Why you should care
Because defensive coaches now have to live up to their paychecks.
When it comes to college football, popular conversation typically revolves around subjects like the Heisman Trophy, air raid offenses, RPOs — aka the run-pass option offense currently taking over the NFL — and some next great quarterback prospect. And what do all these things have in common? Offense.
That’s by design. College football is a haven for high scores, a testing ground for innovative offenses and a developmental level before the NFL. The wide variance of skill level and sheer number of teams with different offensive schemes makes fielding — and preparing — a dominant defense tricky for any collegiate defensive coordinator. And that’s exactly why a handful of universities recently broke the bank.
Six defensive coordinators signed seven-figure contracts this offseason, including the largest total contract for a collegiate assistant coach.
Now, these defensive aces have to to prove their worth.
In January, LSU’s Dave Aranda resisted entreaties from new Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher. What convinced Aranda to stay in Baton Rouge? Cajun crawfish boils, for sure, but the largest annual salary for an assistant coach ($2.5 million, for four years) sealed the deal. A&M ended up with Mike Elko, a young rising star who left Notre Dame for a three-year contract at $1.8 million per. Washington’s Jimmy Lake, Florida’s Todd Grantham and Ohio State’s Greg Schiano all landed seven-figure contracts, while Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard — the former Badgers and NFL safety who just completed his first season as coordinator — received a sizable raise to nearly $1 million. Finally, in July, Clemson’s Brent Venables received the largest total contract for a college assistant: $11.6 million over five years, a smidge short of Aranda’s annual crown.
The defensive windfall has been building for a while. Last season, 15 assistants made at least $1 million. Only four were offensive coaches, and one of them has since jumped to the NFL. This season, 18 assistants are making at least $1 million, with 13 on the defensive side of the ball.
“The marketplace is bearing fruit for defensive coordinators, but almost always when there’s an offensive-minded head coach,” says Rick Neuheisel, the former UCLA and Washington head coach and current CBS Sports analyst. With so many collegiate head coaches having offensive backgrounds, Neuheisel — himself a former quarterback and offensive coordinator — says defensive coordinators are hired with full autonomy in mind. “You don’t want to be looking over their shoulder as much as the offensive assistants.”
As the breeding ground for innovative offense, college football lends itself to big plays and high-scoring affairs. It’s much easier to spot an innovative offensive coach — like Chip Kelly in Oregon or Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Washington State — whose unique schemes are visible to even casual fans. But on defense, schemes are more subtle, and success is much more dependent on talent than play-calling. “Across the country, it’s rare to see a defense dictate the game with scheme,” says Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth, adding: “The rules favor offenses, and that puts a great deal of stress on the defense.”
But when a top defensive mind delivers consistently from the recruiting trail, that’s when we see dominant college defenses emerge. Think Alabama’s Nick Saban, arguably the greatest college football coach ever and a former defensive coordinator. Add in Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who both were defensive coordinators at Alabama.
But defensive dominance is not the easiest ticket to where the real money is: head coaching and/or the pros. NFL head coaches Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers) and Adam Gase (Miami Dolphins) were not highly compensated during their brief stints as college assistants, but they’ve rocketed to stardom — and riches. Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay never even coached in college. Had they been locked in as coordinators at the oversaturated college level, maybe their careers would have played out much differently.
Because with great contracts comes great responsibility — as these defensive coordinators will soon discover — there’s no lurking in the shadows with a seven-figure salary. Unless you want the head coach calling your plays.