CLEMSON, S.C. (USA TODAY) -- Six years ago, 42 major college football coaches made at least $1 million. Today, 42 make at least $2 million. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is one of them, though he could be making more - a lot more.
Swinney, who makes a shade more than $2 million, has transferred raises triggered by clauses in his contract to his assistants, adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to another growing class in college football - highly paid assistant coaches.
"Part of my philosophy was, I've got this money that was due me, and I don't need it," Swinney says. "I make plenty of money. Why can't I choose to invest some of that money in what we're trying to do as a program?"
The result: Swinney is the nation's 39th most highly paid head coach, and his assistants, who carry a cumulative price tag of $4.2 million, appear to be the nation's most highly paid.
The average annual salary for head coaches at major colleges (not including four schools that moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision this season) is $1.64 million, up nearly 12% over last season - and more than 70% since 2006, when USA TODAY Sports began tracking coaches' compensation.
Coaches' pay has even outpaced the pay of corporate executives, who have drawn the ire of Congress and the public because of their staggering compensation packages. Between 2007 and 2011, CEO pay - including salary, stock option value, bonuses and other pay - rose 23%, according to Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. In that same period, coaches' pay increased 44%.
INTERACTIVE DATABASE: Salaries for college football coaches
Alabama's Nick Saban is the highest paid at $5.5 million, and he is one of four Southeastern Conference coaches among the top eight. Texas head coach Mack Brown, of the Big 12, is the second-highest, pulling in $5.4 million.
This rapid and continuing escalation in coaches' pay comes at a time when instructional spending has declined at many public schools because of shrinking state education budgets. The rise in assistant coaches' salaries might just open up another front in the education vs. athletics tug of war on campuses across the USA.
Clemson's Swinney, who turns 43 Tuesday, has enjoyed college football's windfall, even with his givebacks. His compensation has increased from $800,000 in his first full season in 2009 to just over $2 million, seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That's not a bad payday given that he was working outside football 10 years ago.
That's when Tommy Bowden, Swinney's position coach when he played wide receiver at Alabama, offered him a job as wide receivers coach at Clemson. Swinney says he took a pay cut to make that move.
Assistants don't take pay cuts to come to Clemson these days. The school's compensation pool for assistants has more than doubled from $1.9 million in 2009 to $4.2 million.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the nation's most highly paid assistant at a public school. Morris makes $1.3 million, more than 10 times what he was getting three years ago as a high school coach in Austin.
"I'm not complaining, not hurting at all," Morris says.
Brent Venables, Clemson's defensive coordinator, makes $800,000, almost double what he was making a year ago as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator.
"It's embarrassing to a certain degree," Venables says.
Add Swinney's salary to his staff's, and Clemson pays its football coaches more than $6 million, at or near the top in the ACC. Clemson's coaching payroll was designed to put it in the nation's top 15, according to Clemson athletics director Terry Don Phillips.
"We've got a total amount to work with, and this is how Dabo's elected to carve that turkey," Phillips says.
'It's just the market'
Swinney makes about one-third of Clemson's payroll for head coach and nine assistants. Saban and Brown make 58% of the $9 million-plus coaching payrolls at Alabama and Texas, but they've won national championships. Jimbo Fisher gets about half of Florida State's total, and Steve Sarkisian pulls in 46% of Washington's, though neither coach has even won a conference championship, let alone a national title.
"Coach Saban alone makes more than my entire staff," Swinney says. "It's all relative. It's just the market. If you're a surgeon, and you have this expertise and talent, there's a market for what you get paid. The market is not set by coaches. It's set by what someone is willing to pay, I guess."
Swinney grew up poor in Alabama, and it influences the way he looks at money. Perhaps because he had never really had much, he doesn't think he needs as much.
"Trust me," he says. "I understand the value of a buck."
Swinney was the surprise pick for head coach - he had never even been a coordinator - when Tommy Bowden (making more than $1.7 million) was fired midway through the 2008 season.
"I just signed for whatever they gave me," Swinney says. "They wrote all kinds of incentives in there and it so happens we've met just about every one of them except winning the national championship. Because of that, I didn't have to go renegotiate. Hitting those incentives (made it) automatic."
Swinney has shifted $844,000 over three years from his contracts to the compensation pool for his assistants by taking less in contractually triggered bonuses - for playing in the ACC title game in 2009 and winning it last year - and by trimming back a longevity bonus he gets a year from now. (Some of that is offset by a new clause that pays Swinney $75,000 in expenses to run his summer camp.)
Those figures come from Phillips and Swinney's attorney, Mike Brown, who says he knows NFL coaches who are impressed by the amount of Swinney's discount.
"They say, 'He gave up how much? That's a guy I want to go work for,'" Brown says.
Phillips, who'll be retiring as Clemson's athletics director at the end of the month, recalls he made $8,000 in his first job as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech some 40 years ago. That's roughly $44,000 in today's dollars. Phillips says he never imagined the ka-ching that was coming.
"No, never, not in the foggiest," he says, "or I'd have stayed in coaching."
Spurrier stays put, cashes in
Steve Spurrier coaches South Carolina, the state's other FBS school, and he makes nearly $3.6 million, including a raise of $750,000 since last season. How'd he get that raise? He asked for it.
Spurrier doesn't bother with an agent - he used to have one but changed his mind after paying a commission one year - because he figures there's no real need to negotiate.
