaries are one major place the money goes.