KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee's new football coaching staff has the feel of an NFL staff both in pedigree and in payroll.
At a time when the university is struggling to make ends meet, the athletic department increased the salary of its football coaches by 13 percent to $5.3 million for the 2009 season.
The increase goes to the staff of new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, the former Oakland Raiders coach. Kiffin's $2 million salary is a less than his predecessor Phillip Fulmer, but his assistants -- including father and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron -- will make $1.1 million more than their predecessors.
They will be the highest-paid staff of assistants in the Southeastern Conference.
"When your neighbor's enduring hard times is not the time to flash your Cadillac in the driveway," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who serves as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Tennessee.
The self-funding athletic department gave $4.5 million of its $5 million surplus last year to academic programs, but the university is facing up to $100 million in budget cuts because of falling state revenue. School officials are considering eliminating up to 700 positions, a large tuition increase and program cuts.
The department's operating budget is $87.8 million, and football drives the whole machine.
"It's not public money, so I guess I can't complain too much," Bredesen said. "But it does pain me to see the athletic department obviously living high while some of the academic departments are facing some very tough times. I would hope they would be a little sensitive to that fact."
University President John Petersen has asked athletic director Mike Hamilton to examine how to make the athletic department more financially efficient, with the idea that more money could be returned to academics.
The department spends nearly $1.4 million per year on academic scholarships for 2,400 non-athletes. In the fall, the athletics staff cut $2.5 million from its budget, and Hamilton took a 5 percent pay cut to his $274,575 salary worth $13,729.
Hamilton hired Kiffin in December after firing Fulmer. His department is buying out Fulmer's contract for $6 million over the next four years.
The 33-year-old Kiffin cleaned house and immediately began hiring a new staff with several assistants coming from the NFL, where salaries tend to run higher than at the collegiate level.
Monte Kiffin, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator, will make $1.2 million this season -- nearly 3.5 times more than his predecessor.
Hamilton said he was only going to make that kind of salary available to Monte Kiffin, who was reportedly making around $2 million in the NFL.
Orgeron, Lane Kiffin's other premier hire, will make $650,000 this year. Orgeron comes from the New Orleans Saints, where he was an assistant after three seasons as head coach at Mississippi.
Fulmer's two highest-paid assistants, defensive coordinator John Chavis and offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, both made $340,000 in 2008.
"In order to generate [the athletic] income they have to do whatever they need to do to attract people to buy tickets, donate money and the like, so they balance the amount of expenditure they do to the return they get on it so they can keep a budget that's certainly a positive budget," Petersen said. "Obviously, part of that is putting a competitive team on the field and winning."
The previous staff of assistants was set to make a combined $2.2 million in 2009, while the new staff will make a combined $3.3 million. Alabama had the highest paid assistant coaches in 2008 with a $2.41 million payroll.
"We chose a little bit different model to allow Lane to hire the right kind of staff around him to be able to have the kind of success we need to have in football," Hamilton said.
Paul Finebaum, a Birmingham, Ala.-based columnist and syndicated radio show host who has been following SEC sports for more than two decades, noted that Nick Saban had won a national championship at LSU when Alabama made him the first $4 million coach in January 2007.
But Kiffin and his staff don't have that same kind of collegiate success on their resume. "To make up for it," Finebaum said, "it just seems they're throwing money around to make him look better."
To help cover its rising expenses such as scholarships and coaching salaries, the Tennessee athletic department last year began charging students for football tickets after nearly two decades. The $15-per-game price coupled with an increase in all other football tickets meant about $3 million more in revenue.
The department also will get a boost from the SEC's new 15-year television deal. The deal is reportedly worth more than $2 billion, though it's not clear how much each school in the league will receive.
The real payoff for Tennessee will be if Kiffin is as successful for football as Saban has been at Alabama and as Hamilton's first hire, Bruce Pearl -- who has brought in donations and national attention to the basketball program. If not, Hamilton could be on the hotseat.
"He can live off Pearl for a little while, but the Kiffin hire will ultimately determine his future," Finebaum said.