Ohio State avoids salary circus with assistants

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As the nation's economic crisis begins to affect even the Goliaths of college athletics, Ohio State is taking a fiscally responsible approach toward paying assistant football coaches.

The Columbus Dispatch had an interesting story Sunday about how Ohio State isn't following the lead of other football powerhouses when it comes to assistants' salaries. Though head coach Jim Tressel received a well-deserved raise before the 2008 season, his assistants aren't in the same salary range as many of their counterparts, particularly those in the SEC.

Tennessee's spending spree on assistant coaches to surround the million-dollar mouth, Lane Kiffin, doesn't jibe with Ohio State's approach under athletic director Gene Smith.

"That leaves four Tennessee assistants making decidedly more than OSU offensive coordinator Jim Bollman ($275,400), defensive coordinator Jim Heacock ($260,510), assistant head coach/receivers coach Darrell Hazell ($236,250) and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($183,600) made the past 12 months. The other five members of the OSU coaching staff made between $162,000 and $176,000 each.

"The OSU assistants' contracts are now up for review and renewal. Though each is considered on an individual basis, the coaches can count on Smith not to jump on the big-bump bandwagon ...

"'For one thing, I think it's not right,' Smith said of the high salaries. 'And two, financially it's not being responsible with the dollars that our fans provide us.'"

Looking at the current economic climate and some of the salaries being paid to top college assistants, it's hard to argue with Smith. Although college coaching salaries are increasing across the board, the recent trend of paying top aides in the high six figures could be a dangerous precedent in a sport dominated by the deep-pocketed.

As the story points out, "The outbreak has been confined primarily to the Southeastern Conference," and no league has more parallels to the NFL -- from fan interest to pressure to year-round drama -- than the SEC. Shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for assistant coaches seems a bit un-Big Ten.

Though Illinois paid former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley more than $500,000 and Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst earns more than $300,000 annually, the Big Ten has largely bucked the big-bucks trend. A recent update of salaries for Purdue's assistants looks reasonable.

But has tightening the belt come with a cost? The Big Ten has fallen off nationally in recent years, while the SEC has claimed three straight national championships. Several of Tressel's assistants have fallen out of favor with Buckeyes fans, who wouldn't mind if Smith ponied up for a bigger name, particularly at offensive coordinator.

Should the Big Ten start breaking the bank?

I remember talking with Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson after Northwestern head coach Randy Walker died in 2006. Wilson, who served as Walker's offensive coordinator at both Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern, said he never wanted to leave Walker but couldn't resist the substantially higher salary and lower cost of living at Oklahoma.

"I know a lot of times when Randy would be approached by other jobs, he would say, 'It's hard to leave a Big Ten school,'" Wilson said at the time. "As an assistant coach, it's hard to leave, but financially, it was a little difficult. There are college jobs that pay more in regions of the country that just aren't as expensive."

Wilson, who last year won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant, wanted Northwestern to honor Walker's memory by increasing assistants' salaries so fewer top aides leave in future years. He had a good point.

Salaries for assistant coaches are a delicate issue, especially in a league looking to enhance its national profile. But the longer the economy struggles, it's likely more schools will follow Ohio State's approach than Tennessee's.