Ole Miss has the second smallest enrollment in the SEC. Its home stadium rates 46th in capacity nationally and 13th in the conference. It rated 36th in overall revenue for 2013 (not counting private schools), though a new donation campaign boosted that figure. It'd be somewhere in the 40s without it.
And yet, as of this morning, it will have one of the top ten or 12 highest paid head coaches in college football.
Ole Miss is one of the better case studies on how the rapid influx of money has changed the college football landscape. When the school fired Ed Orgeron in late 2007, his salary at the time was $900,000. The school ponied up $1.7 million for Houston Nutt, the first Rebel head coach to come to Oxford directly from another head coaching job since Billy Brewer in 1983. Nutt's salary ballooned to $2.75 million by the time he was fired in 2011. Freeze's initial salary was $1.5 million, which was fitting given his lack of experience, but he was making double that this year and will go even higher beginning next year.
Now, Freeze's ties to Mississippi are a huge reason why he chose to extend with Ole Miss rather than pursue a potential option at Florida. I never expected him to leave. His extension will be worth a little less than what Florida reportedly was willing to offer, but it's close enough. Freeze's new market value is in the $4 million range, and Oxford can pay it. Could the Ole Miss of a decade ago keep up with UF in a bidding war? Probably not. Today, it can.
It's easy to track Ole Miss's spending with expansions of the SEC's TV contracts. The conference signed a then-unprecedented and massive contract with ESPN in August of 2008. In December of that year, Ole Miss gave Nutt a raise from $1.7 to $2.5 million, reportedly in part to keep him away from Auburn. According to the USA Today's database, the school's rights and licensing fees, which include TV money, rose from $12.9 million in 2008 to $16.4 million in 2009 to $22.9 million in 2010. Now, not only will the SEC Network money start flowing soon, but the College Football Playoff will shower the major conferences with far more cash than the BCS did as well.
It is a coincidence that Ole Miss had to extend and raise a coach right before these two big revenue increases were scheduled to kick in, but the school was able to do it. Florida may have a lot of advantages over Ole Miss—larger alumni base, larger stadium, better in-state talent to recruit, more prestige, more money for facilities, and so on—but it doesn't have a financial advantage for salaries. Not anymore, unless Florida decides to seriously reset the market and offer someone who isn't Nick Saban some Saban-level money.
Everyone has more money these days. Jim McElwain is reportedly another person of interest for Florida, and Colorado State is paying him $1.5 million. If you look at his contract, though, he was basically a 13-point loss to Boise State away from that going up to $2 million. That's what his salary increases to if wins the MWC, and his Rams would most likely do that by beating Fresno State if they were playing this weekend. Looking at the selection committee's rankings, CSU would get the non-Power 5 guaranteed bid to the CFP bowls if it did win the league as a 12-1 team. Making such a bowl would bump him up to a $2.5 million salary. If he then won that bowl, it'd be $2.75 million.
McElwain is from out west, and he's seen the SEC grind up close thanks to his time at Alabama. I don't know McElwain, but hypothetically, suppose he wants to stay out west and not constantly flirt with burnout as Florida's head coach. A decade ago, the salary difference between what he could make at CSU versus UF would have been so great that he'd be extremely hard pressed to turn it down. Now, despite his current salary being in the 60s nationally, he's not far off from incentives pushing him into the 30s. If everything but money is telling him to stay, Colorado State can probably pay him enough to get him to stay. A salary in the $2 million range is a lot of money. It's more than enough to live comfortably and happily.
Now, Colorado State, and all non-Power 5 teams, can't realistically offer the opportunity to win a national title. The "lesser" programs in the Power 5 can, though, which means they have one more reason they can retain their coaches when they want to stay. Look at Gary Patterson at TCU, Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, and, yes, Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss. Big programs have taken runs at them and missed.
Just look at some of the recent hires by the biggest football programs. USC's most recent two hires were Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, former assistants at the school who hadn't proven themselves to be elite coaches. Florida hired a coordinator with no head coaching experience in Will Muschamp. Gus Malzahn has been good at Auburn, but he was just one year removed from being a coordinator with no head coaching experience. Michigan went with Brady Hoke based on good tenures at Ball State and San Diego State, but no one really saw that as a home run at the time. Tennessee struck out while going after Gundy, and it was replacing Derek Dooley. Texas did well with Charlie Strong, and Ohio State got lucky that Urban Meyer was working for ESPN. Hires like those at the premier programs are becoming more exceptions than the rule.
It's been going that way for a while, but it's basically official now. With exceptions of large status disparities—like an SEC school wooing a Sun Belt coach or a Big Ten school recruiting a MAC coach—we can't really expect a head coach to jump to another job just because it's a "better" job.