Wisconsin has become the perfect stepping stone for coaches, but will it end?
You knew it was coming.
It became an obvious storyline in Madison as the season progressed. With every dominant defensive effort the Badgers put forth, Dave Aranda’s price went up. When he led Wisconsin to another impressive defensive performance in a Holiday Bowl victory against USC, Aranda’s price had risen beyond anything the Badgers could compete with.
When it came down to it, he had 1.3 million reasons to leave for LSU.
It marked the third time in the last four years that the Badgers dealt with a major coaching change. At the very least, the Badgers could brace themselves for it, unlike the sudden departures of Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen, both of whom had just signed extensions within the year before bolting.
But the result is the same. Each year, Wisconsin is sitting there with 10 wins and Barry Alvarez has to fill a major vacancy. It can be the most draining and pressure-filled process for an athletic director. Weeding through applications and trying to find guys like Aranda isn’t easy.
Getting them to stay is even harder.
“People shouldn’t be offended when somebody leaves,” Alvarez said. “Someone else wants them and is going to spend more money than we’re willing to pay. That’s part of the business. It happens to everyone.”
It is the business, but it doesn’t exactly happen to every program who has had the success the Badgers have had. Everyone has coordinators leave for head coaching jobs. Just look at Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. But Aranda took the same position, and at a different place. A huge financial upgrade it was, but it was still the same job.
Bielema only got a $600,000 annual raise to take the same job at Arkansas. The conference was obviously more important to Bielema than the money. Andersen only got a $250,000 raise to go to Oregon State, but he left Madison because Alvarez wouldn’t budge on the school’s academic standards.
So why has the coaching carousel made a regular stop in Madison? After all, Wisconsin is one of nine Power Five teams with double-digit wins in five of the last seven seasons. LSU can’t claim that, neither can Florida, Michigan, Texas or USC.
Here are the teams that can:
Every team on that list has either been to the College Football Playoff or won a BCS bowl in the last seven years. Every team but Wisconsin, that is. It’s also the only program among those nine that isn’t viewed as a destination job. Wisconsin has been a place where a coach can boost his résumé with a bunch of B1G wins on national television and possibly play in the Rose Bowl.
Talk about a great stepping stone.
Some view it as a slap in the face to call any place a “stepping stone.” It offends some fans, as Alvarez noted. But there are benefits to it. Wisconsin had a guy like Aranda come in for three years and crush it every single season. He coached, and his defenses played, like they had something to prove.
As much as it pained Wisconsin to see Aranda go, the program got three top-five defenses out of him. Anybody in the country would take that for the $520,000 he was paid per season to do so. In today’s market, it was a bargain.
But that doesn’t appease fans and boosters. They don’t want to hear that money is holding them back from keeping successful coaches. That’s part of the reason Alvarez received criticism in recent years.
Wisconsin ranked 40th in the country among salaries paid to assistants. Aranda was offered a raise for the second straight year by Alvarez, but it wasn’t anywhere near the $1.3 million LSU threw at him.
Why? Alvarez explained.
“The reason they can go up higher (in the SEC) is they’re not supporting as many sports,” Alvarez said. “It’s a difference in philosophy. 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. They can sink more of their money into football.”
He’s right about that. Wisconsin has 23 athletic programs to support. LSU has 16. It’s basic numbers.
Could Wisconsin compete with LSU financially if both had the same number of programs? Who knows? LSU isn’t in any rush to start adding scholarship teams, and Wisconsin can’t justify cutting them.
LSU was seventh and Wisconsin was 17th in attendance, so making up that difference wouldn’t likely do the trick, either.
But there could be an equalizer.
Next year, Wisconsin will begin its record-breaking 10-year, $96-million deal with Under Armour. That’s nearly double the revenue LSU will make from Nike this school year. That’s a bigger deal than the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State will receive.
Could that be Wisconsin’s edge? We really won’t know until we see how Alvarez and the university are willing to spend when that revenue starts coming in. But that, coupled with the ever-increasing Big Ten Network revenue, should give Wisconsin a financial boost that it hasn’t had in years past.
That could be the difference in Wisconsin shelling out $1 million for a coordinator instead of $520,000. That, ultimately, is what some feel is holding Wisconsin back from allowing the program to take the next step.
There are, however, a couple things that aren’t changing. The Badgers aren’t willing to cut athletic programs, nor are they willing to lower their academic standards. They aren’t in the SEC, which is still perceived as the nation’s best conference with the nation’s best jobs.
So can Wisconsin ever be anything more than college football’s best stepping stone? Certainly, but it could still take some time.
Right now, the Badgers are still trying to establish a foundation. Let’s not forget that before 2006, this program had consecutive double-digit win seasons once. It takes longer than 10 years of solid seasons to wipe away what was mostly decades of mediocrity.
Wisconsin has stepped over plenty of traditional powers to get where it is, which is a legitimate top-15 program. If they can find a way to continue winning with what they have, the Badgers will be the hunters poaching the Dave Arandas of the world.