Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez has an interesting theory for why the SEC is able to outspend the Big Ten and other conferences on salaries for football coaches and coordinators.

Here’s what the legendary former coach said Tuesday in response to LSU’s hiring of former Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

“The reason they can go up higher (in the SEC) is they’re not supporting as many sports,” Alvarez said. “It’s a difference in philosophy. The Big Ten is known for being more broad-based in its sports offerings. We are committed to supporting a broad-based athletic program. People may dismiss that, but it’s a real thing. They can sink more of their money into football.

Indeed, according to Wisconsin’s website, the average SEC school supports 18 varsity sports, as opposed to 23 for the average Big Ten team. Wisconsin has 23 varsity sports, while LSU has 19. But is that the real cause for dramatic disparities in coaches’ salaries?

Coaches’ salaries are often cited as a reason Big Ten football has fallen behind the SEC in recent years. Wisconsin saw first hand the power of SEC money when Bret Bielema left Madison for Arkansas in 2013. Bielema made $3,954,166 in 2015 according to USA Today, making him one of at least 12 SEC coaches to earn at least $3.5 million (Because Vanderbilt is a private university, we don’t know how much Commodores coach Derek Mason makes).

By comparison, Wisconsin paid its current head coach, Paul Chryst, $2.3 million this season. Only five Big Ten coaches earned more than $3.5 million this season.

The discrepancies are large for assistant coaches as well. The four highest-paid assistants in college football all worked in the SEC in 2015 and the highest paid assistant in the Big Ten ranks only 14th nationally, according to USA Today.

Alvarez’s point about Big Ten schools having more sports and therefore less money to spend on coaches has some merit, but it seems unlikely that a few extra sports explain the entire difference in the conference’s salaries for football coaches. The differences in assistant salaries aren’t just a dollars around the margins: Aranda got $520,000 from Wisconsin in 2015, but will collect in $1.3 million to do the same job he had before. Were the Tigers really able to more than double the coach’s salary just because they don’t have a rowing team? Unlikely.

Wisconsin (which happens to be the only Big Ten school without a varsity baseball team) has an operating budget of about $113 million this year, according to Madison.com. Spending an extra half a million dollars to retain a rising star coordinator is a matter of willingness, not ability. Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten, with its rabid fan-bases and wildly successful television television networks could spend big on assistant coaches if they wanted to.

In fact, major Big Ten programs would probably kill a non-revenue sport before willingly sacrifice wins on the football field. That they choose not to pay assistant coaches higher salaries may have to do with an old-school set of values or a belief in “doing things the right way” or an over-emphasis on stadium renovations, but it’s probably not about how many sports they play.

[UW Badgers]

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports, MLB.com, SI.com and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.