Three big reasons why college football coaches make so much money

As N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow worked to negotiate a new contract with Dave Doeren this fall, she faced two challenges. She wanted to keep her football coach, but also had to deal with the explosion of college football coaching salaries.

“The numbers and the range that we are talking about are very different than what we would have been looking at 10 years ago and five years ago,” Yow said last month.

Television deals, revenue from ticket sales and competition with other football conferences have contributed to a 150 percent increase in the average ACC head football coaching salary in the past 10 years. The ACC is moving closer to the market leaders – the SEC and the Big Ten – in terms of revenue, and the league expects to be even closer to those conferences once the ACC television network launches in 2019.

An increase in revenue from tickets sales and TV means schools pay coaches more money just because they can. But sometimes, because of the cutthroat competition to get and keep the best coaches, schools pay more because they have to.

This season, his fifth as head coach of the Wolfpack, Doeren’s $2,212,600 salary was higher than only two other ACC coaches – Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi ($1,827,735) and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson ($1,827,370) – included in USA Today’s 2017 college football head coaches salary database.

Yow agreed raises were warranted for Doeren (33-30 in five seasons at N.C. State) and his staff, because of the improvement of the Wolfpack football program since Doeren was hired in 2012. Doeren’s old contract still had three years left on it.

On Dec. 1, N.C. State and Doeren signed a new contract that raised his annual salary to $3 million a year, increased the salary pool for assistant coaches and allowed for assistants to be signed to longer, multiyear contracts. His new deal runs through Dec. 31, 2022.

But Doeren’s new deal, like many others in college football, didn’t come easily.

The coach in late November was offered $4 million a season to coach at Tennessee in the SEC. He declined the offer the day before he signed his new contract with the Wolfpack.

There are reasons football coaches’ salary negotiations are so difficult, but the biggest one is about money.

Yow and Doeren’s contract negotiation illustrates the difficulties that come with the changing marketplace for college football head coaches. The annual salary in Doeren’s new deal tops what any other ACC coach made in 2012. But even after his new raise, Doeren’s annual salary is lower than five other ACC coaches this season.

In 2007, the annual salary for an ACC football coach was $1.38 million. By 2012, it had grown to $2.18 million. Now, that average is $3.46 million, according to the USA Today salary database.

Elsewhere, particularly in the SEC and Big Ten, coaches make even more.

The SEC leads the way in salaries, paying head coaches an average of $4.2 million per year. Alabama’s Nick Saban makes the most in the conference at $11.1 million a year. Dabo Swinney, who led Clemson to the national championship last season, makes the most in the ACC at $8,526,800.

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Alabama coach Nick Saban, middle, makes $11.1 million a year, which is more than any other coach in college football. Brynn Anderson AP

Television deals

Over the past five years, massive amounts of money from television deals have helped fuel salary growth.

“(Salaries) have accelerated very quickly in the last five years,” said UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who recently received his own raise. “We all knew that salaries were rising. But with the networks, the Big Ten Network leading the way, the SEC following it and the ACC coming online, that has really made them go up faster. Once you have one conference setting the market, it doesn’t take long for others to try to catch up or at least be competitive.”

In 2007, when the Big Ten Network was launched, the league paid its schools $22 million each from television revenue. That same year, coaches averaged $1.47 million. By 2012, those coaches averaged $2.27 million per year.

In 2017, Big Ten coaches averaged $3.75 million a year, an increase of $2.28 million over 10 years.

Back in 2007, the SEC didn’t yet have a TV network, and paid its schools $5.8 million each.

The SEC began to catch up to the Big Ten in 2008 with a new television deal worth $12.5 million per school. The SEC Network launched in 2014, adding an additional $10 million in revenue per school in its first year. That’s in addition to revenue from lucrative deals with CBS and ESPN.

CFP Viewership Worries Football(2)
Clemson fans watch the college football championship in January. Football conference television deals have helped drive up coaching salaries over the past 10 years. Rainier Ehrhardt AP

SEC coaches’ salaries have increased as the TV money has increased. In 2007, the SEC paid its coaches an average of $1.93 million per season. By 2012, it had jumped to $2.74 million. In 2017, the league’s coaches made an average of $4.2 million, an increase of $2.27 million over 10 years.

“I call it compensation creep,” Yow said. “One at a time. It becomes the norm and then you’re in the soup because you need to be able to compete.”

In the 2016 fiscal year, the SEC made $639 million from all its revenue sources, including TV deals, ticket sales and postseason events, nearly doubling the $373 million the ACC made in the same year. The Big Ten made $483 million the same year.

But the ACC is working to close that gap.

Despite the trend of cord-cutting – when consumers replace cable or satellite television service with internet or wireless services – the ACC is confident its revenue from TV will continue to increase. Though the loss of monthly subscriber fees has led ESPN to slash staff, the company has battled to hold its own. Last week, ESPN’s parent company, Disney, purchased 21st Century Fox which will put the Fox regional sports networks under the ESPN umbrella and provide the company more live sports programming.

