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A Look At How College Football Salaries Have Grown Over The Past 40 Years

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It’s safe to say the sport of college football has grown throughout the 21st century. In fact, it may be more accurate to say the business of college football has expanded by leaps and bounds. Consider this: the 65 schools that make up the Power 5 conferences—the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC—generate $4 billion per year in revenue.

That income extends to the salaries of coaches throughout college football. Every coach leading an FBS program today comfortably makes six figures, with the majority earning at least $1 million annually. But who’s the cream of the crop?

Here are the highest-paid college football coaches alongside their salaries for the 2022 season. In some cases, salaries are either estimated or unavailable (typically for private schools, which aren’t required to release financial information). That’s indicated below where applicable.

Dabo Swinney (L) and Nick Saban (Kevin Jairaj – Handout/Getty Images)

Lincoln Riley, USC — $10 million (estimated)

Lincoln Riley made $7.6 million with the Oklahoma Sooners in 2021, but the USC Trojans came calling with an even higher salary. The pay increase reportedly includes some perks like a sprawling mansion in Los Angeles, though the move could also be a savvy one on Riley’s part. The Sooners are leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC, and by heading west to the Pac-12, Riley avoids the grueling schedule of the SEC while opening up recruiting possibilities on the west coast.

Nick Saban, Alabama — $9.9 million (estimated)

Another season, another year where Alabama makes the College Football Playoff. Despite some uneven play throughout the season, Alabama is still in a position to win another championship and was home to another Heisman Trophy winner in Bryce Young. Nick Saban agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in Tuscaloosa through 2028, but don’t be surprised to see that deal shift as more coaches earn massive contracts. After all, no one has matched the sustained success Saban and the Crimson Tide have had. 

Brian Kelly, LSU — $9.5 million

Another coach who left his previous gig this season, Brain Kelly parted ways with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after LSU dropped a huge contract—10 years, $95 million—in front of him. The Tigers struggled to a 6-6 record last season, but are hopeful Kelly can turn things around and lead the team to another national title. If Kelly can do that, he just may see this deal balloon even higher.

Mel Tucker, Michigan State — $9.5 million

The highest-paid Black coach in college football, Mel Tucker inked a deal with Michigan State in November 2021 worth $95 million over ten years. Tucker has really only had one strong season in Michigan State—finishing 2021 with an 11-2 record and a victory in the Peach Bowl—but the foundation is there for long-term success (plus, he beat Michigan, which is a pretty big accomplishment in that rivalry). Tucker will also receive his full salary if he’s fired without cause.

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M — $9 million

A few years back, Fisher signed a ten-year, $75 million deal with the Texas A&M Aggies. In September, the two sides agreed to an extension that would pay Fisher $9 million in 2022, making him among the nation’s highest-paid coaches. Though other schools (most notably LSU) have tried to lure Fisher away, he’s committed to the Aggies, who have the nation’s top recruiting class and have been investing in an upgraded practice facility and other resources to support the team.

David Shaw, Stanford — $9 million (estimated)

Prior to Lincoln Riley joining USC, Shaw was the Pac-12’s highest coach by a substantial amount. This total is based on the 2019 season, the most recent figure available, since Stanford is a private institution; Shaw’s 2022 contract may actually be a bit higher. And unlike many coaches across the college football landscape, he wasn’t forced to take a pay cut as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson — $8.5 million

Though Clemson had a down year by their standards, they still finished 10-3 and punctuated the 2021 campaign with a win in the Cheez-It Bowl. That victory was Swinney’s 150th with the Tigers and solidified the extension the school gave him in 2019, a ten-year, $93 million deal. Swinney’s deal is unique in that it also features a clause specifically around him leaving to coach Alabama. If he does that, he’ll receive an extra $500,000 to $2 million, depending on what year he leaves.

James Franklin, Penn State — $8.5 million

As rumors persisted that Franklin might depart from Penn State, he instead doubled down with a long-term extension to keep him with the Nittany Lions through 2031. The deal is worth $8.5 million every season. Penn State hopes Franklin, who’s led the Nittany Lions to three 11-win seasons and one Big Ten title in eight years, can get the program into the College Football Playoff.

Mario Cristobal, Miami — $8 million

The Miami Hurricanes won five championships from 1983 to 2001. Since then, they’ve only amassed three ten-win seasons—and two of those happened in 2002 and 2003. To say the program has underperformed in the 21st century is being kind, and the university is going all-in on Mario Cristobal to turn things around. Cristobal signed an $80 million deal, with Miami both paying his buyout at Oregon and giving him the highest assistant coaching pool salary in the ACC.

Ryan Day, Ohio State — $7.6 million

Day signed an agreement before the 2020 season that bumped his salary up to $7.6 million for 2022. The contract will keep him in Columbus through the 2026 season. Though the Buckeyes fell to Michigan and missed out on a chance to return to the College Football Playoff, they ended their 2021 season on a high note with a 48-45 victory over Utah in the Rose Bowl.

These salaries are quite a leap from what top coaches were earning 20 or 40 years ago. But it shows just how much the sport has grown.

For comparison, here were the top earners in 1999—these eight coaches were the only ones making at least $1 million ($1.6 million when adjusted for inflation):

Steve Spurrier, Florida — $1.9 million

Bobby Bowden, Florida State — $1.2 million

Mack Brown, Texas — $1 million

Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee — $1 million

Rick Neuheisel, Washington — $1 million

Joe Paterno, Penn State — $1 million

Bill Snyder, Kansas State — $1 million

Tommy Tuberville, Auburn — $1 million

And these were the salaries for the highest-paid coaches 40 years ago, in 1982:

Bear Bryant, Alabama — $450,000

Barry Switzer, Oklahoma — $270,000

Jackie Sherrill, Texas A&M — $240,000

Lou Holtz, Arkansas — $226,000

Jerry Claiborne, Kentucky — $152,000

It’s no surprise to see Power 5 conferences leading the way, and also isn’t a surprise that Alabama is again at the top. Even adjusted for inflation, Bryant’s salary would be worth about $1.3 million in today’s dollars. That amount would be around the middle of the pack for coaches in 2022.

The increase in salary coincides with players being able to make money off of their name, image, and likeness. While some critics believe paying athletes could be the downfall of college sports, the far likelier outcome is that sports like football will thrive even more.

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