Clemson’s Moneyball: Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney is paid less so his assistants can make more

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney joins his team in their walk towards the endzone before the Tigers' game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009. (Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney earned 38.7 percent of Clemson’s total football staff compensation last season, the second lowest share for a head coach at a BCS public school. Swinney’s percentage will decline to 31 percent this season — the lowest among major conference schools — because of significant increases in his assistant coaches’ salaries.

Clemson’s Chad Morris (offensive coordinator) and Brent Venables (defensive coordinator) are among the highest paid assistants in the country. No other BCS program has two assistants whose combined salaries are more than what the head coach is paid.

Clemson doesn’t have the resources of college football’s big boys, programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Texas. Clemson cannot afford to pay a head coach and coordinators all top-of-the-market salaries, instead, Clemson elected to pay Swinney middle-of-the-road compensation for a BCS conference head coach while

surrounding him with two of the nation’s highest- compensated assistant coaches. It’s an unusual strategy Clemson hopes leads to sustained success.

“We don’t have unlimited resources,” Swinney said. “I’m well paid. Clemson has been very good to me. I’m foregoing money, but it’s not about me, it’s about the big picture of where I want this program to go. I’m trying to create a situation where I can have the best staff in the country, and when guys leave for better opportunities, head coaching jobs or whatever, we’ll be able to attract great coaches here and keep great coaches here.

“It’s taken a little bit of sacrifice to get the foundation in place like I want.”

After Clemson won the ACC title, Swinney’s contract called for him to earn a raise to $2.2 million this year. But Swinney agreed to coach for $1.9 million, distributing $300,000 of his income to pay for assistants. Swinney is also talking with Clemson officials about a contract extension. His deal runs through 2014.

Said Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips: “There’s no way we could have done what we did this year if not for having a head coach that is willing to take less.”

Clemson’s aggregate staff compensation — $6.1 million for 2012 — would rank in the middle of the pack in the cash-rich Southeastern Conference, but Clemson is paying its two coordinators $2.1 million in 2012, more than any other program in the country in part because Swinney is coaching at a relative discount.

Head coaches typically earn half of the aggregate dollars for a coaching staff.

Bobby Petrino earned an SEC-high 60.8 percent of Arkansas’ football staff revenue. Nick Saban receives 56.8 percent of Alabama’s coaching dollars. Eight SEC head coaches account for 50 percent of their staff’s total football compensation, including South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (53.8 percent).

In the ACC, Paul Johnson accounts for 56.5 of Georgia Tech’s payroll, and Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer takes in the second highest share of resources in the ACC at 53 percent.

Only eight BCS conference head coaches at public schools — where salary information is public record — earned less than 45 percent of a staff’s resources in 2011.

Is there a better approach between paying premium rates for a head coach versus paying top compensation for assistants?

More coaches in the bottom six of compensation share (Swinney, Dana Holgorsen) took their teams to BCS bowl games last year than those in the top six (Nick Saban).

“I think it depends on the program and circumstance,” Phillips said. “I don’t think there’s a magic percent that you either hit or don’t hit.”

South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman said he does not have a philosophy when it comes to dividing coaching dollars and considers Spurrier one of the fairest coaches he has worked with regarding the distribution of dollars.

Clemson is an extreme example of a larger trend in college football: assistants have been earning bigger raises than head coaches in recent years.

From 2009 to 2011, assistant coaches earned 18 percent in raises, while head coaches earned 7.3 percent in increases, according to USA Today.

After Morris earned a six-year, $7.8 million contract to stay at Clemson in December; Brent Venables signed an $800,000 per year deal to leave Oklahoma for Clemson in January.

LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis is reportedly close to a raise that would pay him $1 million per year. Five SEC defensive coordinators are set to earn $800,000 or more next season.

Why is assistant coach pay increasing? Mike Brown, the agent for Swinney, has a theory:

“There are only so many facilities you can build, locker room, weight room, indoor facility, etc., to get ahead and keep up with the competition,” Brown said. “One of the only items left where you can outspend your competition is in assistant coaches.”

Clemson has spent more than $50 million on the West Zone complex at Memorial Stadium and another $10 million on an indoor football practice facility.

But might coordinators — who are responsible for designing offensive and defensive schemes — have been undervalued?

Phillips did not view the coordinator contracts as taking advantage of undervalued assets, rather competing in the marketplace with Ohio State and Oklahoma to sign Morris and Venables.

How long Clemson can keep its competitive advantage in assistant pay is unclear.

Auburn raised the bar when it gave Gus Malzahn $1.3 million per year after the 2010 season. Morris matched the salary, and the bar will likely be raised in the coming years as the Pac-12 and Big 12 each have new lucrative television deals while the SEC and ACC are renegotiating their media deals following expansion.

“There’s a ripple effect throughout college athletics,” Phillips said. “When that bar is raised to another level, you’ve raise compensation standards for all schools. That’s what’s occurred.”