In the aftermath of a forgotten Fiesta Bowl 15 years ago, a primo coordinator retired. He had coached at an empire for 23 years, coordinated its defense for 18. There had been three national titles and very, very nearly four. His salary that January night in Arizona, he recollected last week, stood at $104,000.
From his home on Klinger Lake in southwest Michigan with his wife, Debbie, Charlie McBride might have the optimal set of eyes for comprehending a mid-2010s phenomenon. Fifteen years after he cited health reasons and retired at 60 as the coordinator of Nebraska’s famed “Blackshirts” defense, coordinators are really cool. They epitomize the college football’s playoff-pushed, TV-bonkers, apparently deathless explosion. They’re richer than ever and much richer than 15 years ago.
“The thing was, I got out just before they started paying them,” McBride said. And then he laughed for a solid three seconds.
Here comes a 2015 season with the usual star head coaches and the gathering crowd of star coordinators. Loud buzz and loud hope surround Auburn, ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press pre-season poll even though its 2014 team qualified as both 8-5 and porous. Weeks before it finished losing the Outback Bowl in overtime to Wisconsin, it hired the fired Florida head coach Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. Head coach Gus Malzahn called Muschamp “in my opinion, the best defensive mind in all of football, not just college football.” Muschamp’s contract at the public institution: $5.1 million over three years.
Texas A&M, which disliked allowing 450 yards per game to rank 14th in the 14-team Southeastern Conference, hooked defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU even though LSU already paid both its coordinators $1.3 million. NOLA.com reported that the border relocation added another $340,000 to Chavis’ salary for getting by in College Station, Texas.
The USA Today Salary Database listed five assistant coaches at more than $1 million per year in 2014, before Muschamp’s hiring, and three more at $900,000-plus. Newly registered in the latter group is the dean of all current coordinators, Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster, whose 21st season will begin with a new five-year contract. In one of the splashes of the early season, Foster will try on Sept. 7 to solve again No. 1 Ohio State, which he flummoxed last Sept. 6 in a 35-21 upset by pretty much dragging a scheme out of the attic.
“I’m just hoping their minds will not tie up their feet when it’s all said and done,” Foster said of his defenders at Virginia Tech Media Day, a quotation he might have uttered identically when he began his role in 1995, the year Florida State’s Bobby Bowden became the first $1 million head coach in a sport that had 72 by 2014.
In this same, good lifetime, McBride became Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in 1975, moving over from the offense, which led to a meeting. “I was making $18,600,” McBride said. “I went into Elroy Hirsch, the athletic director. He wouldn’t budge. Even though I got the coordinator job, that was the end of it. I just made the same salary. You just wonder. Why wouldn’t he give me a $2,000 raise at the time? That would have been a big raise.”
A few years after Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne had hired away McBride in 1977 by saying, “You’re a recruiter first, a coach second, and if you cheat, you’re fired,” the Seattle Seahawks brought McBride for an interview. They offered $45,000, $5,000 less than he made already.
And when Nebraska’s 18-game win streak against Colorado ended in 1986, “I went to bed,” McBride said. “And my son was young, 13 or 14. The phone rang.” The voice on the other line claimed to belong to a group, and said, “‘We’ll pay a million dollars to buy your Dad’s contract out.’ You know what my son said? ‘I don’t think it’ll take that much.’ I said, ‘You told them what?’”
At Auburn, 66th in total defense with a defense totaled in a 55-44 loss at Alabama, the fans who drive the numbers revel in complementing Malzahn’s usual rampaging offense with “Coach Boom.” That’s the nickname Muschamp got in 2007 during a 9-7 win at Arkansas during when, in his first tenure as Auburn’s defensive coordinator (2006-07), an ESPN microphone heard him greet a defensive stop with “boom” plus other verbiage. When Auburn reintroduced Muschamp last December, 13 days after his Florida stint ended with a 28-21 record and an ouster, the fourth question he took fit the times aptly: Had the negotiations gone mostly Malzahn-Muschamp, or had they gone Malzahn-Jimmy Sexton, Muschamp’s agent?
(Muschamp’s answer: Muschamp-Malzahn.)
“I even think the coordinators have agents,” McBride said. “That’s like when I was a kid, somebody said, ‘Hey, do you smoke marijuana?’ I didn’t even know what marijuana was! I never put the thought into my head. All of a sudden, these guys have agents, and wow. The agent thing kind of shocked me a little bit, when I first heard coordinators say, ‘I’ve got to see my agent.’ What? My wife?”
He knew he ranked behind SEC assistants of those days, salary-wise, but he stayed put to give his children stability. And he does know the pressure has steepened. He can’t recall any of his three sons ever encountering any derision at schools in a time of lesser national scrutiny. Quaintly, he would field letters with defensive suggestions, including some schemes “with 13 guys on them.”
“And I’d say, ‘Yeah, that ought to work.’”
This year will bring unforeseeable scrutiny of how Muschamp and Chavis, among others, perform. It also will bring new gatherings of old coaches who, McBride said, tend to talk of the salaries and deploy words such as “jeez.”
“It’s like anybody else,” McBride said. “I wish I was making that kind of money. Where I see it most is the retirement programs, and how they’re going to have the money. When I retired, you can live well, but you can’t fly all over the world.
“I don’t know that I’d say ‘jealous,’ but I wish.”
Soon he added, “But, you know, I was just in that era, and if you don’t accept it, then you’re going to make yourself miserable.”