Marc Daniels Column: Mullen Raise Not About Market But Image


Capital One Orange Bowl - Virginia v Florida

"It just means more" is the SEC tagline. It can also be "it just pays more."

No conference pays its coaches like the SEC and Dan Mullen is the latest to benefit from the faucets of money flowing.

Good for Mullen, make as much as you can and you earn what someone is willing to pay. Mullen signed an extension that bumps his annual pay from $6.07M to $7.6M through the 2026 season.

Mullen is 29-9 in his three seasons at Florida and the Gators have played in a major bowl game every season. The Gators battled Alabama in the SEC title game last year and expectations will be title game again in Gainesville.

Did Florida AD Scott Stricklin have to give Mullen $1.6M more per year? No. Did the market change in the three seasons he has been in Gainesville? Maybe. But Florida bumped Mullen's pay because of image and a lot of contracts in the SEC and in college football are more about image than market.

Nick Saban, who is likely underpaid, is the highest paid coach in the country making $9.3M per season at Alabama. LSU's Ed Orgeron turned a magical season in 2019 into $8.9M per year. Dabo Swinney makes $8.3M per at Clemson. Michigan's Jim Harbaugh was the fifth highest paid coach in the country before he took a pay cut(that's right, a pay cut) in his new deal. Now Mullen moves ahead of Lincoln Riley at $7.56M and Jimbo Fisher and his $7.5M.

Let's take Fisher for a moment. When Texas A&M lured Jimbo from Florida State they offered him $75M over 10 years. Who were they competing with? While Fisher flirted with LSU and maybe Texas in previous seasons, did the oil billionaires in Texas have to offer such a deal? No, but the image of "whatever it takes" was important to them.

Tom Herman made almost $6M at Texas. He more than tripled his salary from when he was at Houston. Would he have turned down the Longhorns if they offered $4M? No. But Texas could not be seen as being cheap. Texas has to pay its coach among the best in the country, right? New coach Steve Sarkisian is making $5M a year coming over from Alabama. But his $34M total package is the highest Texas has ever given a coach.

The best example of paying for image is Missouri and Eli Drinkwitz. In his final season at Appalachian State, Drinkwitz made $750,000. Missouri paid him $4M in his first season with the Tigers. Again, good for Drinkwitz, but would have turned down an SEC job if they offered $2M a season?

Bryan Harsin made $1.55 at Boise State. After Auburn gave Gus Malzahn more than $20M to leave, the Tiger money machine agreed to pay Harsin $5.25M a year. Would Harsin have said no if they offered $3M? 

Yes, SEC schools can afford to pay these salaries and one reason is big money donors and "wanna-be GMs" love being part of the system. And that's where the ego comes into pay. It's why Jimbo got the deal he got. It's why Drinkwitz got the money he got. Heck, Josh Heupel went from $2.3M coaching at UCF to $4M at Tennessee. And if Heupel wins six games this season, Danny White will likely give him a new deal, because that's how the system works.

Image is not just about money either. Agents have convinced ADs that their clients need to always have at least 4-5 years remaining on a contract so recruits know the coach will be there for their playing days- even though the transfer portal shows most of those recruits will never stay 4-5 years at that school.

It's not that some coaches don't earn a raise. Again, you are worth whatever someone is willing to pay you. But the idea that there is a market being set based on success is silly. It's based on expectations and image. Jimbo was on the hot seat before 2020 began and many thought if they didn't have a big season those big boosters would find a way to pay him. Now he's looking at a raise if he wins 9 or more this season. 

The SEC is not the only league where image matters when it comes to how much you pay your coaches but it is the trendsetter. Mullen may be ahead of Kirby Smart, Lincoln Riley and Ryan Day when it comes to pay. But give it time, like maybe this season. 

Final thought: It is rumored that Bear Bryant left Kentucky for Texas A&M after basketball coach Adolph Rupp was gifted a cadillac while Bryant got a cigarette lighter.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


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