"A lot of head coaches in non-BCS leagues don't get paid like some of those assistants," Sumlin said.
Assistants can thank Tennessee for their beefier bank accounts.
The Vols set a new standard last season by paying their staff of nine assistants a combined $5.325 million, believed to be the highest sum ever paid for a group of college coaches. (With Lane Kiffin now at USC, the staff of new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley will be paid $2.7 million in 2010.)
Kiffin made his father - defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin - the first million-dollar assistant in college football history in 2009. The elder Kiffin, who followed his son to USC as defensive coordinator, was paid $1.2 million. Million-dollar assistants were commonplace in the NFL, but there were none in the college ranks before Kiffin.
"First of all, ultimately I look at the salary pool - the head coach and assistant coaches - as a line item in our budget," Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said at the time. "At a lot of institutions, the model is the head coach is making a significantly higher salary than anybody else on his staff. This model is a little bit different from that. It spreads the dollars around a little bit more. You've got a couple other guys that are making pretty high-end salaries."
The SEC wasn't alone in writing fat checks to assistants this offseason.
Big 12: Texas A&M hired Air Force coordinator Tim DeRuyter to run its defense, increasing his salary from $205,000 to $400,000.
ACC: Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster passed on a job offer from Georgia, then had his contract sweetened to include deferred compensation that will pay Foster $800,000 if he remains at Tech through the 2014 season. Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was wooed by Tennessee but ultimately remained with the Tigers and received a $200,000 raise to push his annual compensation to $575,000.
"With all of that [money] comes added pressure on those guys," Tiller said. "It will be like pro football."
Tiller also noticed another change in the rank-and-file during the AFCA convention in Orlando, Fla., in January.
"More and more assistants talk more about who is making how much money than they do about football," he said. "Coaches are starting to chase that brass ring. I never considered how much money I was getting paid."
Another sign of change is that assistants now have agents, once the exclusive province of head coaches.
Money changes everything
College football's top 10 highest-paid assistant coaches - sort of. There is a caveat to this list. Last season at Tennessee, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin made $1.2 million and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron made $650,000. Both now are at USC, which is a private school and doesn't release its salary figures. A safe assumption is that both will make at least that much this season, meaning Kiffin would be first on this list and Orgeron would be fifth.
"The agent element has changed," Tiller said. "And now you have agents talking these schools into giving some of these coaches multiyear contracts. It's very expensive for colleges when they start canning guys with multiyear contracts."
Wait a minute, the agents say; don't put all of the blame on us.
"At the top BCS schools, I can see competition for the best coordinators as a catalyst for salaries to settle in at the million-dollar level," said Paul Sheehy, president/general counsel of ProStar Sports Agency. "The economics of it are such that athletic directors at those schools are getting better and more creative in raising dollars to fund salaries for top people within their programs.
"The stakes are very high for schools to find the right person to run either side of the ball and win. Those salaries also help retain top coordinators who may otherwise look to jump into a head-coach position at a lower-level school, and staff retention is huge when it comes to maintaining a successful program both on the field and in terms of recruiting."
South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman said the market is dictating the higher salaries. "Schools will make a judgment call as to whether they can afford a certain coach or not," he said.
It's obvious that more and more schools are figuring it's OK to pay the big salaries, and the argument can be made that schools in the Big Six conferences have plenty of money to pay assistants.
Each Big Ten school reportedly gets around $20 million annually from its TV contracts alone. (The league doesn't release official figures.) In 2008-09, the SEC distributed $11.1 million to each school, a sum that didn't include revenue from bowls. Last summer, the SEC signed a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal with ESPN and a 15-year, $825 million contract with CBS.
When you factor in money from radio rights, ticket sales, premium seats, advertising, bowls … the numbers are big for the top leagues.
"The SEC is going in some uncharted waters at this time, in some people's minds," South Carolina's Johnson said. "It's just a whole other world now. It's capitalism and social engineering running head-on. What these kids are bringing to the universities in cold hard cash is just phenomenal. And assistant coaches had as much to do with it as anybody. When you look at it from a pure business sense, it doesn't make much sense that we don't get paid that much."
But when you juxtapose the mega-salaries of assistants with what is going on in this economy, which has seen layoffs, furloughs and budget cuts across the nation in almost every industry, it's understandable why some people may be rankled.
"Colleges long ago stopped caring about the messages they were sending with astronomical coaches' salaries," said Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College.
The salaries of college football head coaches cracked the $4 million-per-year mark in 2007, when Alabama's Nick Saban became the first to eclipse that barrier. In 2009, eight head coaches made more than $3 million.
"As much as people like to complain about the inequity of coaches' salaries in comparison to university staff and faculty, the reality is that every job is its own little commodity," said Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis who is the founder of Sportsimpacts.net, a sports consulting firm that specializes in marketing research and economic-impact studies for sporting events. "There is a supply and demand for every commodity ... every occupation."
Rishe also understands why the high salaries are controversial.
"The issue of college football coaching salaries once again highlights the dichotomy of college athletics," he said. "Certain sports, and most certainly college football, are revenue-generators that often help subsidize the whole program. And though one could argue that the NCAA shouldn't meddle with school's individual decisions about how much to pay their employees, it is a little off-putting that they don't try to use their considerable influence to address the matter.
"It doesn't look good when they don't interfere with the salaries of coaches … yet they prevent former college athletes from cashing in on the use of their images a la the Ed O'Bannon/EA Sports case."
Johnson, for one, won't apologize for his recent raise.
"It took me 36 years in coaching to reach this point," said Johnson, who made $175,000 as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2007. "If I averaged my annual salaries over those 36 years, I think it would come to about $50,000.
"Do I feel pressure because of it? I only feel the pressure I put on myself."
No doubt, there is a lot of uncertainty with being an assistant. Many live a peripatetic life, dragging their families across the nation in search of jobs that often last just three or four years.
Yes, some assistants are well-paid. And they also must deliver big results quickly - or else. After all, to whom much is given, much is expected.
While most of the big spending on assistants has occurred in the SEC, some schools in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 also have anted up. Can "lesser" leagues afford to keep pace? And if they don't - or can't - follow suit, will they will be in peril of falling further behind in a sport where the difference between the haves and have-nots continues to grow wider and wider?
"I am not exactly sure what the other conferences are paying, but I think there has been a rather dramatic jump in our conference," Hyman said. "I think some schools [that have the financial flexibility] from other conferences could afford to pay that amount, but I would not make a blanket statement about conferences."
Houston's Sumlin and Tulsa's Todd Graham have seen their Conference USA programs sneak into the top 20 in the past two seasons, and each acknowledges that it's tough for schools in leagues such as C-USA to pay the high-dollar salaries.
Graham said Tulsa "can't pay a guy $500,000 per season, but we have tried to counter that by offering security. We have five assistants who have five-year contracts. I don't think many schools on our level have something like that."
Sumlin points out that while schools such as his "can't pay what the schools in the SEC can pay," they can make sure their salaries are commensurate with other schools in their conference. "You have to be competitive in your league," he said. "After that, it's up in the air. It can make keeping a staff together tough."
Graham said Tulsa almost lost defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to Texas A&M this offseason.
"He was offered a lot of money to leave, but he stayed in part because we are great friends and he has security here," Graham said.
In a lot of cases, though, money is going to trump security.