The News-Gazette story is dated March 15, 1997. Coming up on 24 years ago.
The headline reads: “UI trustees approve football coach salary.”
Way back then, newly-hired head coach Ron Turner was about to be paid the staggering sum of $400,000. That wasn’t just base pay. It was the entire package for Lou Tepper’s replacement.
On Thursday, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees is expected to approve contracts for eight of new Illinois football coach Bret Bielema’s assistant coaches.
Five of the eight will make as much or more than Turner did in his first season as the Illini coach.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, with a salary of $850,000, will make more than double Turner’s original wage. It’s actually $50,000 less than what Walters made during the 2020 season coordinating Missouri’s defense. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen at $750,000 is being paid 87.5 percent more than Turner.
The rest of the salaries on the Thursday docket are for offensive line coach Bart Miller ($475,000), linebackers coach Andy Buh ($450,000), strength coach Tank Wright ($400,000), defensive line coach Terrance Jamison ($350,000), defensive backs coach Aaron Henry ($340,000) and tight ends coach Ben Miller ($315,000).
Cory Patterson, the lone holdover so far from Lovie Smith’s staff who will coach the running backs in 2021, will keep his $315,000 salary.
With two full-time assistant positions left to fill, Illinois has committed $3.845 million to Bielema’s first staff.
Parents, give your kids a whistle and a playbook.
Shortly after Bielema was hired, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said Bielema would have at least $5 million to spend on his 10 assistants. Plus another $2 million for support staff. Wright’s money comes from the second pool, Illinois assistant athletic director of human resources Nisar Qureshi said.
Bielema doesn’t have to spend the entire $5 million now. If he wants to hold some back to reward/retain coaches in the future, that is an option.
The decisions on the Illinois assistant salaries were collaborative efforts among Whitman, Bielema, deputy athletic director Warren Hood and the UI administration.
They wanted to make sure they were competitive salary-wise with most other programs in the Big Ten.
“Continuity means so much. It’s not just the head coach continuity, it’s your assistant coaching staff and most of your support staff as well,” Hood said. “If you look at some of the winning cultures, which is what we’re trying to establish, continuity is important. To start them in a position of strength and a position where they feel they are being treated fairly as far as their salaries is really important to us.”
As of this moment, Qureshi said, the total compensation for assistant coaches puts Illinois sixth among the 14 schools in the Big Ten.
Surprise, Ohio State is first at about $8 million. Michigan is next at $6.3 million, followed by Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State in the $5-plus million range.
Illinois is just ahead of Wisconsin, Nebraska and Rutgers.
Of course, the rest of the schools are spending, too. The numbers tend to trend up. So, the Illinois ranking can climb or fall a few spots.
During the end of the Lovie Smith era, Illinois was in the lower quarter of the Big Ten when it came to overall assistant coach pay, according to Qureshi.
Part of the difference can be explained by the lack of a defensive coordinator later in Smith’s tenure. He was in charge of the unit, allowing Illinois to avoid another high salary.
The median staff pool in the Power Five is between $4.6 to $4.8 million. In the Big Ten, that number is $4.85 million.
Pay the man his money
Are the football coaching salaries out of whack with most other professions? Well, yeah.
For more than three decades, I have watched the explosion in compensation for coaches.
Pushed by what seemed to be an endless pool of money from the TV networks, the schools have spent and spent some more. All with the idea of trying to get ahead.
I don’t blame the coaches for taking what’s being offered. They have stress-filled jobs with very little security. Other than the money, few of us would trade lives with the coaches, who work endless hours, travel constantly and have limited time with their families.
Only a select few are capable of doing it. And even fewer do it well enough to reach Nick Saban-esque status.
Bielema’s starting salary at Illinois in 2021 will be $4.2 million, a small increase from what Smith made in 2020.
Bielema’s six-year deal is expected to be approved by the UI trustees at an upcoming meeting, and he’ll make more than 10 times what Turner earned his first season.
His starting salary with the Illini would have ranked 29th nationally in 2020, just behind Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, and it would have put him ninth in the Big Ten.
The two new Illinois coordinators in Walters and Petersen have three-year contracts.
So does Wright.
The rest of the staff is operating with two-year deals. Patterson is entering the second season of a two-year deal.
If you join the Illinois staff, the commitment will be for at least two years.
“That’s something that Josh and Coach Smith thought would be very helpful in our situation,” Hood said. “A lot of schools have adopted it. We were one of the first to start doing two-year contracts for our assistant coaches.”
The hope from the UI administration is the multi-year deals add to Illinois’ appeal.
Bielema had a deep pool of potential candidates for all the jobs on his staff.
“He had such a significant number of people show an interest,” Hood said.
Bielema coached at two places Illinois must use as model and are places Whitman cited last month upon hiring Bielema: Iowa and Wisconsin.
If the new coach is able to reach anywhere near the level of consistent success like the Hawkeyes and Badgers, his contract figures to get a lot bigger in the coming years.
And the pay for the assistant coaches will rise, too.