2021-22 College Football Playoff: Which Head Coach Has the Highest Salary?

Based solely on their place in the upcoming College Football Playoff, it feels safe to say 2021 was a stellar year for Jim Harbaugh, Kirby Smart, Luke Fickell, and Nick Saban. However, a quick glance at their bank accounts shows 2021 was actually a great year.

All four coaches — including Fickell, who is the head coach of mid-major Cincinnati – earned over $3 million this season. But of the four, who pocketed the most money during the 2021 campaign?

For this list, we are only factoring in a coach’s 2021 base salary; bonuses, either those already achieved or which can be earned depending on how far a team progresses in the CFP, will not determine where a coach ranks on this list. Also, this grouping only includes coaches in the 2011-22 CFP, so Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($9.5 million) and LSU’s Ed Orgeron ($9 million) are ineligible, as are those, such as Southern California’s Lincoln Riley, who recently signed lucrative contracts.

Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the highest salaries rank as follows:

4. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati ($3.4 million)

We’ll see how long Fickell, who is 62-48 in five seasons at Cincinnati, remains at the Group of 5 powerhouse. Although the Bearcats will move to the Big 12 in 2023, the former Ohio State defensive lineman has solidified himself as one of the country’s top coaches. It only takes one perfect offer for a coach to start considering uprooting his family and moving across the country.

According to USA Today, Fickell’s $3.4 million salary ranked second in the AAC, only behind Houston’s Dana Holgorsen, this season. They were the only AAC coaches who made north of $2.5 million.

3. Jim Harbaugh ($4 million)

Considering that this is Harbaugh’s eighth season at Michigan, his $4 million salary is admittedly surprising at first glance. However, he voluntarily took a $4 million pay cut following a disappointing 2-4 showing in the pandemic-affected 2020 season. 

Perhaps the new contract proved to be the Wolverines’ missing piece. Michigan has outscored opponents 490-209 this year and even took down Ohio State for the first time since 2011. As a result, the Wolverines are playing for a chance at the school’s first national championship since 1997.

Penn State’s James Franklin led all Big Ten coaches with a $7 million salary. He and Ohio State’s Ryan Day ($6.6 million) ranked ninth and 10th among the country’s highest-paid head coaches.

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia ($7.1 million)

Although Smart went 56-13 in his first five seasons, Georgia only reached the College Football Playoff once. Now, that number is twice in six years, even after Alabama defeated Georgia in the SEC Championship Game earlier this month.

Smart’s $7.33 million ranked eighth in the country and fourth in the SEC. Three guesses on who leads the SEC in base salary and the first two don’t count.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama ($9.7 million)

Considering how much money these coaches make per year, it feels wrong to suggest Saban, who earned a nation-high $9.75 million in 2021, is underpaid. However, Alabama’s 182-24 record since his arrival in 2007 certainly speaks for itself, especially in the ever-changing college football climate.

Of the eight College Football Playoffs thus far, the Crimson Tide have participated in six and won three. The transfer portal hasn’t stopped Saban, and Alabama can only use the new NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rules to its advantage when recruiting the country’s top players.

Until there is reason to believe otherwise, don’t be surprised if the 2020s, much like the 2010s, belong to Saban and the Crimson Tide.

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