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Assistant Coaches Find Bigger Paychecks, Shorter Leashes In Changing Industry

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff

January 3, 2005 When Norm Chow made $165,000 as N.C. State's offensive coordinator in 2000, he was one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in college football. Just four years later, the same salary would rank third or fourth among assistants at many of the nation's top programs, and it might not crack the top 100 nationally. Now Southern Cal's offensive coordinator, Chow still stands at the top of the financial heap among college assistants. He makes almost $500,000 per year with the Trojans, which is more than the salaries of many mid-level Division I-A head coaches, and he's expected to get a significant raise at USC next year if he doesn't leave for a top job somewhere else. "I didn't get into this for the money," Chow said. "When I started coaching (in 1970), there was no money. I started in high school, but even at the college level, nobody became a coach for the money. We considered ourselves lucky when we made $25,000 (a year). Things are different now. There's television, a lot more money, it takes a lot more time and energy to be successful, and there's a lot more pressure to win. I can't complain, but the money is only part of (the changes)." Welcome to College Football 2005. Much has been made of rising salaries and higher-pressure (and often shorter) tenures for head coaches at the Division I-A level, but the environment quietly is changing dramatically for assistant coaches, too. Even at Duke, which has become famous for long-tenured aides such as Fred Chatham (16 years) and Scott Brown (nine years), first-year head coach Ted Roof recently fired offensive coordinator Marty Galbraith after just one season in Durham. The lowly Blue Devils, playing with untested tailbacks, a completely rebuilt offensive line and mostly new receivers, finished last in the ACC in almost every important offensive category. "I've seen this (staff-turnover trend) coming for the last five years, especially the last two years, in college athletics," said Galbraith, a coach for 32 years at the high school, college, USFL and NFL levels. "It's becoming more like the NFL, but with less financial stability. If it happens to you, you just pick up and move on. They don't have to have a reason. … (Roof's decision) didn't surprise me. You can tell. You can sense. There wasn't a whole lot said. The hard part was the timing. For college, it's getting late to find a new job." Since the end of the 2004 season, at least five ACC assistants had been handed their walking papers through early January: Galbraith, Clemson offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain, Clemson defensive coordinator John Lovett, Clemson outside linebackers coach Thielen Smith and Florida State offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins. Sources said a few other staff changes were likely to be announced in coming weeks, or perhaps even after national signing day on Feb. 2. The annual college coaches convention, held Jan. 10-15 this year in Louisville, always speeds up the merry-go-round. "If you've ever been to a really big job fair, that's what it's like," Galbraith said. "Some guys who are completely happy where they are and have no intention of leaving get surprised by an intriguing offer somewhere else. Other guys are just trying to get their foot back in the door." As in Galbraith's situation, O'Cain and Heggins oversaw units that failed to produce on the field in 2004, in the latter two cases despite significant amounts of talent on hand. Lovett, on the other hand, directed a Clemson defense that improved dramatically during the season. According to sources, his termination had more to do with personality issues than with production, and the emergence of linebackers coach David Blackwell made the possibility of a transition easier for Clemson coach Tommy Bowden to embrace. O'Cain described his Nov. 30 dismissal as a "slap in the face" in an interview with The State newspaper, although Bowden and O'Cain agreed that they had significant differences in offensive philosophy. Most importantly, Bowden still prefers the one-back, spread offense he brought with him from Tulane. O'Cain, 50, prefers a two-back formation with a heavy dose of play-action passes. "I don't like the way it was handled," O'Cain said. "But at least he did it now. He didn't wait until Jan. 1 or Feb. 1. … He had the respect and courage to do it right now, and at least let me get on with my wife and family and try to get things in some semblance of order. … You look at the makeup of his staff, and about the only way you could get new blood in was to take some old blood out. And I was that old blood, I guess." One factor that may have made Bowden's postseason dismissals easier is that Clemson clearly has decided to join the trends of higher salaries and longer commitments for assistant football coaches. Just two seasons ago, Lovett had the highest annual salary among the Tigers' aides at $135,000, and all nine assistants worked with one-year contracts, which long has been the norm at the college level. According to most estimates, 85 percent of Division I-A programs offered only one-year deals to assistants as recently as 2003. In 2005-06, Bowden figures to have at least three assistants well above the $135,000 mark and several with multi-year contracts. When South Carolina approached offensive line coach Brad Scott in December about an opening on Steve Spurrier's staff, the Tigers retained Scott by offering him a guaranteed three-year deal worth $190,000 (up from $157,000) per