Better salaries help make Big Ten more attractive to James Franklin, other coaches

Better salaries help make Big Ten more attractive to James Franklin, other coaches

It almost goes without saying that Penn State is making a big-time hire in reportedly luring James Franklin away from Vanderbilt. Penn State has set a press conference Saturday afternoon to officially announce the hiring.

He replaces Bill O'Brien, who left on New Year's Eve for the NFL's Houston Texans, and the move ends a stretch of concern among fans about the future of the program still trying to dig out from the Jerry Sandusky sexual molestation scandal and ensuing NCAA sanctions.

Franklin, 41, is bright, energetic, passionate and a proven winner – 24-15, including consecutive nine-win seasons at historically bad Vandy. He's also a dynamic recruiter and salesman, a Langhorne, Pa. native who can try to sweep up interest in the program that has seen attendance dwindle the past two seasons.

Maybe best of all, he is proof positive of what's really occurring at Penn State. Here's one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country, making more than $3 million per year in the SEC, and he chose to come to State College. Not soldier on through sanctions. Not ride out the wake of the ugly days. Not stick with it out of old loyalty.

He wanted to be there, not just for the powerful future, but even the present where a world-class university remains no matter how many criminal and civil trials continue as the endless infighting over Joe Paterno's legacy rolls on.

This, truly, is a sign of a bright new day for the school. And it might be the start of a strong new era for the football program, even if depleted depth will hamper things a little while longer.

Beyond Happy Valley though, it might even signify something bigger, a flexing of some too-often ignored muscles – or at least an opening of the wallet – by the Big Ten Conference.

Franklin's hiring is, for sure, the biggest coaching news in the league this season. Yet a lower-profile move this week might signify the same trend.

Michigan announced Thursday the hiring of 43-year-old Doug Nussmeier as its new offensive coordinator, a transaction that made headlines because of where he came from – Nick Saban's University of Alabama juggernaut where he held the same job.

Why would a promising young coordinator leave a perennial national contender and the top coach in America for the Wolverines, where head coach Brady Hoke is on the hot seat heading into the 2014 season?

Money is certainly one factor, as the school is expected to pay Nussmeier more than $850,000 per year, about $200,000 more than he made last year at Alabama. Likewise, you can expect Penn State to pay Franklin about $4.5 million per year, a school source said. That's about $750,000 more than what O'Brien was making and nearly what Ohio State is paying Urban Meyer ($4.6 million). It made money a non-factor even though Vanderbilt was willing to go to the wall to keep him. And Michigan State made Mark Dantonio one of the country's best-paid coaches ($4 million-plus) before the Spartans won the Rose Bowl ,and he could even hit the open market.

Cash wasn't the only reason for these decisions, of course. That's especially true for Franklin and the Nittany Lions, where there are matters of tradition and possible success and additional resources. Likewise, Dantonio wasn't looking to leave a place he clearly loves.

Still, they had options and this is a league that hasn't always paid top dollar for top coaching talent. Now they appear to be taking money concerns off the table.

Just a year ago the Big Ten was stinging from the fact Bret Bielema, who reached three consecutive Rose Bowls at Wisconsin, left for Arkansas because it promised to pay not just the head coach better, but his assistants too. When he was in Madison, he complained, too many staffers had to leave for raises.

The Big Ten's seeming inability – outside of Ohio State, of course – to attract and retain the best and the brightest was maddening for fans. If there is one thing that shouldn't be a factor, its financial commitment.

At least, that's what they were told in 2007 with the launch of the Big Ten Network. It used a few big basketball and football contests – watch the phone lines light up in Indianapolis when you can't watch the Indiana-Purdue game – to shoe horn its way onto Tier 1 cable bills across the Midwest.

It was, essentially, a Big Ten tax, about a buck a month for every cable television subscribing home in a state with a conference school, whether they care about college sports or not. (And judging by ratings, the vast majority don't.) That's the kind of revenue inflow you could never get voters to approve.

The league gets about half of each month – good enough for a projected $270 million in 2013.

That's a financial burden even on fans of the teams. Then, in addition, the league decided to expand again, only not with new powerful programs. Instead unexciting programs from Maryland and Rutgers arrive next fall.

The move will dilute schedules, lessen traditions and do little for on-field success. Almost no one is excited. It was done for money though – or the potential of getting a buck a month out of every school in those two states.

If that's the case, well, at least now, perhaps, this is a sign that league schools are beginning to spend the windfall on the kind of coaches that can make a difference. The BTN impact hasn't previously been much – the league's football fortunes are actually worse now than 2006.

Maybe that's changing with an energetic new coach in State College, a program builder staying to finish the job in East Lansing and a highly regarded assistant straight out of Tuscaloosa and headed to Michigan.

Money isn't the only reason, but these kinds of transactions make cable bills and home games against the Terrapins a lot more palpable.

And it may be the sign of something big – or at least bigger – to come.