TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Shortly after Alabama football began practice one day last week, Tosh Lupoi — a barrel-chested, buzz-cut defensive coach who looks as if he could strap on pads and start this year — ran the outside linebackers through drills intended to hone the techniques necessary for dominance.
“It ain’t a push; I am lifting the blocker. Activate the hips . . . generate the power from the ground to the man,” Lupoi, 36, said in a series of barked orders followed quickly by the thuds of players hitting pads. “We’ve got 1 minute and 40 seconds to work, men. Here we go.”
A decade ago, Lupoi’s job — co-defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach — didn’t exist at Alabama. If it had, it probably would have paid pretty well: In 2007, Alabama had only one defensive coordinator, and he made $435,000.
In the decade of dominant Crimson Tide football that followed, Coach Nick Saban racked up wins, championships and pay raises that eventually outpaced his counterparts in the NFL, even though NFL teams generate three to seven times as much revenue as Alabama football. But while Saban’s salary — at least $11.1 million this year — has generated the most headlines and hand-wringing, the more historic pay hikes in recent years have gone to the other coaches walking the sidelines behind him on fall Saturdays.
This year, after a $400,000 raise in May, Lupoi will make $950,000, a sum that puts him on par with coordinators in the NFL but is only the third highest among Alabama assistants, behind defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt ($1.3 million) and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll ($1.2 million).
In January, Michigan became the first public college football team with three assistants making $1 million or more. If the No. 1 Crimson Tide, which opens its season Saturday against No. 3 Florida State, makes another run to the College Football Playoff, Lupoi’s bonuses would make Alabama’s staff the second. If the history of college sports is any indication, the second school with three $1 million assistants soon will be followed by a third, then a fourth.
Spiraling pay for college coaches has long drawn criticism as evidence of misguided priorities in American higher education, but when it comes to Alabama, even skeptical academics acknowledge the central role Crimson Tide football has played in bringing soaring levels of out-of-state students and a windfall in tuition revenue to Alabama.
“Coach Saban, the culture of winning that he has established and maintained here, has elevated the university’s brand to an international level. In turn, that brand has become a magnet, attracting millions in investments in this area,” said Jim Page, president of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. “I’d say he — and his staff — are worth every penny.”
In the massive raises schools dole out to coaches such as Lupoi — who has quickly ascended coaching ranks because of his ability to recruit star high school athletes — some economists see perhaps the clearest examples yet of the exploitation they argue runs through the top tier of American college sports.
“In a normal market, the school would be giving these athletes a fair amount of money to pick their school, and the coach would be getting considerably less,” said Dan Rascher, an economist and consultant for plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit — on behalf of players against the NCAA and college conferences — that seeks an open market in which schools can bid for the nation’s top young athletes.
“The athletes do get a great deal,” Rascher said, referring to tuition, room and board, as well as stipends that can reach $5,000 or so per year. “The reality is they’re still being economically exploited because they’re being paid a lot less than what they’re worth.”
The NCAA and the conferences defend amateurism as “a bedrock principle of college athletics . . . crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.”
Alabama declined to make Lupoi available for an interview, and Athletic Director Greg Byrne declined an interview request. At a news conference last week, Saban said Alabama will spend what it takes to maintain the best coaching staff in college football.
The assistant coaches “had opportunities to go other places and make more, so if we want to keep them here to benefit our players, then we have to pay them. I didn’t decide the market,” Saban said. “We do as much for our players here as the rules allow, and we would continue to do that. Do I acknowledge the fact that it’s an issue? All right. But college football is college football. If we want to make it professional football and pay the players, then that’s somebody else’s decision.”
Just downstairs from where Saban spoke last week, a bust of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant appeared to stare through the window of Alabama’s football complex and out into the parking lot, his trademark houndstooth cap pulled low.
Bryant, who retired in 1982 and died the next year, always kept his salary at least $1 below that of the university president because he liked the message that sent, according to “The Last Coach,” a 2006 biography.
A decade ago, the only member of Saban’s staff who made more than the school’s president ($692,600) was Saban ($3.75 million). This year, Alabama President Stuart Bell’s $755,000 compensation package would make him the fifth-highest-paid member of the Crimson Tide staff, behind Lupoi and just ahead of co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Michael Locksley ($600,000).
Bobby Bowden was among the first college coaches to crack the $1 million mark in the 1990s. In a recent phone interview, Bowden marveled at the income growth he witnessed during his long career.
In the 1960s, as an offensive coordinator at West Virginia, Bowden made the equivalent of $82,000 in 2017 dollars. (All historic pay figures in this story have been adjusted to 2017 for inflation.) When he left Florida State in 2009, his pay had reached nearly $2.9 million, and his offensive coordinator — current Seminoles Coach Jimbo Fisher — made $729,000.
Earlier this year, in a span of a few weeks, both Michigan and Alabama poached NFL assistants with seven-figure offers. Michigan hired Pep Hamilton from the Cleveland Browns, where he had been assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, to serve as Jim Harbaugh’s assistant head coach and passing game coordinator, earning $1.15 million this year. Weeks later, Alabama hired Daboll away from the New England Patriots, where he had been tight ends coach.
