How Much Money Would It Take for the Packers to Hire Pat Fitzgerald?
As the field of head coaching candidates narrows, one college coach remains on the Packers’ radar: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has been the darling of nearly every listicle of top college coaches for years and has spent a decade politely declining interviews from NFL teams behind-the-scenes.
Now, despite Fitzgerald’s public proclamation that he intends to stay in Evanston, it appears the Green Bay Packers are joining the long list of teams that have tried to pry the coach away from his alma mater.
And if they’re going to do it, it’ll take every connection to Fitzgerald they can muster: a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, a de-facto owner in Mark Murphy who had previously hired Fitzgerald, and the coach’s agent, Bryan Harlan, whose father just happened to have led the organization during their glory years of the 1990s.
As the Packers reportedly continue to set up other head coaching interviews for this weekend, this slate of assets has bought Green Bay roughly 48 hours to pitch the 44-year-old Fitzgerald on leaving Northwestern for the NFL.
More money awaits Pat Fitzgerald in Green Bay
Both college football and the NFL have seen a significant increase in unexpected cash from new television contracts, and head coaches have been a major beneficiary. Before 1995, no college football coach made more than $1 million annually. Now, seven figures may not be enough to pry a college head coach away to the NFL.
The Raiders dished out a massive 10-year, $100 million contract for ESPN personality Jon Gruden last offseason, setting the market for high-profile head coaches. Now, Tampa Bay is reportedly considering a contract offer to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly worth over $10 million annually.
Only Alabama’s Nick Saban has made more than $10 million in a single year coaching college football, and it was a single season at $11.1 million before his contract dipped to $8 million.
The Packers cannot offer Fitzgerald the kind of familiarity he has with Northwestern or the comforts of living close to where he grew up, but they can offer him life-changing money he won’t get in Evanston, Illinois.
Former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy made between $8 million and $9 million last year, nearly triple what Fitzgerald is earning currently. Given that McCarthy was near the $10 million threshold, the Packers could be comfortable paying their next head coach a salary in that neighborhood.
How much can Northwestern afford to pay Pat Fitzgerald?
The Oklahoma Sooners followed the blueprint on how to close the door on NFL teams looking at hiring your head coach. They gave Lincoln Riley a raise, and added additional years to his contract. Riley may one day explore coaching in the NFL, but it won’t be in 2019.
USA Today collected the available salary information for every college head coach, and Fitzgerald’s $3.6 million salary ranks 31st nationally and 10th in the Big 10.
Northwestern will likely have to follow Oklahoma’s lead with Fitzgerald, if he elects to stay in college. Often, a pay raise for a head coach is accompanied by raises for his assistants. If the head coach earns an extra $2 million, then an additional $2 million is often split among the assistant coaches.
This practice varies, and how well assistant coaches are paid often has a major impact on whether a head coach leaves their school. Wisconsin fans may remember that assistants’ pay was part of the reason behind Bret Bielema’s departure in 2012.
The Packers can – and likely would – attempt to offer Fitzgerald more money than Northwestern is able to provide. Northwestern, unfortunately, does not reveal pay for assistant coaches. The ten schools in the Big Ten who do reveal their full staff salaries pay an average of 50 percent on their head coach and 50 percent on their assistants. Just 20 percent of colleges and universities pay their head coach more than the combined total of their assistants’ salaries.
Further complicating Northwestern’s decision is the recently completed $270 million athletic facility.
On one hand, the university has successfully built relationships with donors who want the school to succeed athletically and have contacts who can help offset the additional cost of paying Fitzgerald and his assistants more.
On the other hand, it’s possible the university has tapped out its donor base to build the facility. There may not be an appetite among boosters to give Fitzgerald and his assistants a richer contract so soon after raising over a quarter of a billion dollars.
A likely path forward for the Wildcats is found in what Illinois did with their head coach Lovie Smith. The two sides recently signed an extension that saw the majority of the new money go to the coach. Smith now makes $5 million annually, making him the 13th highest paid coach in college, but his assistants now only account for 42 percent of the coaching budget – the lowest in the nation.
What this means for the Packers head coaching search
At least hypothetically, the Packers can pay Pat Fitzgerald more than his current employer can match. Their leadership has established relationships with him, and the coach’s agent grew up in Green Bay. Fitzgerald will hear the Packers out and decide if he wants the job. It’s in both Fitzgerald and the Packers’ best interests if the pair comes to an agreement sooner than later.
The Packers benefit from a quick decision on Fitzgerald because they’ll need the time to hire assistant coaches. Because Fitzgerald has coached in college throughout his career, Green Bay’s front office will need to help out.
Much like the Rams did in hiring defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to assist wunderkid Sean McVay, the Packers might want to pair Fitzgerald with an established, tenured NFL coach. Perhaps that’s someone like Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who was a head coach for three years and has spent his life in the NFL. Being the first of the eight teams with openings to hire a head coach gives Green Bay the best shot at hiring their top assistants.
If the two sides decide to part ways, it’s in Fitzgerald’s best interests to put the flirtation with the NFL behind him as soon as he can. While the Wildcats have already navigated past the early national signing day, the final push for recruiting is on from now until February 6.