Penn State is like the cost-conscious consumer who purchases a new VW Beetle in 1966 for $2,000 and, being handy with tools, somehow keeps it running for 46 years. But that old, dependable ride can't carry its driver any further, so now he has to go to the showroom and price newer models.
Make no mistake, as the Nittany Lions begin the process of replacing Joe Paterno, they are about to get a serious case of sticker shock. The cost of head coaches, like that of the kind of luxury vehicles needed to keep pace in a Football Bowl Subdivision world, where performance is expected to be accompanied by prestige, has gone way, way up. And if Penn State wants to remain in the fast-lane Big Ten race, it had better be prepared to pony up.
It might be a coaches' market this year, as Penn State is one of a dozen schools looking for a head coach. Vacancies exist at BCS schools Arizona State, Illinois, Kansas, Ole Miss, UCLA and Washington State.
With Ohio State hiring Urban Meyer on Monday, the financial ceiling of big-time college football was raised. Architect of two BCS national championship teams at Florida, Meyer will guide the Buckeyes for the next six seasons and, the administration hopes, cleanse it of the tattoos-for-signed-memorabilia scandal that cost Jim Tressel his job and soiled the university's reputation.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Meyer would receive an annual base salary of $4 million, plus another $2.4 million in "retention payments" spread over the life of the contract. He can also qualify for supplemental bonuses, such as for winning conference and national championships. Such add-ons can run up to $1 million.
Meyer's compensation could approach $5 million per year if he meets certain incentives, putting him in the rarefied company of Texas' Mack Brown ($5,192,500), Alabama's Nick Saban ($4,683,333) and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops ($4,075,000). He immediately becomes the Big Ten's highest-paid coach, his base salary eclipsing the $3,785,000 paid to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.
Agents for high-profile coaches who are making, or might make, themselves available for a fresh challenge can't expect all their clients to now enter the exclusive $4 million club. But they'll demand, and get, highly favorable arrangements that only a few years ago would have been considered exorbitant. It is no longer unusual for a coach with an established track record, or even one who gets hot at the right time, to command a salary in excess of $2 million a year, and sometimes $3 million.
Dr. Aubrey Kent, director of Temple's Sport Industry Research Center, was asked what impact Meyer's salary would have on the market value for the next PSU coach.
"Generally, I would think not much," Kent said in an email response. "Unless Penn State can find another multiple championship winner and proven consistent winner who just happens to be rested and available. Since Penn State has so much in common with Ohio State (size, conference, tradition), it will be used as a logical comparison, but if I was asked to predict I would see their number likely falling in the $2.5-3.5 million range, obviously depending on who they target."
Said Tony Barnhart, CBS Sports analyst and host of "The Tony Barnhart Show" on CBS Sports Network: "I don't know what Penn State is thinking, but my experience is that when somebody gets a big contract like (Meyer's), everybody has to go higher to remain competitive."
A spokesman for the American Football Coaches Association said the organization had no comment on Meyer's contract or what impact it might have on salaries overall.
According to a USA Today report on salaries, 58 of 120 FBS head coaches are making at least $1 million a year, a figure that presumes seven-figure salaries for coaches at that level or higher for private institutions such as Notre Dame, Southern California, Stanford, Brigham Young and Vanderbilt, which aren't required to reveal coaching salaries.
Interestingly, Paterno - the winningest Division I coach of all time with 409 victories - ranked 11th among the 12 Big Ten head coaches for the 2011 season with a salary of $1,022,794. The only Big Ten coach making less than JoePa was Purdue's Danny Hope, at $925,000. Even Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the highest-paid assistant in the Big Ten, makes $750,000. While Mattison might be the exception, assistant-coach salaries throughout the Big Ten are on the rise as well.
According to the USA Today figures, the average salary went from $1.4 million in 2006 to $2.125 million in 2011, meaning Paterno was making almost half of the average.
The nearly 85-year-old Paterno, fired on Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, never gave the impression that money was the most important thing in his life. So, for much of his legendary career, he gave Penn State a sizable hometown discount. That won't be the case as new university president Rodney Erickson and acting athletic director David M. Joyner go about the important business of selecting a new coach to oversee a multimillion-dollar football program that for decades had been synonymous with Paterno.
The quaint notion that Penn State can cherry-pick Paterno's successor at rock-bottom rates - because well, it's Penn State - is as far gone as the days when Beaver Stadium had a seating capacity of 48,000 and had difficulty filling all of those seats.