Bowden said he would expect to see more of these seemingly lateral, if not backward, career moves as college football revenue continues to rise.
“You got to do what the Joneses are doing, and it’s certainly working for the Alabamas of the world,” Bowden said. “I expect [assistant coach pay] to just keep going right on up.”
Bowden said he remains a staunch opponent to any proposal to pay players.
“There are so many ways that boys can get money through college aids and government money, and loans. . . . I’m just not in favor of throwing out thousands and thousands of dollars to a young man to play college football,” Bowden said. “I want him to remain an amateur.”
Two different crimson and white banners lined the streets around campus last week, when the University of Alabama’s students — most of whom are not from Alabama — returned to campus. The two messages: “Where Legends Are Made” and “Top 50 Public Universities In The Nation.”
Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at UCLA, has researched public universities that have tried to attract out-of-state students — who pay higher tuition rates — to make up for state budget cuts. Alabama has been among the most successful, said Jaquette, who seemed almost pained as he acknowledged the undeniably beneficial impact Saban’s football team has had on the university.
In 2006, the year before Saban arrived, Alabama had a freshman class with about 2,900 in-state students and 1,500 out-of-state. The school raised $186 million in tuition revenue that year.
By 2015, the number of out-of-state freshmen had more than doubled — to 4,400, outnumbering the 2,500 Alabama residents — and the school raised more than $450 million in tuition.
“This is kind of the evil side of higher ed, but . . . I can’t help but respect how good Alabama is at this,” Jaquette said. “It probably is worth paying these coaches so much because, if it does lead to wins and better recruits, I think they’ve really monetized that football success into more nonresidents, which means more money for the university.”
The university’s success, in turn, has fueled economic growth throughout Tuscaloosa, according to local business leaders. In a brief conversation, Page, the chamber of commerce president, ticked off the names of two hotels, three shopping centers and three housing complexes that have opened since Saban arrived.
One of those new developments is Champions Place, a three-story brick condominium building decked with white, Romanesque pillars about a half-mile from Bryant-Denny Stadium. Champions Place is designed, according to its promotional video, for “the Alabama sports enthusiast with a discerning eye for quality and luxury.” The condos range in price from $450,000 to $2.5 million and feature granite countertops, high-end custom cabinets and expansive patios.
Developer Kenny Short, in a phone interview, said the complex would not have been possible if not for Alabama football’s success under Saban. Champions Place has sold more than half of its units, he said, including eight $2 million-plus condos that offer a prime view of Alabama football practices.
When Alabama hired Lupoi in 2014 as an analyst — an off-the-field position that ranks below coaches — Saban told reporters, “He’s going to be an intern that helps us some in recruiting.”
In reality, Alabama had snapped up one of the sport’s most-respected recruiters, whose quick ascension of coaching ranks had hit a snag because of allegations of cheating.
A San Francisco-area native who walked on to Cal’s football team as a defensive lineman, Lupoi became the youngest full-time coach in Cal history in 2008, at 26. In 2010, Rivals.com named Lupoi the top recruiter in the nation for his role in landing several five-star recruits, including Keenan Allen — now a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Chargers, then one of the top defensive back recruits in the nation — whom Lupoi flipped from Alabama.
In 2013, Lupoi, then at Washington, was poised to join the Southern Cal staff, when accusations emerged he had broken NCAA rules.
In December 2013, a high school track coach told the Los Angeles Times that Lupoi paid him $4,500 to cover tutoring and online classes for a recruit in danger of not qualifying academically. The NCAA cleared Lupoi, but the stigma cast by the investigation cost him the job at USC and led to his move to Alabama.
In Tuscaloosa, Lupoi quickly established his recruiting prowess. In 2015, Saban promoted Lupoi to outside linebackers coach, which paid $435,000. Over the next two years, Lupoi played a role in landing several top recruits from the West Coast, including offensive tackle Jonah Williams, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and running back Najee Harris.
“A lot of coaches are known as closers, who take over late in the game. Tosh takes it from the very beginning; he’s there every step of the way,” said Brandon Huffman, national director of college football recruiting for Scout. “He’s always built such a great rapport and relationship with players. It didn’t matter what team was on the polo shirt he was wearing, it was that Tosh was the guy wearing the shirt.”
Like many top recruiters, Lupoi is aided by lavish facilities built in recent years aimed at attracting the best young talent. Alabama boasts a 36,000-square-foot weight room overseen by Scott Cochran, considered one of the nation’s top strength and conditioning coaches, whose pay has risen from $145,000 in 2007 to $535,000. Cochran was the highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in the country for a few months last year until Iowa raised strength coach Chris Doyle’s pay to $595,000.
“When I got in this business, we were lucky to make enough money to eat, so I am so happy to see that the coaches in this area are finally getting paid what they deserve,” said Chuck Stiggins, executive director of the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. He disagreed strongly with any assertion some strength coaches were overpaid.
“If they’re making a half-million dollars a year, they deserve it,” Stiggins said, “because I’ll tell you right now: They can make a huge difference in your win-loss column.”
Asked whether star players, then, also deserved compensation, Stiggins replied: “I don’t have a comment on that. I don’t go down that road.”
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