When Pat Richter took over as the University of Wisconsin’s athletic director in 1989, his task to find the root of the department’s $2.1 million deficit was as swift as it was simple.
It didn’t take much number-crunching for Richter, with evidence of a major decline in attendance and season-ticket holders, to decide on-field improvement of the Badgers’ football team was the only way out of the red for the entire athletic department.
Richter soon gave Notre Dame defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez his first head coaching job, the key to the program’s resurgence, and later hires of Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan allowed the men’s basketball team to follow that lead.
“That wasn’t necessarily a money issue,” Richter said. “It was a people issue. We were fortunate to get the right people in the positions. You’re not necessarily going to find the right people just because they cost a lot of money. You’ve got to find the right people for the culture that exists at Wisconsin. I think there’s a feeling that money doesn’t always buy you happiness.”
Now that UW’s football program has turned into a giant money-maker that produces more in annual revenue than most around the country, some fans believe the Badgers must flaunt those deeper pockets when paying their assistant coaches in order to compete at the top level of college football.
UW paid its nine assistant football coaches just more than $2.5 million during the 2014-15 school year, a number that ranked 10th among the 12 Big Ten Conference schools that are required to release such numbers in open records requests made by the Wisconsin State Journal.
That pool has increased by nearly $350,000 heading into next year, a bump that still leaves the Badgers well outside the upper half of the conference, and UW couldn’t come close to the amount needed to keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in January.
Aranda, who made $520,000 with the Badgers last year, took the same position with LSU on a three-year deal worth between $1.2 and $1.3 million annually, according to reports.
UW’s football program brought in the fourth-most revenue in the Big Ten, and the athletic department as a whole ranked in the top 10 nationally in revenue for the 2013-14 year, according to USA Today. UW earns a nice chunk of cash from the Big Ten Network and its media rights deal with Learfield Sports, and the Badgers recently signed a 10-year, $96 million apparel contract with Under Armour.
“You don’t think of Big Ten schools as being (financially) challenged,” said Michael Smith, who covers colleges for the Sports Business Journal. “You don’t typically think of Big Ten schools as being financially strapped in any way, shape or form.
“(UW) is not Michigan or Ohio State, but nobody except for Texas or Alabama is. I don’t think anybody looks at Wisconsin as being one of the have-nots. Over the years, they’ve been among the haves and I’m sure will continue to be.”
The athletic department’s decision not to prioritize assistant coach salaries like other schools have, however, does not mean UW has spent any less money maintaining a football program that has won three Big Ten championships in the past six years and produced 14 straight winning seasons.
Penn State and Michigan are the only Big Ten schools that spent more than the $30 million-plus the Badgers spent on their football program during the 2014-15 year, according to documents obtained by the State Journal, and UW has sunk plenty of money into upgrading its facilities over the past 10 to 15 years.
The athletic department recently finished paying off $49 million worth of state-issued bonds for the Student-Athlete Performance Center and is considering more renovations to Camp Randall Stadium after the venue underwent a $109 million transformation from 2001-05.
The athletic department also has faced additional expenses in recent years with the move to full cost of attendance scholarships and increased contributions to the university, which took a financial hit when Gov. Scott Walker cut $250 million in state aid to the UW System in his biennial budget passed last year.
In a UW release days after the departure of Aranda in January, Alvarez, now UW’s athletic director, attributed larger assistant coach payrolls in the SEC to the fact that the conference doesn’t support as many sports as Big Ten athletic departments.
This is no small excuse. The Badgers have more sports programs than every school in the SEC — six more than LSU. On average, Big Ten athletic departments support more than five additional NCAA-sanctioned sports than their SEC counterparts.
Per UW’s 2014-15 NCAA financial report, the department lost just over $1 million on average for each sport it supports other than its three revenue sports of football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.
“It’s a difference in philosophy,” Alvarez said in the release. “The Big Ten is known for being more broad-based in its sports offerings. We are committed to supporting a broad-based athletic program. People may dismiss that, but it’s a real thing. (The SEC) can sink more of their money into football.
“But we still feel we’re very competitive. We’re very cognizant of what everyone else is paying. We make adjustments annually.”
The Badgers have made a conscious decision to not partake in inflating assistant coach salaries at the rate of their biggest competitors. They haven’t, however, stockpiled savings or refrained from trying to push the program to the highest level it can achieve.
“A lot of these things come down to priorities,” Smith said. “Athletic departments, like any other business, have priorities and put their resources toward what they think is most important.”
UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank has spoken out against the skyrocketing salaries for college coaches around the country and even suggested the idea of a salary cap for coaches in an interview with USA Today.
The idea of over-inflated coaching salaries — and the Badgers’ ability to win without them — trickles down through the athletic department, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.
“I’d never say never about anything, but you look at some of those SEC contracts, and you look at some of the durations, it’s hard for me to see us getting anywhere close to that anytime soon,” UW deputy athletic director Walter Dickey said. “Now, there’s going to be inflation and the world’s going to change, but we’re not prepared to pay that kind of salary. Coach Aranda’s situation is a good example of one where going to (the salary LSU offered him) just wasn’t where we could go.”
Despite the consistency of the UW football team over the past two-plus decades, some fans believe the failure to retain top assistant coaches holds the Badgers back from taking another step forward into national title contention.
UW believes in what got the program to this point — from bottom-dweller in the Big Ten to perennial contender for the conference title.
“I think we’ve been able to over the last 25 years find the right people, but also people that want to be there and that have been successful,” Richter said. “There has been a lot of turnover, but for the most part, you get the right people (who don’t) necessarily cost a lot of money but people that want to be there and realize the opportunity.
“You want to win, but you also have to believe the people that are running it have the right abilities to find somebody who’s going to be the next Dave Aranda under the circumstances. The system isn’t going to be broken because of one person.”