Top 10 bang-for-the-buck coaches

These three coaches rank among the best values in college football. Icon SMI

Head coaches' salaries went through the roof, oh, about six or seven years back. They have escalated with, notably, Mack Brown, Les Miles, Nick Saban and Bob Stoops raising the bar for one another in excess of $3 million, $4 million and now $5 million. Those top-shelf coaches are being paid somewhere between $3.75 million and $5.2 million a year.

But there is still some value out there. Perhaps it's only a matter of time until the bargain coaches have their paydays too, but some schools are getting a lot for their money in the interim. In a couple of rare instances -- Joe Paterno, all issues related to his dismissal aside, was making about $1 million in salary at the time of his ouster -- they have for a long time. But most of these coaches are up-and-comers climbing the ladder.

Here is a list of the 10 best bang-for-buck coaches in college football:

(Note: Salary information courtesy USA Today salary database, published in November 2011. Any contracts that have been extended or altered since that time have been reflected via various attributed documents and reports.)

1. Chris Petersen, Boise State Broncos

Salary: $1,525,000

Just because Boise has ascended as a program doesn't mean its budget has followed suit, at least on a relative scale. The football budget is currently in the neighborhood of $9 million, according to Idaho Statesman columnist Brian Murphy's research.

While a chunk of that goes toward Petersen, he isn't exactly scampering off to claim a bigger paycheck. The pending move to the Big East could free up more money for the budget -- and Petersen -- but who knows if the Broncos will actually make it there?

Petersen's results -- 73-6, including two Fiesta Bowl victories and four AP top-10 finishes in six seasons -- are just plain silly. He'd be a value for twice as much. He'll earn his money this season, after the team lost six draft picks and veteran QB Kellen Moore.

2. Chris Ault, Nevada Wolf Pack

Salary: $438,952

Who, some might ask? Those in the game know Ault's name, without question. The 226-game winner is one of two active coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame. The other is 85-year-old John Gagliardi, he of the gaudy record at Division III Saint John's in Minnesota.

Ault, the author of the pistol offense, has been at Nevada since 1976, when it was a Division II school. He stepped aside to solely serve as the school's AD from 1995 until the Wolf Pack joined the WAC in 2004. Then he wanted back into coaching.

The program had been to five bowls to that point; it has currently been to seven straight, under Ault, 65, with the new tie-ins. Who would understand the demands of the budget like Ault, who was the AD for nearly two decades? And so Nevada gets quite the deal at a half-million bucks or so.

3. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech Hokies

Salary: $2,280,000

The salary is high compared to some of the others on this list, but you have to consider what he has done and what coaches of Beamer's ilk -- the 65-year-old has won 209 games and four ACC titles and has taken Virginia Tech to high-payout BCS bowls -- are making.

Look where some younger coaches, some who have had success and some who have yet to, are: Wisconsin's Bret Bielema is at $2.6 million, for comparison. Florida's Will Muschamp, entering his second season, makes $3.2 million a year.

Beamer, in Blacksburg since 1987, has always been a heck of a bargain -- and especially in the current marketplace. Coaches everywhere respect Beamer, personally and professionally. The Beamerball calling card, special teams and defense, is revered in the coaching world. "You almost become numb to how good they are every year," one Big 12 coach said this summer.

4. Mario Cristobal, Florida International Golden Panthers

Salary: $497,183

Cristobal has been courted pretty doggedly the past two offseasons, including recently by Pittsburgh and Rutgers. For now, FIU has a great coach at a great price.

A 2010 document from the school had the entire athletic department budget at $19 million for its 17 sports, so there's obviously not a ton of cash to throw at its coaches, Cristobal included.

The former Miami tackle was coaching the Hurricanes' offensive line and tight ends when he got the call about FIU in 2006. He took over a program that had only been in existence since 2002 and had gone 0-12 in 2006. After slogging through a 1-11 season in 2007, the Golden Panthers won five games the next year and have been to bowl games the past two seasons.

At 41, Cristobal is known for his fire and intensity. He'll be elsewhere soon enough, cashing a bigger paycheck.

5. Art Briles, Baylor Bears

Salary: $1,549,396

Briles is a "Texas guy" through and through. He's perhaps as close to a real-life version of "Friday Night Lights" coach Eric Taylor as there is. Briles coached East Texas high school ball from 1979-99, spent three seasons as Mike Leach's running backs coach at Texas Tech, ran his own program at Houston from 2003-07 and then landed in Waco.