Reports indicate that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is the front-runner for the Penn State job. Mullen signed a four-year contract worth $10.6 million, with a $1.4 million buyout, after the 2010 season - and a reported flirtation with the University of Miami. A raise from his annual salary of $2.65 million would seem like a necessity, if he were to move to Penn State.
Kent was asked if PSU would have to overpay, given the messy situation the new coach would inherit.
"It depends," said Kent, who co-authored a research paper, "Determinants of Coaching Salaries in FBS Football," that will be published early next year in the Journal of Sport Management. "If they hire internally - or 'within the family' - it will cost them somewhat less.
"Logic would dictate that there would be a premium to be paid for having to be the person to come into a very tough situation, however that is from the outside looking in.
"Within the football-coaching community, Penn State is a plum job and the fact that expectations might be a little lower than usual might actually be beneficial. Most coaches (who necessarily live in a relatively isolated world) think Paterno got a raw deal and won't hesitate to take the job. Overall, while I don't think that PSU will have to pay a premium, they are crazy if they think they can get anyone good for $1 million. Those days are over."
Paterno wasn't the only Penn State coach to work on the cheap, relatively speaking. His nine assistants have logged 159 years of combined service because of devotion to JoePa and to Penn State, and maybe in part because a dollar stretches further in State College than in a lot of other college towns. Bradley, the defensive coordinator who became interim coach Dec. 9, reportedly didn't even receive a minor bump in salary when he was temporarily promoted to finish out the 2011 season in Paterno's stead.
If, as many suspect, the same Board of Trustees that took the bold step of firing Paterno decides on a total housecleaning of the football coaching staff, it's likely the trustees will look to an outsider with no ties to the old master and the sequestered empire he created. Given how long Paterno ran the show, that would eliminate quite a few interested parties and narrow the field to those who have yet to become teary-eyed when the student section chants "We are . . . Penn State!"
"While it would obviously do a lot of good for public perception, I have a hard time believing that they will go outside of the family," Kent said. "There are too many vested interests in the Penn State family that would have a hard time with that. However, if the right person became available, this might be the only time (given surrounding circumstances) where an outside hire would be tolerable to the base.
"At the end of the day, the next hire is going to have a very tough role - balancing honoring the past (the Paterno legend) with the program's need to break from that very past. If it were me, I'd want to be the guy after the next guy (like Meyer was at Florida ... not Ron Zook)."
Candidates without the Penn State stamp will want to be satisfied that they have a chance to win, some guarantee of job security if they don't immediately have success, and compensation hefty enough to ensure the job will be worth their while as the cleanup process is taking place.
Figure on Penn State being on the hook for a minimum of $2.5 million a year for its next coach, and maybe even $3 million-plus if it hopes to hit a grand slam on the public-relations front instead of just a bases-empty homer.
Of course, there are critics who will claim that the image-smearing Sandusky scandal is the result of a "football culture" that needs to be significantly dialed back in Happy Valley, lest the jocks in the helmets and shoulder pads subvert the educational mission of the university. Paying millions of dollars to a football coach, any football coach, flies in the face of the argument that football should be just another aspect of campus life.
"Any time you have uncertainty in a football program and you're being asked to take it over, you have to take that uncertainty into account," Barnhart said. "Penn State is one of the great franchises in the history of college football and it has a great deal going for it. Whoever Penn State hires is going to have to balance the attractiveness of the job and the wide support from a great fan base vs. the uncertainty of the situation."
Football is the engine that often drives alumni contributions, and football at Penn State not only is a self-sustaining enterprise, but one that is profitable enough to fund an overall athletic program encompassing 31 varsity sports. Admissions applications invariably tend to rise in correlation to the on-field success of many schools' football teams.
That's why Penn State - Joyner heads a seven-person search committee charged with the responsibility of identifying coaches who might be the right fit - needs to make a boffo hire, and soon, to retain the verbal commitments of recruits who could look elsewhere if they suspect their futures will be turned over to a second-tier field leader. It's even possible that a charismatic coach with name recognition could reinvigorate a staid program some already believed was regressing under the leadership of an octogenarian whose declining health was such that he no longer went on the road to sweet-talk top prospects and their families.
For the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson occupied the White House, Penn State has to choose who will represent it on those football Saturdays. It's a decision university officials can't afford to get wrong.
It's also a decision they can't afford to scrimp on.
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