Follow the dollar signs. They provide context, highlighting how far college football has come, and where it continues to soar.
Less than five years ago, former Texas coach Mack Brown pushed his profession to unprecedented heights when he became the first college football coach to receive a $5 million annual salary. This was scaling Mount Everest, or breaking the four-minute mile.
Something previously thought impossible opened the door to more of the impossible.
This fall, four coaches are expected to be paid at least $5 million. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops became the latest last month when his school's board of trustees approved a new contract extension and raise that pushed him over the threshold. Alabama coach Nick Saban paces the field, signing a new eight-year contract last month worth $6.9 million per year, not counting performance incentives.
In the arms race of college football, more coaches will follow. There is no end in sight. Soon, the $7 million barrier will be breached. No matter how high salaries soar, wise investments are important.
"We can't be reckless with those dollars," Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich said.
Perhaps the best, direct way to evaluate how much value schools get from their coaches is to look at raw wins, and how much is spent per victory.
It's not a perfect system. Some wins are indeed bigger than others, bringing more value. Nobody would dare compare Clemson's victory at Syracuse last season to its win against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Clemson and Coastal Carolina are interstate opponents with South Carolina, but nobody would debate which victory was bigger for the Gamecocks last November at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Most coaches also receive additional income outside direct pay from their schools, but this exercise is focused on how much money schools paid coaches per win, based on their annual salary.
South Carolina paid coach Steve Spurrier $300,000 per win last season, while Clemson paid coach Dabo Swinney $230,911 per win. Spurrier's salary last fall was $3.3 million, and he led the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Swinney's salary was $2,540,024, and he also led the Tigers to 11 wins.
Both were among the best values in their respective conferences.
SEC schools paid $464,231 per win on average, while ACC schools paid an average of $375,590. Spurrier and Swinney exceeded the average expectations, but trailed behind conference leaders.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe was among the best values in college football last season, leading the ACC with $179,228 per win during one of the best seasons in Blue Devils history. Similarly, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was the second-best value in the SEC, receiving $204,752 per win as he led the Commodores to one of their most memorable seasons. Franklin received a significant pay raise when he accepted the head coaching job at Penn State this offseason.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn finished among the top two after leading their teams to the BCS National Championship Game. Florida State paid $196,428 to Fisher per win, while Auburn paid Malzahn $203,333 for each victory.
"One of the most enjoyable, rewarding seasons that I have been able to be a part of in my whole career," Malzahn said last week at the SEC Media Days. ". Some great memories that we'll remember forever. Winning the SEC Championship, going from worst to first was definitely special."
Then there was the bottom, where seats get hot and money is wasted.
Virginia coach Mike London led the Cavaliers to a disappointing 2-10 record last season, costing his school $1,086,600 per win. Mark Stoops also led Kentucky to a 2-10 record in his first season with the Wildcats, costing $1,000,625 per win.
Among the bottom two schools in each conference, there were three first-year coaches. N.C. State coach Dave Doeren was paid $850,000 per win last season. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was paid $983,333 per win.
"Year two, although we don't know the record yet, my full heart belief is it's going to be better than year one," Bielema said at SEC Media Days. "That's going to be determined on a weekly basis, but I do know it's going to be better."
There will be several metrics used to evaluate whether Bielema and his peers near the bottom improve their value next season. Perhaps the most relevant is to simply follow the dollar signs.