The Big Ten's biggest coaching bargains

When Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema posed behind the Big Ten trophy a day before the inaugural football championship, they didn't only represent two of college football's blossoming coaches.

They also represented two of the sport's better bargains.

Bielema and Dantonio are ranked No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in salary among Big Ten coaches in 2011. Both men have since been bumped down a notch after Ohio State hired Urban Meyer at $4 million per season.

Dantonio received a new contract in October that included a slight increase in his annual compensation ($1.83 million). He still makes less than the average salary for a coach from a major conference ($2.125 million in 2011, according to USA Today).

Dantonio has won 22 games the past two seasons, translating to $165,000 per victory. Texas' Mack Brown, meanwhile, the nation's highest-paid coach at $5.2 million per year, earned $800,000 per victory during the past two seasons.

Bielema commands a slightly higher salary (approximately $2.5 million), although he has earned his keep at Wisconsin, averaging 10 wins per season during his six-year tenure as Badgers coach. Bielema boasts four seasons of 10 or more wins.

A similar track record in the SEC almost certainly would result in a salary of more than $3 million annually.

Speaking of the SEC, nine of the league's 12 coaches earned $2.5 million or more in 2011. Bielema's salary would rank 10th in the expanded 14-team SEC, while Dantonio's would rank above only Kentucky's Joker Phillips.

When it comes to coaches who bring the biggest bang for the buck, Dantonio and Bielema top the chart in the Big Ten.

Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald also has been a coaching bargain so far. A first-time head coach who took over after the sudden death of Randy Walker in 2006, Fitzgerald has guided Northwestern to a record four consecutive bowl appearances and 7.2 wins per season during the past five years. Fitzgerald received a new contract last spring that reportedly puts his salary at $1.8 million annually (Northwestern doesn't release salary figures). Before the extension, Fitzgerald made in the neighborhood of $1.2 million, putting him near the bottom of the Big Ten.

Who else fits the description? Keep an eye on Michigan's Brady Hoke. The former Wolverines assistant took his dream job in Ann Arbor without signing a contract, and when one was finalized months later, it showed Hoke earning just $2 million in his first year. While Hoke's six-year deal goes up in compensation -- he'll average $3.25 million if he completes the contract -- it still puts him below some of the coaches at name-brand programs in the SEC and the Big 12.

Several other Big Ten coaches could turn out to be bargains, including new Penn State boss Bill O'Brien, another first-time head coach who agreed to a five-year contract that pays him $2.3 million annually. Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Indiana's Tim Beckman, Indiana's Kevin Wilson and Purdue's Danny Hope are also among the lower-earning major-conference coaches.

But when it comes to best bang for the buck, Dantonio and Bielema are at the top of the list.

Don't be surprised if they're taking a similar picture in December.