Whenever Dave Aranda was asked about potentially leaving Wisconsin for another job, he calmly deflected such talk and used the conversation to express admiration for everything the school and the town had to offer. He loved his players and praised the coaching staff. His wife and three children adored Madison and were happy with their sets of friends.
Those types of scenarios didn't come along every day, Aranda often said, and his appreciation for the opportunity was evident.
Aranda, Wisconsin's defensive coordinator the past three seasons, was perceptive enough to take stock of all the things he had, to know a good job when it was there. But he also was smart enough to understand when the time to move on arrived. That time came Friday, when one of the hottest coaching commodities in college football officially left to take over the defensive coordinator position at LSU.
Success breeds attention, and it seemed inevitable that Aranda would become the object of some football program's affection with more to offer than Wisconsin. In this instance, it was quite simply an opportunity Aranda couldn't turn down, both for financial and football reasons -- though it again raises questions about Wisconsin's ability to pay assistants.
During the 2015 season, the four highest-paid assistant college football coaches all resided in the SEC. Former LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who left for the same position at Auburn, made $1,005,000, which ranked ninth among assistants, according to USA Today's salary database. That's nearly twice as much as the $522,200 Aranda made at Wisconsin, which ranked 64th nationally for assistants.
Back in Madison, there is sure to be frustration among the fan base that the athletics department couldn't do more to retain Aranda. But Wisconsin was never going to pay an assistant coach seven figures, and Aranda is likely to become one of the highest-paid assistants in the sport. Badgers head coach Paul Chryst makes $2.3 million, which is less than what at least 13 of 14 SEC head coaches make (Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason's salary is not disclosed because he works at a private university).
The move is damaging to Wisconsin's program only insofar as it means the Badgers do not pay at an elite level in the college football world. But that scenario is no surprise, nor is it new. Former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema used to openly lament that he couldn't keep assistant coaches with what he believed was more competitive pay.
When Bielema left for Arkansas in 2012, he took both of Wisconsin's co-defensive coordinators with him. Charlie Partridge received a 45 percent salary raise just to become defensive line coach. Chris Ash's salary more than doubled, from $210,000 to $550,000, to become the defensive coordinator at Arkansas that year.
Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez has reiterated that he believes his coaches are compensated fairly, and salaries have increased in recent years. Aranda's departure, then, doesn't seem likely to drastically change Wisconsin's approach. The truth is Wisconsin still pays enough money to entice several quality candidates. And competing with SEC money simply isn't a direction the school wishes to take.
From a purely football standpoint, Aranda also has taken a step up in prestige factor, with an opportunity to test himself on the biggest stage. LSU has played for two national championships under head coach Les Miles, and the SEC will provide Aranda with a platform to take his skills to another level.
When Aranda was retained by Chryst last offseason, it was seen as a major coup for Wisconsin. But even then, Aranda was angling toward something bigger and better. He was one of five candidates to interview with Miles then for the vacant LSU defensive coordinator position ultimately filled by Steele. Aranda also interviewed for a position on the defensive staff of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
Aranda is no doubt a special talent, whose knack for transforming complex defensive concepts into more easily digestible bites for players is uncanny. Players rave about the ways in which he maximizes their skills and puts them in the right spots to make plays.
Linebacker Vince Biegel said he would take a bullet for Aranda if he had to. Cornerback Darius Hillary called him a defensive mastermind. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton praised the manner in which Aranda could get players to believe in themselves. And what he achieved in Madison won't soon be forgotten.
Aranda installed a 3-4 defensive scheme that utilized quickness and pressure to confuse opposing offenses. In three seasons under Aranda, Wisconsin ranked first nationally in total defense, second in scoring defense, third in pass defense and fourth in run defense. It was an amazing stretch that had to end with a promotion sooner or later.
Now, Wisconsin must figure out how to turn the page. One name that will surely be mentioned is Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, a former Wisconsin linebacker from 1990-94 with 20 years of coaching experience. Orlando filled the vacant defensive coordinator position at Utah State after Aranda left for Wisconsin in 2013 and helped the Aggies rank among the top 20 in scoring defense over two seasons. Houston finished this season 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Orlando's salary was $501,000.
Aranda was successful enough to be choosy about his next destination. Wisconsin, however, is an attractive enough program that it can be selective about its next defensive coordinator. The Badgers return seven defensive starters and loads of potential in 2016. Aranda has left big shoes to fill, but the opportunity is there for someone talented to take.