AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- For years, ACC coaches could only watch as their counterparts in other conferences cashed paychecks that grew bigger after every championship. Or every 10-win season for that matter.
Not anymore. Four ACC coaches are now in the $4 million club. Last year, that club belonged exclusively to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recently has joined, more than quadrupling the $800,000 salary he got when he was first hired in 2008. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino got a raise to over $4 million too. Miami coach Mark Richt? Well, he already was making $4 million at Georgia, in a conference that set a benchmark nobody else has been able to reach.
Dabo Swinney has more than quadrupled the $800,000 salary he got when he was first hired by Clemson in 2008. AP Photo/Richard Shiro
As it stands, nine SEC coaches make $4 million or more. But the four $4 million coaches in the ACC puts the conference in line with the Big Ten, which also has four. Though the gap remains large, it has closed significantly. And that is a necessary step for a league that has really placed an emphasis on improving its football brand.
“Schools are continuing to make an investment in football,” Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said. “They see that’s where the revenue is and want to make sure that we’re continuing to be competitive in the marketplace.”
ACC athletic directors are well aware of what is happening in the marketplace. Radakovich said he wanted to be sure the school was giving Swinney his “market worth.” The raise Swinney got in 2014 put him at $3.15 million, which still ranked him among the highest paid coaches in the country. But in just two years’ time, that dropped him outside the top 25. So following a trip to the national championship game, Clemson realized Swinney was deserving of another raise.
So Radakovich said the school did comparisons with other high-paying schools to figure out what they could afford to pay.
“We just wanted to make sure that in our circumstance and where he is nationally and within our conference, that we’re giving Dabo his market worth and making sure that he’s comfortable at Clemson and Clemson’s certainly comfortable with him,” Radakovich said. “We don’t have the same resources as some of the other schools. We did some comparisons as a percentage of our football budget allocation, and personnel as it relates to our whole budget. We were very comfortable that percentage of expense is well in line from a ratio perspective of the revenue we’re bringing in.”
Florida State athletic director Stan Wilcox has done the same with Fisher, who got a raise to an ACC-leading $5.15 million last year. In 2013, Fisher made $2.75 million. He has received two raises since, after winning the 2013 national championship and making the 2014 College Football Playoff.
“Every year we do benchmarking,” Wilcox said. “We basically look at major institutions in the Power 5 conferences, where they pay, where’s the market.
“You have to stay on top of what the trends are. You want to keep all your coaches happy. You don’t like to have coaching turnover because you’re starting a whole new program whenever you do that. By making sure you’re staying on top of and understanding what the current market is and what the rates are out there, you make adjustments as you deem fit based upon the success of the program each year.”
It is undeniable the ACC has brought high-profile coaches into the mix, with Petrino joining Louisville in 2014 and Richt now joining Miami. High-profile coaches certainly add to the credibility of a league. So does the recent string of success, between Florida State and Clemson. So do coaching salaries, which often serve as a benchmark for the relative “strength” of a league.
Add in the close proximity to SEC schools (Florida State, Clemson and Louisville all have SEC rivals), and the ACC had to do something to catch up.
“The market bears what people make, and if whoever’s in charge of deciding how much to pay a guy thinks he’s worth it, then that’s just the way it is,” Richt said. “I think it’s a matter of: Do they believe this person is worth this much to the program?”
Then there is the recruiting factor. Because recruiting is always a factor.
“You want to go out on the recruiting trail and be able to say, ‘I’ll be your coach when you’re here for your career,’” Petrino said. “It’s just a competitiveness you see throughout college football in general.”
Competitiveness on the field leads to competitiveness with salaries. No conference wants to say it cannot pay what the market dictates. That leads coaches to leave.
While nobody in the ACC is ready to dish out $7 million, the ACC is way ahead of where it used to be. More schools are seen as destinations, not stepping stones. That’s progress.