HOOVER, Ala. (MCT) - When Bobby Petrino was a 14-year-old boy flipping burgers at the A&W restaurant in Helena, Mont., playing baseball with the rest of the boys wasn't an option.

Daddy said work. So every year, Petrino would succumb to odd jobs such as delivering produce, working the dock at a dairy or driving the milk truck.

Now he's making serious milk - $2.85 million a year's worth as the University of Arkansas football coach. And he feels great about it.

“My father always told me, ‘Reach for the top of the rainbow,'” Petrino said at last week's Southeastern Conference media days. “You can be as good as you want to be. You can do anything you want in the United States of America.”

The SEC's healthy salaries aren't reflective of America's struggling economy, but the 12 coaches are regular dudes with humble beginnings.

Sometimes that's difficult to believe when 12 tie-wearing football coaches account for more than an estimated $29 million that breezed through the doors of the Wynfrey Hotel last week.

Some salaries have increased almost eightfold from the days when Tennessee's Phil Fulmer made $300,000 a year in 1993. Now he makes $2.4 million, one of seven SEC coaches to surpass the $2 million mark.

Six of the top-11 highest salary earners in college football hail from the SEC, and with each dollar increase, the desire for winning rises with interest.

But it's not like LSU Coach Les Miles - worth a cool, crisp $3.75 million per year to lead all SEC coaches - wipes his forehead with $100 bills in front of the common folk.

“I'm embarrassed by it,” Miles said. “If I had my father alive, he'd say, ‘You're not worth it.' I'd say he's right.

“But how wonderful in this country that those things happen. And for our players going into the NFL draft, changing the income level of their family, I'm for a system of economies that allow people to ascend.”

So the real question is: Are they truly worth it?

Kentucky's Rich Brooks says yes, even if he doesn't fully understand how winning gained so much monetary value.

As a 67-year-old making $1.6 million per year, Brooks said the “shocking” salaries of him and his peers haven't changed his perception of coaching.

“Is it a little out of bounds? Yeah,” Brooks said. “But do we earn most of the money we make? I'd say, ‘Yeah, we do.' We're under pretty tight scrutiny, we're responsible for everything that happens - academics, filling seats, driving the engine.”

Brooks doesn't have to prove anything to his best defensive lineman, Jeremy Jarmon, who said players might have a less-critical perspective of their coach because they witness everything firsthand.

“I don't look at any of these coaches any differently because they make millions,” Jarmon said. “They have a job, and they are the best at their jobs. Their jobs are to make sure their program continues to be successful, so for that, they earn their money.”

Depending on the path of the coach, these millions are earned by reputations that take years, sometimes decades, to develop. Most have to start as graduate assistants.

It took Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom almost 30 years to crack the head-coaching community, and the years as an assistant weren't exactly flourishing.

Croom remembers making $14,000 per year as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant in the late '80s.

“I definitely do remember the days when I was broke,” Croom said. “I know what it's like to be worried about a paycheck. Having to raid my daughter's college fund to pay bills, I know what that feels like. I'm blessed I don't have to worry about those things now. Not because of anything I've done, but because I'm fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. That allows me to be the recipient of the good things of life, and I don't take that for granted.”