How Tennessee football reined in staff pay, while salaries ballooned at rival Alabama

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

A year after Tennessee set a record for spending on its football assistant coaches, coach Jeremy Pruitt’s staff remains handsomely paid, but the staff’s total salary trails 2019 by more than a million dollars.

Tennessee’s 10 assistants, plus its strength coach, will combine for $6.535 million in total pay for 2020.

In 2019, that 11-man football cabinet combined for $7.61 million in total pay, giving Tennessee the fifth-highest paid staff (assistants, plus strength coach) in the country among public schools, according to salary figures compiled by USA TODAY in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Pruitt’s salary remains $3.846 million, where it has been fixed since his hire in December 2017.

Why Tennessee’s coaching staff is cheaper this year

Pruitt’s inaugural coaching staff had a combined salary of $6.3 million for his 10 assistants, plus his strength coach. When Pruitt restructured his staff after that 2018 season, Tennessee allowed him to spare no expense while pursuing big-name assistants.

Pruitt pried Jim Chaney loose from Georgia to direct Tennessee’s offense. He pulled Derrick Ansley away from the NFL to oversee the defense. Tennessee awarded both coordinators with seven-figure salaries and sent the staff payroll soaring.

Then, following last season, four assistants and highly-paid strength coach Craig Fitzgerald departed. Pruitt filled two of those positions via promotion and another by hiring an assistant from a Group of 5 school. Those moves created the staff discount.

Notably, Chris Rumph, Tennessee’s veteran outside linebackers coach during Pruitt’s first two seasons, earned $805,000 annually. His replacement, Shelton Felton, came to Tennessee after one season on Akron’s staff. He’s a first-time assistant at the FBS level. The same is true of Joe Osovet, a former junior college head coach who spent two seasons at Tennessee in support staff roles in player development before becoming the tight ends coach in January.

Tight ends coach Joe Osovet is seen on the field during Tennessee Vols football practice at University of Tennessee, Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

Felton and Osovet each earn $225,000 annually, a discount rate for SEC assistants.

In 2019, all but five SEC assistants earned more than $225,000 among the conference’s 13 public schools. Salary information for coaches at Vanderbilt, a private school, is unavailable. No public SEC school had more than one assistant earning $225,000 or less in 2019.

Tennessee also went from having the nation’s third-highest paid strength coach – Fitzgerald earned $625,000 annually before leaving for the New York Giants – to one of the lowest-paid strength coaches among Power 5 schools.

A.J. Artis, formerly an assistant strength coach under Fitzgerald, earned promotion and received a two-year contract worth $200,000 annually.

Two of Pruitt’s offseason hires are veteran assistants earning larger salaries than their predecessors. Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh’s salary is $650,000, and running backs coach Jay Graham is earning $575,000.

The restructured staff has thrived on the recruiting trail. The Vols’ 2021 recruiting class ranks fifth in the 247Sports Composite. Osovet ranks 12th in the 247Sports recruiter rankings. 

SEC rival skyrockets salaries amid pandemic

Elsewhere, staff spending at Alabama hasn’t slowed down, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens to significantly reduce athletic departments' revenue for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Alabama approved raises for several assistants on Wednesday, including an $850,000 raise for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian that brought his salary to $2.5 million.

Salaries for Alabama’s 10 assistants, plus its two strength coaches – Alabama splits the job among two people – total $9.8 million.

Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said the raises were agreed upon before the pandemic.

Alabama led the nation in spending on its assistant coaches and strength coach last year, with those positions totaling $8.136 million. The Crimson Tide were followed by Clemson ($8.02 million), Ohio State ($7.98 million) and Texas A&M ($7.728 million). Tennessee rounded out the top five.

Alabama also had the second-highest-paid head coach in 2019 in Nick Saban ($8.857 million), who trailed Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($9.316 million).

Pruitt’s salary ranked 10th among SEC head coaches.

2020 Tennessee assistant coaches/strength coach

Jim Chaney (offensive coordinator) – $1.6M

Derrick Ansley (defensive coordinator) – $1M

Will Friend (offensive line coach) – $805,000

Jimmy Brumbaugh (defensive line coach) – $650,000

Jay Graham (running backs coach) – $575,000

Tee Martin (wide receivers coach) – $450,000

Chris Weinke (quarterbacks coach) – $450,000

Brian Niedermeyer (inside linebackers coach) – $355,000

Shelton Felton (outside linebackers coach) – $225,000

Joe Osovet (tight ends coach) – $225,000

A.J. Artis (strength coach) – $200,000

Total – $6.535M

2019 Tennessee assistant coaches/strength coach

Jim Chaney (offensive coordinator) – $1.5M

Derrick Ansley (defensive coordinator) – $1M

Will Friend (offensive line coach) – $805,000

Chris Rumph (outside linebackers coach) – $805,000

Kevin Sherrer (inside linebackers coach) – $705,000

Craig Fitzgerald (strength coach) – $625,000

Tracy Rocker (defensive line coach) – $505,000

David Johnson (running backs coach) – $505,000

Tee Martin (wide receivers coach) – $450,000

Chris Weinke (quarterbacks coach) – $355,000

Brian Niedermeyer (tight ends coach) – $355,000

Total – $7.61M

Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News contributed to this story.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.