"I'm not going to go anywhere," Spurrier explains, and "if you're negotiating, that means you've got somebody else bidding on you. But our university president here is such a wonderful guy. He just wants to do what's fair and what's right. ... I just sort of penciled myself in about No. 6 out of 12 coaches in the SEC and he said, 'That looks fair to me.'<TH>"
Spurrier is actually the third-highest paid in the Southeastern Conference, behind Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles.
South Carolina President Harris Pastides declined comment through a spokesman.
Swinney figures Spurrier is worth every penny: "He's paid his dues. Coach Spurrier's been a winner a long time. He's won a national championship and he's one of the best coaches out there. I hope 25 years from now, I'm still coaching."
Spurrier says South Carolina offered him $1.5 million when he came in 2005, but, "I said, 'Let me take $1.25 (million) and let me spend 250 grand on assistant coaches ... So I'm one of the few coaches that took less than was offered."
Today, his assistants make a little more than $2.4 million cumulatively, far below Clemson's. First-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward is the highest paid at $550,000. He replaced Ellis Johnson, who made $700,000 last season.
"I actually call the plays and pretty much am the offensive coordinator here, although I've got a couple of co-coordinators," Spurrier says. "So, you might say, 'Well, he's the head coach and the offensive coordinator. What's that worth?'" He chuckles.
"We're way below Clemson. But you know what? We're fine. And our assistant coaches are fine. I've got a first-year defensive coordinator doing a super job, and he didn't expect to get paid like those guys," meaning the coordinators at Clemson.
Swinney's humble path
Swinney's father left his family when Swinney was in seventh grade, and his mother and two brothers lost their home and never knew where they'd sleep next - cheap motel, rented town home, Grandma's tiny apartment, months on a friend's floor.
"At first, you try to hide all the things in your personal life and pretend everything is great," Swinney says. "My father was an alcoholic, and you'd try to act like it wasn't that way. But when I was in high school, you reach a point where you just don't care anymore. You get over that embarrassment, just trying to survive."
Swinney devoted his time to odd jobs, homework - and football. He attended Alabama on Pell grants and loans and walked onto the football team as a wide receiver. He earned a scholarship for his last three seasons and played on the 1992 national championship team.
He'd play Saturdays and spend Sundays cleaning gutters, making as much as $200 from a clientele he'd built since age 14. His mother roomed with him during three of his years at Alabama. She'd leave at 5:30 a.m. for her job at a department store in Birmingham, the city where she spent much of her polio-stricken youth in a crippled children's hospital, breathing on an iron lung.
"She's a survivor," Swinney says. "That's where I get my toughness and drive."
Swinney began dating Kathleen Bassett, now his wife of 19 years, in sixth grade: "She knew me when my life was kind of normal and when my life was completely dysfunctional. She never cared. We always had to use her car. Never knew where I was going to be staying. I'm sure her family must have questioned her sanity somewhere along the way: 'Are you sure this is the guy?' But I guess I had potential."
Swinney graduated from Alabama and stayed on as a graduate assistant, earning a master's degree in business administration. Then-coach Gene Stallings hired him as receivers coach.
"I got $38,000 and a car and thought I was rich," Swinney says. "And we were rich. My wife was making $28,000 teaching school, both doing what we loved. We didn't lack for anything. We were blessed. And now, we are beyond blessed."
Alabama fired coach Mike DuBose and his staff after the 2000 season, and Swinney got out of coaching, working in commercial real estate for two years, until Bowden asked him to come to Clemson to coach receivers in 2003.
"I took a big pay cut to come to Clemson," Swinney says. "I think I got $105,000. I was making a good bit more than that in real estate ... But coaching, for me, has never been about the money."
Perhaps, but his current six-year deal guarantees him a pay increase no less than the average total compensation for the three most highly paid ACC coaches if Clemson wins the ACC championship, among other salary-boosting incentives.
Seeking faculty raises, too
Morris, Clemson's offensive coordinator, has an escalator clause in his contract that requires he be paid the average of the nation's two highest-paid offensive coordinators when the Tigers finish in the top five of total offense - or the average pay of the top three for finishing in the top 10. (Clemson is sixth in total offense at 536 yards a game.)
That kind of inflationary clause - where achievement is tied to the pay of others - is uncommon for head coaches and even more atypical for assistants.
"The incentives that are built into our contracts are a much better way of managing salaries rather than just raising salaries and hoping," Clemson President James F. Barker says.
Clemson's faculty senate raised concerns last year about the high cost of coaching salaries, and Phillips, the athletics director, was among those who offered a senate presentation explaining that salaries are driven by the market and that athletics department funds come largely from IPTAY, Clemson's athletic foundation.
Faculty members generally accepted the rationale, says Jeremy King, faculty senate president and associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy.
"I think that is a good illustration of how our faculty tries to look at things comprehensively and understand markets," Barker says. "And then use those markets to their advantage."
Barker points out that Clemson is in the second year of a five-year plan to increase salaries for faculty and staff.
Phillips told the faculty that coaching pay was part of a strategy for getting Clemson football into the Top 20 of national rankings. Barker says he has the same goal for the school as a whole. Clemson is ranked No. 25 among public universities by U.S. News & World Report.
"We have been in the Top 25 now for five years," Barker says. "We were nowhere near that (years ago), so we're really trying to march forward together" with athletics.
Still, athletics department spending is going up at a faster rate than spending on instruction, according to NCAA figures.
"Yes, I'm sure that's true," Barker says. "And that creates an environment that makes that communication (between athletics and academics) even more challenging."