It's the kind of story that has some coaches in awe of Briles, who in 2011 led the Bears to a 10-win season and inspired a future Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III to go to Baylor. A new riverside, on-campus stadium is in the works, as well.

"I know he had Griffin, but, shoot, you don't win in that place," one of his peers said this week. "You don't get a stadium built in that place. That's all him."

Briles could get overtures from bigger programs in the near future -- some are already wondering why Texas A&M didn't give him more of a look -- but, for now, he's money well spent.

6. Troy Calhoun, Air Force Falcons

Salary: $889,095

Forget about Calhoun, who has been at the service academy since 2007? He has had a few schools express passing interest -- Tennessee being one of them, before it went with Derek Dooley -- but nothing to pry him from Colorado Springs.

Restricted by entrance requirements and all that's asked of a student-athlete at the academy, you have to tip your cap to Calhoun, whose teams have averaged 8.2 victories a season and have been to a bowl every year during his tenure.

Who knows how long he'll be there? He was an NFL assistant in 2003-06, so there's always a chance he could return to the pro level. And if he continues to win, someone will surely want a smart, young coach.

Calhoun, just 45 and a former Air Force QB, understands where he is and actually makes a decent wage, all things considered. But any coach making less than a million and winning at that clip has to be thought of as a steal.

7. Paul Rhoads, Iowa State Cyclones

Salary: $1,151,500

Don't judge Rhoads' 18-20 record in three seasons too harshly. You try convincing high school kids that Ames, Iowa, is where they want to spend 3-5 years of their lives. Don't forget that Gene Chizik went 5-19 there in two seasons -- and then won a national title at Auburn two years later.

Rhoads has taken the Cyclones to bowls in two of his three seasons, and the talent pool seems to generally be headed in the right direction. And he is one of the lowest-paid coaches at a BCS school.

Rhoads' name regularly comes up for openings at more prestigious schools, though he appears dedicated in his first head-coaching job. When other coaches are asked which coaches they respect, his name is often one of the first to come up in conversation.

8. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia Mountaineers

Salary: $1,650,000

West Virginia had better enjoy this while it can. According to a document from the school, Holgorsen received a backloaded contract when he came on board initially as the offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting.

Next year, the salary increases to $1.9 million, to $2.15 million the year after that, $2.4 million in 2015 and $2.65 million in 2016. That's still not too bad, given his first-year results (Orange Bowl win), but it illustrates that's a sweetheart of a base deal, and it seems like one that could be renegotiated at some point if the results hold.

Holgorsen learned his wide-open system from, among others, Leach at Texas Tech and Kevin Sumlin at Houston. He was the offensive coordinator at Tech and later at Oklahoma State. All that intel figures to translate well now that the Mountaineers are moving to the Big 12. Holgo's brand, as well as his salary, is on the rise.

9. Frank Solich, Ohio Bobcats

Salary: $476,349

This is from the breathing-life-into-your-career file. Some in Lincoln still haven't figured out why the longtime Nebraska assistant was canned after winning 58 games as the Huskers' coach from 1998-2003. (Note to coaches: Don't follow Tom Osborne, or someone like him.)

Solich didn't swear off coaching, though. He has won 50 games at Ohio since 2005, which is celebrated in Athens as opposed to being cause for dismissal. Solich was paid about twice as much at Nebraska, but that was before the "new math" for BCS-level head coaches.

A half-million bucks per year for a coach who has taken the MAC school to three consecutive bowls isn't too bad.

10. David Shaw, Stanford Cardinal

Salary: n/a

With Andrew Luck at quarterback and arguably the best offensive line in the country in front of him, few new coaches are offered a situation as tailor-made as the one Shaw stepped into a year ago.

Still, with that went the pressure of adhering to the level of success that Jim Harbaugh had found on the Farm. And Shaw did, getting the Cardinal into a BCS game in his first season.

Because Stanford is a private university, Shaw's salary isn't publicly available. But if our recon is accurate that Shaw makes less than Chip Kelly at Oregon ($2.8 million), Jeff Tedford at Cal ($2.3 million), Steve Sarkisian at Washington ($2.25 million) and Leach at Washington State ($2.25 million), then the Stanford boss is a bargain for the Cardinal.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose team got past Stanford in overtime in the Fiesta Bowl, said he couldn't help but notice how solid the Cardinal roster was from top to bottom, not just Luck. That is why there is a feeling the program will not fall all that far after losing the NFL's top overall pick. Recruiting and development have been strong areas with Harbaugh's and Shaw's staffs.

Shaw is proof that sometimes promoting is the way to go, keeping the hiring cost lower while maintaining continuity.