year. (Running backs coach Burton Burns got a new, two-year deal after being contacted by USC.) Keep in mind: Just four years ago, the highest-paid coordinators didn't even come close to that kind of money, and Scott will get it (plus other non-salary compensation) despite being "only" a position coach. Meanwhile, in looking for a new offensive coordinator, Bowden initially targeted some of the highest-paid assistants in the nation, including Jimbo Fisher of LSU ($230,000) and Larry Fedora of Florida. Fedora decided to follow Ron Zook to Illinois, and Fisher was considering several options (joining Nick Saban with the Miami Dolphins, staying at LSU under new coach Les Miles, other college assistant jobs, etc.) in early January. Bowden ultimately decided on 46-year-old Toledo offensive coordinator Rob Spence, whose offensive preferences clearly are a perfect fit for the Clemson coach. A long-time aide at the Bowden Academy, the Bowden family's summer passing clinic, Spence built his offenses at Hofstra, Louisiana Tech and Toledo on the principles he learned from studying Bowden's one-back schemes at Tulane and Clemson. Spence previously worked under former Maryland coach Mark Duffner, another spread-offense advocate, for one season at Holy Cross and during Duffner's disappointing five-year tenure (1992-96) with the Terps. By turning over at least one-third of his staff this year, Bowden likely will end up leading the ACC in that regard, but he had some serious competition along the way. Al Groh of Virginia came frighteningly close to losing three quality assistants, all to an attempted raid by Notre Dame, and Chuck Amato of N.C. State already has lost two of his top assistants and may yet lose another. The situations at Virginia and N.C. State offered both striking similarities and startling contrasts. Both schools have competitive programs, quality talent, good facilities and proud head coaches who returned to campus to lead their alma maters. Both athletic departments have displayed a willingness to spend at or above the market rate in order to give their teams a chance to compete at a high level. Both situations involved aides who were offered better compensation packages but — and this is enormously important — essentially the same job descriptions by their suitors. "The rule of thumb in our business is that you don't let quality people leave for the same position somewhere else," said former Virginia athletic director Terry Holland, now the AD at East Carolina. "When they have an opportunity for a promotion — a coordinator becoming a head coach in football, or a position coach becoming a coordinator somewhere else — you thank them for their service, congratulate them on their new job, and wish them well. But when someone comes after your head coach or your offensive coordinator and offers them the same job, if you value that person you have to at least try to give them enough reasons to stay, financially and otherwise. In many cases, it's actually more expensive if you have to replace them than it is to give them a raise or keep them happy in some other way." When push came to shove this time, Groh retained his prominent assistants, despite some prominent (Boston Globe, ESPN.com) published reports to the contrary. When new Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis attempted to raid Virginia for defensive coordinator Al Golden, defensive line coach Mike London and tight ends coach Mark D'Onofrio, UVa responded with upgraded contract terms for all three aides, preventing what would have been an enormous loss of recruiting ability, among other things. Golden issued a rare press release through UVa in mid-December, dismissing talk of other jobs as "baseless speculation," but his salary increase (reportedly from $181,000 to $220,000 per year) and many other things strongly suggested that something serious was in the works. "(Golden) was Charlie's No. 1 choice for defensive coordinator, and for a time it looked as if it was going to work out, which is why you saw the (media) reports," a source close to Weis said. "It didn't work out, obviously, but it wasn't for lack of effort. Let's just say Virginia did a good job of countering." Meanwhile, N.C. State defensive coordinator Reggie Herring jumped to Arkansas, and assistant head coach Doc Holliday left for Florida, in both cases essentially for the same job description. Herring was the architect of the No. 1 defense in the nation in 2004, and Holliday is regarded as one of the world's best recruiters. Of the 99 assistant coaches in the ACC last season, Herring and Holliday are the only two (so far) who have left voluntarily without receiving a promotion. On the front end, at least, all of that is great news for Virginia and horrible news for N.C. State. Perhaps Amato can tilt the scales back in his favor with some impressive hires on the back end, but in the meantime the Wolfpack has lost an extraordinary amount of expertise and taken a massive image hit. Amato had said at the end of the season that he hoped all nine of his assistants would return in 2005, and there may not be a coach in America who has had a higher staff turnover rate during the past five years. Holliday, who wants to be a head coach and was a finalist for the ECU job that went to John Thompson in 2003, explained his decision by saying he needed to "fill out his rÈsumÈ" with some experience at an SEC school. (Holliday previously worked at West Virginia, before joining Amato's original staff in Raleigh in 2000.) Herring said he enjoyed his time at NCSU but couldn't turn down an opportunity to work with Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. Herring and Nutt were roommates back in 1981, while serving