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Tom Brands and the Escalation of Coaching Compensation

Tom Brands got a raise -- what does that mean for coaching compensation in the world of college wrestling?

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In older news... Iowa announced a contract extension and raise for Tom Brands a few weeks ago, hot on the heels of their announced contract extension and raise for basketball coach Fran McCaffery. The new deal extends Brands' stay at Iowa until the end of the 2017 season (although let's be honest: barring scandal or a health issue, the job is essentially his for as long as he wants it, unless results drop precipitously) and bumps his salary up to an average of $225,000 per year -- not a bad chunk of change, especially in a non-revenue sport.

It's the second raise Brands has received since taking over for the Iowa program in the spring of 2006 -- he got a raise to $150,000 (from an initial starting pay of $115,000 -- $95,000 in salary and $20,000 in guaranteed youth wrestling camp monies) in 2008, after winning the first of three national titles. Since then, Brands has overseen two more team national championships, the longest unbeaten streak in school history, and a pair of third-place finishes at the NCAA Tournament over the last two years. As track records go, that's pretty damn good and you can't really argue that Brands' performance doesn't merit a raise.

Interestingly, Brands still isn't the highest-paid coach in collegiate wrestling -- far from it, in fact. Per the always-information Andy Hamilton:

The deal pushes Brands closer to the highest-paid coaches in the country. Oklahoma State reportedly bumped the salary of coach John Smith up to $284,980 after the 2011 season. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News reported last November that Penn State has paid coach Cael Sanderson as much as $500,000.

The lure of the almighty dollar was allegedly one of the main reasons Cael Sanderson spurned his alma mater (well, that plus easy access to Pennsylvania's fertile recruiting territory and the ability to avoid butting heads with Tom Brands for in-state recruits) and it's not hard to see why that is, if Sanderson is truly getting paid almost double the next highest-paid wrestling coach. (While Penn State is a public university, the salaries of their employees -- including athletic coaches -- are not easily accessible, thanks to some slightly bizarre public records laws in place in Pennsylvania.) Brands is being paid more (now) than J Robinson -- Minnesota is paying him $210,498 in total compensation.

Certainly Tom Brands is well-paid -- it would be hard to argue that point when he'll be making nearly a quarter-million dollars a year. He will be one of the highest-paid wrestling coaches in the marketplace, which seems appropriate given that only two current coaches have as many or more NCAA championships on their resume as Brands (Robinson and Smith). Does it matter that he's not the highest-paid coach in the sport? Should Iowa pay top-dollar because, well, we're Iowa and we think of ourselves as the center of the wrestling universe? Probably not. The only reason to do that would be to stroke our ego, and that's rarely a good business rationale to do something. Brands is being compensated at a rate that's very competitive with his peers and he seems satisfied -- that seems good enough.

FYI: Full details of Brands' contract available here.

It is interesting to note that salaries haven't just been spiraling upwards in college basketball and football. This USA Today article from four years ago provides a table listing the highest-paid coaches in college wrestling (a table where Brands ranks a somewhat-surprising 8th). Cael Sanderson was king of the hill back then, too, pulling in a "measly" $110,000 per season from Iowa State. Four years later, Sanderson is still atop the heap -- but at a salary that's allegedly almost five times what he was making at Iowa State. At Oklahoma State John Smith is making almost three times what he was in 2008. Brands' salary has more than doubled. Some raises have been more modest -- Oklahoma replaced the retiring Jack Spates with Mark Cody, going from paying $110,000 in 2008 topaying $140,000 in 2011. Iowa State replaced Sanderson and his $110,000 per year with Kevin Jackson, who made $130,000 last year. Missouri's Brian Smith went from making $100,000 in 2008 to making... $118,518 in 2012. (Illinois may actually be saving money; they went from paying Mark Johnson $108,550 in 2008 to paying Jim Heffernan $100,000 in 2011-12.)

So the salary escalation arms race among wrestling coaches hasn't spread across the sport -- in fact, it's been pretty well-concentrated among the powers at the top of the sport: Iowa, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, and Penn State. Those four programs have accounted for every team national championship since 1988 and three of them compete in the Big Ten, arguably the most cash-rich conference in the country. Do you have to spend that much to compete at the top of the sport? Not necessarily -- Ohio State came thisclose to winning a team national title a few years ago and Tom Ryan is "only" making $110,025 per season. Cornell nearly won a team national title two years ago and while I was unable to find salary information for Rob Koll, I doubt he's a member of the $200,000+ club with Brands, Robinson, Smith, and Sanderson. But cracking the elite in college wrestling is no easy task -- the top programs pay more to retain the top coaches, who go out and select the top recruits, who compete and help them stay at the top... rinse, repeat. Penn State joined the club only by poaching one of the most legendary modern figures in the sport and investing huge sums of money in their program. Time will tell if a rising program like Ohio State or Illinois or Oklahoma or Cornell is able to break through that barrier and win a title... but I don't think I would hold my breath.