SEC West is home to huge salaries _ but everyone can't win
Jul. 15, 2015
HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference Western Division is college football's land of plenty, with all seven schools throwing huge piles of money at their respective coaching staffs to try and gain an upper hand.
The theory: More cash invested equals more victories.
But Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin summed up the conundrum facing the seven schools with three simple words during SEC Media Days: "Everybody can't win."
He's right — it's a mathematical reality — which means the high-stakes game of gridiron poker will almost certainly end with one or two schools suffering through some serious disappointment come December.
After Mississippi State gave Dan Mullen a raise in the offseason, it assured that every coach in the Western Division will make at least $4 million next season. That puts all of them among the nation's top 25 in yearly salary.
"It's a dog eat dog world," Mississippi athletic director Ross Bjork said. "And you better be able to thrive in that environment."
Bjork said he doesn't see the skyrocketing coaching salaries slowing anytime in the near future, but he does believe that this year's Western Division features a unique cocktail of seven established coaches who have all had previous success.
Sprinkle in a little free market economics and the cost of business has soared. First-year SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said there's a simple reason for the one-upmanship: These seven coaches are worth it.
"When you're in a competitive marketplace, those are the outcomes when universities make independent decisions," Sankey said.
The collective shrug at rising coaching salaries is the product of a seemingly endless stream of revenue.
The entire league has been transformed by the year-old SEC Network, and cameras are ubiquitous in every corner of the league's preseason showcase. An influx of cash from the network — which helped push the league's revenue total to a record $455 million split between 14 schools — has helped make huge coaching salaries more palatable for athletic departments.
"When you believe you have the right person in charge, you feel it's a wise investment," Bjork said. "... Obviously, there's going to be someone who finishes last this year in the SEC West. That program will have a coach that makes at least $4 million. But the expectation is even if there's a down year, there is an infrastructure in place to bounce back quickly."
All seven coaches in the division are established, including two — Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles — who have won national championships. Saban was hired for $4 million per year in 2007 — a number that seemed ludicrous at the time — and now makes about $7 million annually, which is tops in the country.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State's Mullen both led their respective programs to prestigious bowls last season and at one point both programs were ranked in the nation's top five.
Sumlin has won 28 victories over three seasons. Auburn's Gus Malzahn has won 18 over two.
Arkansas' Bret Bielema had a rude introduction to his SEC career, losing his first 13 league games. But he had previous success at Wisconsin and the Razorbacks took a huge step forward last year with back-to-back shutout wins over LSU and Ole Miss and then a dominant victory over rival Texas in the Texas Bowl.
The rapid rise of Ole Miss and Mississippi State — both financially and on the field — has helped tighten a Western Division that has been dominated by traditional powers Alabama, Auburn and LSU since the league split into two divisions in 1992.
The Rebels paid coach Ed Orgeron about $900,000 in 2007. Freeze received an extension in the offseason that bumped his average salary to more than $4 million and extends through 2018.
"You've got really good coaches — great coaches really — who have achieved things that are unique considering the recent history of those programs. Now there's a desire to keep them in place," Sankey said.
But money spent doesn't necessarily mean more national championships. The SEC won seven straight titles from 2006 to 2012 — including five by Western Division teams — but Florida State and Ohio State have been champions the past two seasons.
Expectations are nothing new in college football, but even by the West's lofty standards, there is an abundance of optimism.
All seven teams believe 2015 will be their year — even though that's impossible. No matter how much money a school brings in, paying $4 million for a 4-8 record will be difficult to swallow.
"I can make a legitimate argument for all seven teams in the West of how they can win our side of the league," Mullen said. "When you have that much competition, it certainly makes it challenging."
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