as graduate assistants on Jimmy Johnson's Oklahoma State staff. It's unlikely that finances alone pushed Holliday or Herring out the door in Raleigh. N.C. State was one of the first schools in the nation to allocate $1 million for its nine-man gridiron staff. Holliday was the highest-paid non-coordinator in the ACC over the last two seasons, at more than $150,000 per year. Herring made $194,500 in 2004, making him one of the 15 highest-paid defensive coordinators in the nation. He received a guaranteed three-year deal from Arkansas worth more than $200,000 per year, but the Wolfpack reportedly was willing to compete with those terms. "Only two people could have gotten me to leave North Carolina State," Herring said. "God and Houston Nutt." Amato now has only two of his original nine assistants remaining in Raleigh, quarterbacks coach Curt Cignetti and running backs coach Dick Portee. In five years, he has lost nine aides — Chow (Southern Cal), Galbraith (NFL/Duke), Buddy Green (Navy), Cary Godette (fired), Joe Pate (administration), Mike Canales (NFL/Arizona), Chris Demarest (Rutgers), Holliday (Florida) and Herring (Arkansas) — and not one of them left for a promotion in title. Meanwhile, at press time, Wolfpack offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone remained a possibility for the same position on coach Ed Orgeron's new staff at Mississippi. Amato's critics like to point to the mass exodus from Raleigh as evidence of some fundamental problems in the program, and it's certainly an alarming trend. But it's difficult to put much teeth behind the speculation, perhaps in part because discussing such matters with the media — even off the record — is considered taboo by many in the coaching community. Green and Godette left State under very unpleasant circumstances, but several other current and former Amato aides still speak highly of the coach and his program. "I got along fine with Chuck. You always know where you stand with him," Galbraith said. "I'm sure everybody's circumstances are different, but I left mainly because I needed to go back to the NFL (which has a good pension plan) for financial reasons. It was a big risk, and I lost. (The entire Arizona staff was fired after Galbraith's first season.) In hindsight, I wish I had that decision (to leave N.C. State) back." Elsewhere in the ACC, the staffs at Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest (plus Virginia) so far have remained intact. UNC offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, 64, decided to postpone retirement for at least one more season. Respected Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, the highest-paid assistant coach in the conference last year at $225,000, interviewed for the Ohio job but was not asked back for a follow-up session. The Bobcats, who also interviewed Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe (twice) and contacted Virginia offensive coordinator Ron Prince about the position, ultimately hired former Nebraska coach Frank Solich. The Hokies, long known for their staff stability under coach Frank Beamer, have been well ahead of the learning curve in the industry for some time. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster ($175,000 per year), offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and assistant head coach Billy Hite all have guaranteed five-year rollover contracts that are believed to be the longest (for assistants) in all of college football. Tech's other six assistants have guaranteed two-year deals. The only other ACC coaching change through early January came via the traditional promotion route, with Maryland running backs coach Bill O'Brien jumping to Duke to take over for Galbraith as offensive coordinator. O'Brien, 35, is a Ralph Friedgen protÈgÈ who served as Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator in 2001-02 under Chan Gailey before taking a demotion to join Friedgen in College Park. Roof initially inquired about O'Brien last year, soon after taking the Duke job. They had worked together as assistants under George O'Leary at Georgia Tech for several years, so Roof was well-aware of O'Brien's reputation as one of the up-and-coming young coaches in the college ranks. But the timing was bad for O'Brien, who had been at Maryland for only one season and was hoping to get a promotion to offensive coordinator with the Terps as soon as Taaffe got a head coaching job somewhere else. When Taaffe missed out on various vacancies after the 2003 season and then again in December, O'Brien decided the time was right for a move. The jump to Duke was particularly appealing, both for the opportunity to work with Roof and the availability of the university's world-renowned medical community. Friedgen mentioned the latter
factor when O'Brien announced his departure, although nobody explained in what way the O'Brien family has special needs.  