When Gus Malzahn rejected an offer to become football coach at Vanderbilt, he did so with the knowledge that something lucrative awaited in his position as Auburn's offensive coordinator.
The Southeastern Conference is good to its assistant coaches, and Malzahn was about to take that generosity to a new level.
The Auburn offensive guru was convinced to stay for 2011 and beyond, in part, by a $1.3 million salary, thus breaking a barrier that other assistants steadily are approaching.
Florida hired Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator for $765,000. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart received a raise to $850,000. Eight of the 11 highest-paid assistants last season were at SEC schools, and other leagues are struggling to keep pace.
The spike in salaries for assistant coaches comes at a time when money in college athletics is getting more attention, from rising television contracts to talk of paying athletes a stipend above the value of their scholarships.
The SEC paid its assistant coaches an average of $276,122 in 2010, according to figures compiled by St. Louis attorney and agent Bob Lattinville of the firm Stinson Morrison Hecker.
The Big 12 was second at $232,685 and the Big Ten a distant fourth, behind the Atlantic Coast Conference, at $187,055. In each instance, the averages do not include salaries at private schools such as Baylor, Penn State and Vanderbilt.
"We've gone over a million (for an assistant) and I think that will be a trend," said Lattinville, who provides research for various USA Today salary studies. "Everyone recognizes the marquee value of pulling in an SEC assistant. Week in and week out they're facing the best opponents. That's why they'll pay more to keep them."
Within their conferences, Missouri and Illinois stack up well in terms of compensation. The Tigers paid their assistants an average of $229,888 in 2010 and Illinois averaged $213,777. Those numbers already have increased.
In negotiating contracts, Lattinville said, he has seen more head coaches demand salary pools for their assistants as programs try to maintain stability within their staffs.
"You're starting to see head coaches negotiate for their assistants," he said. "One of the most negotiated terms for head coaches is that pool."
Thus, in 2010 some coordinators were making more than head coaches at BCS schools such as Minnesota, Indiana, Washington State and Baylor.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel took such a stand recently when he received a contract extension without a raise. He requested and received raises for his assistants.
Additionally, more assistants are receiving contracts with retention bonuses that award large chunks of money for remaining on staff until a specified date. Lattinville said about 25 percent of coordinators now have such bonuses.
Illinois coach Ron Zook, who has worked in the Big Ten and SEC, hired two coordinators for 2010 and they immediately joined the upper echelon in the Big Ten.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino arrived from Arkansas to become No. 1 in the league and received a raise that bumped him to $525,000 for 2011. Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will make $342,000.
While Petrino is a rarity in topping $500,000 in the Big Ten, at least seven SEC assistants have surpassed that mark.
Kevin Steele was on the verge of joining that group when Tennessee offered him $750,000 to become defensive coordinator in 2010. He opted to stay at Clemson with a boost to $681,000.
"It surprises me, the big money going to the SEC and Big 12," Lattinville said. "I think you'll see the Pac-10 paying more because they have a creative commissioner and will bring more money in. If you want to maintain the best coaches, you're absolutely going to have to do it."
THE TOP 10
The highest salaries for football assistants for the upcoming season:
Gus MalzahnAuburn$1.3 million
Ellis JohnsonSouth Carolina$700,000
John ChavisLouisiana State$700,000
Steve KragthorpeLouisiana State$700,000