What does $9 million get you? It gets you Josh Heupel, Lane Kiffin or Mark Stoops | Toppmeyer
Nine million dollars doesn’t get you what it used to.
In 2019, $9 million got you Nick Saban. Now, it gets you Mark Stoops. Or Lane Kiffin. Or Josh Heupel.
Heupel became the SEC’s latest $9 million coach with a contract extension Tennessee announced Tuesday to pull him alongside the annual salaries of Stoops at Kentucky and Kiffin at Ole Miss.
Coaching salaries are a runaway train with nobody manning the brakes, and railing against the spending won’t make a lick of difference. This is a byproduct of a profitable enterprise (major college football) that does not pay wages to its primary workforce (the athletes). Plus, media rights deals are ballooning for major conferences like the SEC.
Unlike a business on the New York Stock Exchange, college athletics has no shareholders to satisfy, no dividends to hike, no owner to count the profits.
So, where does the football surplus go? Foremost, it helps fund other sports within an athletic department that operate at a deficit. Other proceeds finance team facilities that would make NFL franchises blush or move into the pockets of coaches and administrators.
Along with Heupel, Vols athletics director Danny White earned a raise to $2.2 million. Both Heupel and White have excelled in their roles.
In Heupel’s new six-year deal, the first three years of his salary are guaranteed. If that sounds like a fiscally irresponsible contract for a coach who’s been on the job for two years, compare it to Michigan State awarding Mel Tucker a 10-year, fully guaranteed $95 million deal in 2021. Two mega-boosters helped finance Tucker’s deal.
It’s easy to spend someone else’s money, and school administrators specialize in it.
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Heupel’s near doubling of salary was predictable after Tennessee’s best season in more than two decades, especially after coaches like Stoops, Kiffin, Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer scored substantial raises after inferior seasons.
So, while Heupel’s raise didn't surprise me, I was left wondering what $9 million gets you.
The short answer: It gets you a better-than-average SEC coach but affords no guarantee of uninterrupted success.
For Kentucky, $9 million gets the best coach in the program’s history since Bear Bryant left for Texas A&M. Stoops’ best run came from 2016-19, when the Wildcats achieved four straight winning seasons and peaked at a No. 11 national ranking in 2018. Twice, he’s won 10 football games at a basketball school, thanks in part to Kentucky regularly playing one of the softest schedules in the SEC but also because Stoops elevated UK’s recruiting, and he usually fields a robust defense. Stoops has never taken the Wildcats to a New Year’s Six bowl, and Kentucky regressed in 2022 despite being armed with quarterback who is projected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick.
At Ole Miss, $9 million gets a proven offensive mind and a social media firebrand. Plus, heightened national attention for a program that generally operates in one of the SEC’s dimmer spotlights. Kiffin took the 2021 Rebels to the Sugar Bowl, just two years after Ole Miss went 4-8 in the final season before his arrival. Ole Miss pushed Alabama to the brink last fall. Kiffin operates in the transfer portal as well as any coach. While Kiffin raised Ole Miss’ profile, others took notice. Auburn flirted with Kiffin for its job opening, giving Kiffin contract leverage. There remains the question of Kiffin’s performance against stronger opponents. Ole Miss fizzled to finish last season, going 1-5 in its final six games after the competition stiffened. Was the Matt Corral-fueled Sugar Bowl season the peak or an achievement the Rebels can replicate?
At Tennessee, $9 million gets a coach who took the SEC by storm by installing a warp-speed offense and developing Hendon Hooker into one of the greatest quarterbacks in Vols history. Four straight Vols coaches failed to beat Nick Saban and Alabama. Heupel did it in his second try and puffed a cigar to celebrate. The Vols won 11 games for the first time since 2001. The NIL operating space is a boon for the Vols, and the signing of five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava suggests a bright future. Heupel has never had a losing record in five seasons as a coach, but his Year 3 at Central Florida was one of regression, and it remains unclear whether he’ll develop a defense that can elevate Tennessee into the College Football Playoff.
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A year ago, if a neutral college football observer had $9 million to spend to employ either Stoops, Kiffin or Heupel, they probably would have chosen Kiffin or Stoops. Kiffin was coming off a career-best season. Stoops is an established commodity with a defined ceiling and floor. Heupel had been in the SEC for just a year.
A year later, with the same options at that same $9 million price point, Heupel probably would go first off the board, thanks to a season that culminated in the Vols winning the Orange Bowl and Hooker placing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting. Kiffin may be the second choice, then Stoops after UK's disappointing season.
A year from now, the pecking order may be different.
No member of the trio has taken a team to the SEC Championship game.
Perspectives of $9 million coaches change in a year’s time. Just look at Jimbo Fisher. A year ago, he was strutting like a peacock after signing the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. Now, he's earning $9.15 million on the heels of a 5-7 season.
Four years ago, $9 million was the price for the greatest coach in the sport's history.
Now, $9 million buys a good coach but offers no guarantee.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Josh Heupel, Lane Kiffin or Mark Stoops could be yours for $9 million