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At the college football championship, two coaching staffs will cost you $27 million

LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda made $2.5 million last year.
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda made $2.5 million last year. (Icon Sportswire/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Yes, it is 2020, and in 2020 it might not seem even mildly surprising that the two schools competing in Monday night’s College Football Playoff national title game boast coaching staffs that will be paid more than $27 million for this season alone. Even if you’re used to the largesse of college sports, chew on that number a bit. Then add up the amount earned by the opposing quarterbacks — marquee attractions Joe Burrow of LSU and Trevor Lawrence of Clemson — which would be $0 plus $0.

Now try to put your head on your pillow and say all is right with the college sports world.

Times such as these call for a story about the good ol’ days, even if the good ol’ days weren’t always that great.

“I started out as a GA for Coach Claiborne,” said Frank Beamer, the retired Virginia Tech coach and College Football Hall of Famer who served on the committee that helped select the four teams for the CFP.

Beamer had played for Jerry Claiborne at Virginia Tech, so he figured he was in line to earn more than the other four graduate assistants on Claiborne’s new staff at Maryland. He had just gotten married, after all, and had real responsibilities. Beamer remembered walking into Claiborne’s office.

“Frank,” the coach said, “we’re going to give you $150 a month.”

In 2019, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda made $2.5 million. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables made $2.2 million. All these numbers are from USA Today’s database of coaches’ salaries, a rabbit hole you might want to avoid during the work day. (Iowa’s strength coach makes $800,000!)

“I thought: ‘My rent’s $250 a month. How’s this going to work out?’ ” Beamer recalled by phone this week. “Anyhow, my wife got a job, and it all worked out.”

It works out for football coaches. It really does.

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This is not a screed against Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney raking in more than $9.3 million this year, nor is it meant to point out that, at $4 million, LSU Coach Ed Orgeron seems underpaid. It’s just a reminder, with Monday night’s title game in New Orleans finishing up another season, to be realistic about what you’re watching. “College” football? Nominally. A robust and thriving industry? Without question.

“My wife reminds me I should’ve come along a little bit later,” said Beamer, whose one year with the Terrapins was 1972. “But it’s just demand. It’s supply and demand. That’s what the market value is, and that’s what colleges are willing to pay. You pay that, you’re in the ballgame. That’s just the way it is.”

That’s right. And in a way, Beamer helped make it that way. Put aside those millions of dollars on the sidelines and whether it’s fairly distributed — we’ll get to that — and think about how the best coaches maintain their staffs.

Before he retired following the 2015 season, Beamer was the head coach at his alma mater for 29 seasons. The last 23 of those, the Hokies appeared in a bowl game. Success like that will have other schools calling — not just for you but for your assistants.

“In our business, it’s one of two ways: People either like to work for you because they want to please you, or they do their job out of fear,” Beamer said. “I always liked people who wanted to do the job to please us. I always liked them wanting to come to work.”

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And so, over the years, he worked to keep them. Beamer had built into his contract a clause that provided a cruise for all coaches, wives and staff after every successful Hokies season. When he nearly took the North Carolina job in 2000, he stayed because Virginia Tech agreed not only to a raise for him but raises for his entire staff. Bud Foster, a member of Beamer’s first staff at Tech and his longtime defensive coordinator, stayed and stayed and stayed again — even for four years after Beamer retired. This past season, his last, Foster was one of 24 assistant coaches across the country who made at least $1 million.

Assistant coaches.

“If you’re successful, you had to have some help,” Beamer said. “What is it, the turtle up on the post? He didn’t get there by himself. I knew I was relying on other people to do a good job, and if they did, I wanted them to feel like they’d be rewarded for it.”

Oh, they are. From conference to conference and coast to coast, they are.

Beamer, of course, is right. The market speaks, and loyalty should be rewarded.

Swinney’s co-offensive coordinators at Clemson are two former Tiger players, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, each of whom made $1 million this season. Scott, who is leaving to become the coach at South Florida, had been with Swinney since the middle of the 2008 season, when the latter took over the program. Elliott came on staff in 2011. Quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter is another former Tiger who returned in 2014. Venables has been Swinney’s defensive coordinator since 2012, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell on staff since 2011, special teams guru Danny Pearman since 2009.

Total for the Clemson assistants: more than $7.4 million, one of four schools north of $7 million, second only to Alabama.

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Aranda is the only assistant in the country to make more than Venables, and LSU’s staff is one of eight that pays its coaches more than $6 million in annual compensation. Orgeron has been the head coach only since the middle of 2016, so he hasn’t had the chance to build the kind of continuity Swinney has enjoyed. But with benefits like they’re giving out in Baton Rouge — each LSU assistant will receive a bonus of at least $60,000 if the Tigers win Monday, with three due $100,000 for a victory — why would anyone leave?

The $600,000 salary of Tommie Robinson — who is the associate head coach, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator — goes a long way in Baton Rouge. Throw that extra $100,000 on top of it for a win, and it’s a nice career.

Look, none of these ridiculous-sounding numbers are the fault of any of these coaches. Reminder of the following words, true whether they’re from Frank Beamer or Adam Smith: “It’s supply and demand.” But the salaries, they do contribute to the cognitive dissonance that’s involved in consuming college sports.

The players receive their tuition. The players receive their books. The players receive their board. The players even now receive a stipend of — get this! — as much as $6,000. It’s not nothing.

But the College Football Playoff annually generates around $450 million. The money has to go somewhere.

It makes sense that a great deal of it would go to the people who are putting out the product, and the coaches are a part of that. But the players are a more significant part. We’re long past due for a market correction, not one in which coaches go back to making $150 a month but one in which players make — rather, earn — significantly more than that.