Big Red Business: A look at Big Ten coaching pay heading into 2022
When Scott Frost signed on as Nebraska’s head football coach after the 2017 season, his $35 million payday over seven years placed him in the upper echelon of Big Ten football coaches.
That was then, this is now, and the dollar signs don’t line up quite the same way.
After agreeing to a $1 million pay cut for 2022 following a fourth straight losing season, Frost’s salary now places him at No. 11 on the conference payscale. His $4 million in base pay ranks only above salaries paid to Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst (barely), Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, and Maryland’s Mike Locksley.
Frost’s restructured contract also slashed his buyout clause to $7.5 million from $15 million, although he will qualify for performance incentives should he jump off the hot seat and produce a winning season.
Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts explained his decision to restructure Frost’s contract rather than fire him in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: “Universities and donors’ desperation of wanting a winning football program can sometimes lead to bad business decision-making,” Alberts said. “We chose to make a decision that includes a little more patience.”
Dialing for dollars
Gargantuan deals paid to head football coaches have been the norm for years, but nothing like the contracts announced recently to Brian Kelly at LSU, Lincoln Riley at USC and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker.
The contract for new Oklahoma Sooners football coach Brent Venables is reportedly worth $43.5 million over six years, making it one of the richest contracts for a first-year head coach in college football. The deal averages $7.25 million annually and runs through the 2027 season.
As of this moment, Alabama’s Nick Saban is no longer the highest-paid college football coach in the country with guaranteed money of $9.7 million a year. That title now shifts to Lincoln Riley, who reportedly is set to earn an estimated $10 million per year in salary and other guarantees.
And schools probably aren’t finished opening the vaults in this cycle. Who thinks Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh won’t get a hefty raise on top of the contract incentives he’s already attained for winning the Big Ten title and qualifying for the Bowl Championship Series.
Harbaugh’s base salary this year? $4.03 million, after taking a massive pay cut from the $8.03 million salary paid out in 2020.
Two years ago, Harbaugh was the highest-paid head football coach in the conference. That distinction now belongs to Tucker, who will earn a guaranteed $9.5 million a year over the next ten years in salary and benefits after coming to East Lansing two years ago and producing a winning record and bowl appearance this past season.
Big Ten shake-up
Frost isn’t the only Big Ten coach who took a pay cut after the 2021 season.
Indiana’s Tom Allen was set to make $4.9 million a year through the 2027 season based on the contract he signed last March. But after the Hoosiers finished 2-10 this fall, Allen agreed to a $200,000 pay cut for the next three seasons, leaving him at $4.7 million.
Part of the cut will accommodate the costs associated with the dismissal of offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan. The offense, which was fourth in the conference in 2020, finished 13th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten this past season at 18.2 points per game.
Penn State’s James Franklin agreed to a new 10-year contract in November that is worth a guaranteed $70 million. The contract includes $1.5 million in additional guaranteed benefits – a $500,000 retention bonus and $1 million through a life insurance loan that would bring his total guaranteed value to $85 million. Franklin, who was rumored to be a candidate at one time for the USC job, could earn an additional $1 million in annual performance incentives as well.
The contract represents Franklin’s fourth at Penn State – the latest was a six-year deal signed in 2019 and set to run through 2025. But unlike that contract, this 10-year deal provides no annual salary escalation. Franklin’s annual guaranteed compensation is $7 million per year.
Then there’s Michigan State’s Tucker, who has a new 10-year, $95 million contract extension. The coach will make $5.9 million in base salary, $3.1 million in media appearances, $100,000 from a school negotiated apparel deal, and a $400,000 annual retention bonus. His previous deal paid him $5.63 million.
As if Tucker’s pay isn’t enough to make your head spin, consider that if MSU fires Tucker at any point during the life of the deal, the school will owe him 100 percent of his salary, unless the firing comes with cause (because of a crime, NCAA violation or moral, in which the school would owe nothing), according to the Detroit Free Press.
Ranking the paychecks
Tucker is the leader for now, followed by Franklin, and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who makes $6.61 million.
In the next tier, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald earns $5.75 million; Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, $4.8 million, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, $5 million; Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, $4.42; and Illinois’ Bret Bielema, $4.2 million.
Then comes Frost at $4 million.
Rounding out the conference: Paul Chryst earns $3.98 million at Wisconsin; Greg Schiano, $3.76 million at Rutgers; and Maryland’s Mike Locksley is at the bottom at $2.47 million a year.
Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Reach Rosen with questions, comments, story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.