More Holiday Recruiting Updates In other basketball recruiting news (please see our column on pages 12-13 and 18-19 of this issue for more), Maryland landed its second early commitment from a prep junior when 6-7, 195-pound WF Landon Milbourne (top 100) of Alpharetta (GA) St. Francis opted for the long-favored Terps over Georgia Tech (no offer), Georgia, Tennessee, Clemson, N.C. State, Auburn and Colorado. A resident of Maryland's Eastern Shore for the first 12 years of his life, Milbourne is a left-hander with a reputed 40-inch vertical jump and a 3.75 GPA in the classroom. Shortly before Christmas, Milbourne and his father Andre Foreman (a Maryland native who's Salisbury State's all-time leading scorer and a professional hoopster in Finland) unofficially visited College Park, and Landon committed as soon as coach Gary Williams offered him a scholarship. An official visit to Maryland was planned for January. Thus far this season Milbourne, who came off the bench last summer for the powerful Georgia Stars, is averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots per game, and 10-0 St. Francis is ranked third in the state. A touted big forward from the senior class, 6-7, 245-pound Martellus Bennett (better than his ranking of No. 139) from Houston (TX) Taylor, wants to play both football (he's a consensus All-American tight end) and basketball in college, and Duke interestingly is among the six schools he's seriously considering. Bennett recently indicated that long-time favorite Miami (Jan. 21 official visit) and Texas (he's visited officially) are his top two choices, with Texas A&M (where his brother will attend) a close third. Others on his list are Oklahoma (already visited officially) and California, besides the Blue Devils. In recent months, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Bill Self of Kansas, Lute Olson of Arizona and a passel of other prominent coaches have eyeballed Bennett, an intriguing prospect whose vertical leap is 38 inches. He's averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds per contest so far this season. Bennett intends to pen a gridiron letter of intent during the Feb. 2-March 31 signing period. He'll be a walk-on in basketball at the college level. Another heralded football/basketball talent in the senior class, 6-3 Brooklyn (NY) Abraham Lincoln receiver/wing guard Nyan Boateng (No. 130 in hoops), has been a prime Maryland recruiting target in both sports. However, it appears as if the Terrapins are going to come up empty on Boateng, who's expected to commit to Nebraska (which is putting together an outstanding gridiron class) while in San Antonio in mid-January for the prep All-American football game at the Alamodome. Boateng, who has missed his entire senior seasons in football and basketball (so far) because of a broken ankle and leg suffered in August, also has Miami, Michigan State and Southern Cal among his finalists. Meanwhile, though the recruiting attention of most ACC coaches now is focused upon the excellent junior class, Virginia Tech continues to scour for underpublicized seniors. Thus, the Hokies are involved with (among others) 6-3, 200-pound Leeds (AL) High WG/PG Cord Robbins, 6-0, 150-pound Mount Vernon (NY) High PG Chris Lowe, 6-8, 190-pound Mauldin (SC) High BF Horace Dixon and Cape Coral (FL) High BF Carlos Strong, a Philadelphia native who's academically ineligible until January. Robbins, who also needs to upgrade his GPA (2.2) and ACT (15), reportedly has scholarship offers from Virginia Tech and Navy. Among others with interest in him are Mississippi, South Alabama, Auburn and Birmingham Southern. He reputedly scores off the dribble, defends diligently, has a streaky jump shot and needs to improve his shot selection. Lowe, whom we recently eyeballed in two games at Myrtle Beach, is an aggressive southpaw who particularly likes the Hokies, Providence, St. John's, Temple and Texas-El Paso. Also watching him are Fordham and Miami, among others. Of these seven schools, all but the Friars have offered Lowe a scholarship. We view him as a mid-major prospect. Dixon has made no official campus visits yet, but a lot of schools are in contact with him. This mobile athlete reportedly is being observed by coaches from Alabama, DePaul, St. Bonaventure, Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, N.C. State, Tennessee and UCLA, in addition to Virginia Tech. Strong has taken an unofficial visit to East Carolina, and he apparently will visit Blacksburg after he takes the next SAT in January. The Pirates and Virginia Tech seem to be atop his list, which could get longer as his academic credentials are enhanced. Among other high school seniors being pursued by at least one ACC school are 7-1, 230-pound Georgetown (KY) Scott County C Jared Carter, 6-4, 179-pound Camden (NJ) Woodrow Wilson PG/WG Semaj Inge, 6-7, 210-pound Nacogdoches (TX) High WF/BF Jinski Grigsby, 6-8, 290-pound Chicago (IL) Westinghouse C/BF DeAndre Thomas (No. 159) and 6-4 Tavares (FL) High WG/WF Jermaine Taylor. Carter plans to take more visits when his season is over. Right now the top five colleges for this rapidly improving big man continue to be Boston College (offer), Penn State (offer), Western Kentucky (offer), Tennessee (no offer) and Illinois (no offer). Inge really likes Georgetown, but the Hoyas haven't offered him a scholarship. Others on his "A" list are Temple, Penn State and West Virginia, while interest is accruing from Auburn, Fordham, Florida State, Indiana, Missouri and others. He's a fine athlete who showed promise when we observed him in action last summer. The word on Grigsby is that he may well opt to be a fifth-year prep in 2005-06, although it remains possible that he could choose instead to sign a national letter in the spring. He has scholarship offers from SMU, Houston and Texas State, while Texas A&M, Seton Hall, N.C. State and others are monitoring his progress. Thomas is working hard to pare down his ample girth, and should he lose another 20 pounds, his solid skills and fundamentals will make him an even more desirable recruit. Right now he's getting lots of attention from Illinois, Miami, Purdue, Seton Hall, East Tennessee State, Connecticut, FSU, Georgia and Georgia State. High-scoring Taylor has been watched this season by Clemson. At this point, the Tigers and Auburn are at the apex of his collegiate list, which also contains Maryland, LSU and South Carolina, among others.

— Brick Oettinger, ACCSports.com  

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