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Paying The Bear: Paul Bryant's Theoretical Value In 2014

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Coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant won 323 games and six national championships, earning legendary status at Alabama that Nick Saban still hasn't approached. But how much would he get paid if he were coaching in 2014? Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images.
Coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant won 323 games and six national championships, earning legendary status at Alabama that Nick Saban still hasn't approached. But how much would he get paid if he were coaching in 2014? Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images.

A few months back, Alabama rewarded Nick Saban with a contract worth about $7 million a year. 

Even more recently, James Franklin left Vanderbilt to help resurrect Penn State. He’ll be compensated to the tune of $4.5 million every year.

Being a college football coach pays pretty darn well provided you land in the right place.

Heck, even new Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is making $1 million next year. I’m pretty sure he can buy a pretty decent split-level ranch in Kentucky when he's making $19,230.77 every week. He may even have enough left over to put in a pool for the kids. 

It’s a sign of the times, really. Telling figures that scream the good old college days of yore have been sold off to the highest bidder. 

It makes you wonder how Alabama got away with paying Paul “Bear” Bryant $45,000 per year back in the late 1970s.

While $45k bought a lot more houndstooth fedoras in 1979 than it does in 2013, it still doesn’t add up. Even after adjusting for inflation, Bryant’s salary would have only been bumped up to $144,464.26 in today’s dollars according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That salary would make Bryant the lowest-paid coach in the FBS by $143,804. 

It’s tough to say whether Bryant was properly paid in relation to his peers of the time, mostly because it seems nobody cared about that kind of thing. At least not enough to report on it regularly. 

We do know that most coaches’ salaries at that time had a tendency to at least be within shouting distance of the salaries garnered by the highest executives of a university’s administration. If a university president made $34,000 a year, it was OK for a football coach to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000. You get the idea. 

All that changed in 1984 when the Supreme Court ruled that schools and athletic conferences had the right to negotiate their own TV contracts. (If you’re looking for the god particle that created big business college football, look no further than NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.)

College football’s watershed financial moment didn’t happen until the year after Bryant’s death, though. While he was largely responsible for making college football what it is today, he sadly never got to reap the rewards. 

What would the going rate be in 2014 for arguably the greatest coach in the history of college football? What would the Crimson Tide be willing to pay for their most favored son?

It’s important to address at what point in Bryant’s career we’re talking about. Obviously a coach with Bryant’s track record circa 1946 after just one year at Maryland has a lower market value than he would 20 years later after three national championships. 

For the sake of argument, lets assume we’re dealing with Bryant from 1969. He had his three titles in tow, and as fate would have it, spent part of that year mulling over a five-year, $1.7 million offer to coach the Miami Dolphins

The easiest thing we can do to start off is set the floor at $2 million annually. That’s Mark Stoops’ salary at Kentucky — the very school at which Bryant coached from 1946 to 1953. Stoops is the lowest-paid head coach in the SEC and won two games in his first year with the Wildcats. It may be too small of a sample size, but at this rate, Stoops won’t pass Bryant’s career win total until he’s 207 years old. It’s safe to say we can hit the fast forward button and put Bryant in a more appropriate peer group. 

At the top end of the spectrum, we have the coaches that actually win games, and more importantly, national championships. Unless there are any unexpected retirements between now and the kickoff of the 2014 season, there will be six active coaches that have a BCS championship on their resume: Jimbo Fisher, Steve Spurrier, Les Miles, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops and Saban. 

The average salary of those six comes out to be approximately $4.67 million per year, but the field can be narrowed even further. 

Active coaches with more than one gaudy ring in their jewelry box narrows the field to just two: Saban and Meyer. The average salary of those two clocks in at about $5.8 million annually, assuming Saban’s new deal is worth the reported $7 million. 

The question now, of course: “Is Bryant worth more than Saban’s $7 million?”

The answer?

 Probably …

… not. Though his value is pretty darn close. 

The only pure measure of sustained success from year-to-year is winning percentage. Against his two peers with multiple championships, Bryant comes in last. Meyer leads the pack with a mind-blowing .837 win percentage. Saban and Bryant as of 1969 come in well behind him at .748 and .745, respectively. 

It's worth noting that Meyer's sample size is significantly smaller than both Saban's and Bryant's as of 1969, but he'd have to average fewer than nine wins for the next 12 years to bring his winning percentage below the other two. Since the Buckeyes head man's smallest single-season win total is eight (twice), it's highly unlikely he'll regress that far. 

Saban wins a national championship every 4.5 years at his current pace. Bryant, as of 1969 was winning one approximately every eight years. Meyer slips in between them, averaging a new ring every six years.

Hindsight is rarely 20/20 when we look back at our legends. We have a tendency to want to forget some of the less desirable traits of our folk heroes and Bryant is no different. 

It’s questionable if Bryant’s coaching techniques would work in today’s game. Some of the tactics he employed are not only illegal in today’s game, they were draconian and life threatening. We look back on the story of Bryant and the Junction Boys of Texas A&M in 1954 and remember how 111 boys went to Junction, Texas, but only 35 came back. We forget that Bryant forged a team by denying water breaks in 100-degree heat. 

We remember that Bryant won three national championships with all-white teams and three integrated teams. We forget that some critics still contend that a man of Bryant’s stature could have done more to break the color barrier in Tuscaloosa long before 1971. 

Bryant was also a noted heavy drinker. He even checked himself into rehab in 1978 for a month, but was never able to put the bottle down for good. 

All of these issues made news in Bryant’s time, but there simply wasn’t the media feeding frenzy there is today.  

Chances are, Bryant would have adapted to the times in which he was forced to coach. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest he would, but even a hint of allegations of racism — justified or not — or unusual punishment of players makes him a higher risk investment than Saban. 

We've established that Bryant would be worth a lot. Putting an exact number to it remains debatable. How much would he make

That’s easy. Bryant wouldn’t be anywhere near the higher end of the pay scale. In fact, a coach with his resume wouldn’t just damage the negotiating leverage of other coaches in the country; he’d take a wrecking ball to it and throw Molotov cocktails on the rubble for good measure. 

The Bear, if nothing else, was a man that stood his moral ground. Bryant adhered to a personal policy to always keep his salary $1 below the university president and there’s plenty of evidence that he would have stuck to it. He did, after all, walk away from a $1.7 million offer from the Miami Dolphins (You’re welcome, Don Shula). 

Bryant would have made $534,999 as the coach of Alabama in 2014. Exactly $1 less than university president Judy Bonner.