The league is launching the ACC Network in 2019, and is projected to make an additional $8-10 million in 2019-20, money that will be passed down to each of its schools. That figure is expected to grow to between $10-15 million in future years. The ACC this year also added the ACC Network Extra, a digital streaming service that added $3 million in revenue for each school in the league.

The league’s ACC Network deal with ESPN runs through the 2035-36 college sports season.

The extra revenue each ACC school is expected to get from its new network will allow those schools to pay coaches even more. At N.C. State, Yow takes that revenue from the ACC channel into consideration when working on new contracts. But it’s not the total answer, she said.

“I do believe and I’ve always said I thought it was going to be a success,” Yow said about the new channel. “But I’m trying not to lean on that as the answer to adding compensation. We need to keep selling tickets. We need to keep doing better in multimedia rights. We need to keep doing better in apparel and those kind of things.”

Ticket sales

Schools make millions of dollars each year from ticket sales, which adds to the amount they can pay coaches.

The Big Ten and SEC have the largest football stadiums, which means they make more revenue from ticket sales. For example, in the Big Ten, Michigan Stadium holds 109,901 and had an average attendance in 2016 of 110,168. Ohio Stadium at Ohio State holds 102,239 and had an average attendance of 107,244 the same year.

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Ohio Stadium, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, holds 102,239 and drew an average attendance of 107,244 in 2016. Kirk Irwin Getty Images

In the SEC, Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium holds 102,455 and had an average attendance of 100,584 in 2016, while Tiger Stadium at LSU holds 102,321 and had an average attendance of 102,004 the same year.

The ACC’s stadiums are not as large. Carter-Finley Stadium at N.C. State holds 57,583 and had an average attendance of 57,497 in 2016. The school made $14,284,846 in ticket sales that year. North Carolina’s revenue from ticket sales was $9,913,261 in 2016. Kenan Stadium holds 62,980 and had an average of 50,250 people at each game in 2016.

Duke had an average attendance of 29,895 per game at 40,004-seat Wallace Wade Stadium last season. The school declined to give ticket revenue figures.

Competition with other schools

With so much money available, coaches have a financial incentive to leave for other schools – even when they are in the middle of long-term contracts.

The ACC and other conferences are vulnerable to having coaches poached by the SEC or Big Ten. To keep coaches from leaving, contracts are often renegotiated long before they’re set to expire.

“Compensation across the entire university enterprise is market-driven,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said. “That’s the new reality.”

In 2014, Paul Chryst left Pittsburgh for Wisconsin three years into a five-year contract. In his last year at Pitt, Chryst made $1.578 million. His Wisconsin salary this season is $3.2 million, more than double what he made in the ACC.

This season, Jimbo Fisher was in the first year of a $5.7 million a year contract at Florida State. But that contract didn’t stop him from leaving to take a 10-year, $75 million deal that averages $7.5 million per season at Texas A&M.

Texas A M Fisher Football
Jimbo Fisher, second from right, reaches out to shake the hand of Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, far left, when Fisher was introduced as the Aggies’ new coach on Dec. 4. Fisher left Florida State to take a six-year, $36 million deal that averages $6 million per season at Texas A&M. Dave McDermand AP

Not all coaches follow the money, though sometimes schools offer pre-emptive salary increases to keep their coaches.

David Cutcliffe, who’s in his 10th season at Duke, has had opportunities to leave for higher paying jobs. Still, he’s stayed, saying his comfort level at Duke is more important than making more money at another school. In return, Duke increased his salary with three contract extensions over the last five years. His salary has risen from $1.8 million in 2012 to $2.6 million this season.

“We know who we are, and we stay in that lane,” White said of competing with other leagues for coaches. “We very rarely feel pressured to do anything beyond what is representative of who we are.”

Do higher salaries give coaches the incentive to cheat or cut corners? Cunningham, Yow and White all denied being concerned when asked if that might be the case.

“We are extremely fortunate to have a professional leading our football program that has unqualified integrity,” White said. “David is indeed a world class ambassador of Duke and clearly at one with the institutional mission.”

Yow said, “People either have integrity or they do not.”

Doeren’s new deal, which was negotiated two years before his old deal was set to expire, showed more than financial commitment from N.C. State.

N.C. State didn’t match the $4 million annual salary Doeren was offered at Tennessee. But Yow structured his new five-year, $3 million deal to satisfy Doeren in other ways. The ability to offer three-year contracts to assistant coaches is something Doeren wouldn’t have had at Tennessee.

“At some point,” Yow said, “ a coach will say ‘For me it’s all about money. Thanks for offering X, they’ve offered Y over five years and I’m out.’ That can happen. But if a coach is being compensated reasonably well, given what the market looks like, then you hope other things enter into it like how much he enjoys living somewhere and that kind of thing. It’s different for every person.”

For some coaches, Yow said, the bottom line is the bottom line. For others, the cash isn’t always king.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

Exploding salaries

Here’s what SEC, Big Ten and ACC head football coaches have averaged annually over the past 10 years.






$1.93 million

$2.74 million

$4.2 million

Big Ten

$1.47 million

$2.27 million

$3.75 million


$1.4 million

$2.12 million

$3.46 million

USA Today salary database

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