Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 22 No. 12
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

‘Coach’ Crush

Explosion in college football staff sizes under review

In major college football these days, some head coaches have a chief of staff, there are programs run by a general manager, assistant coaches have assistant coaches, and support staffs number as many as 150 at the biggest schools.

Football staffers who used to be known simply as “Coach” now have NFL-inspired titles such as director of player personnel, player development, quality control, analyst and performance enhancement.

The next arms race in college football, it turns out, is being fought with ever-expanding support staffs that have become so bloated the NCAA is trying to crack down on their influence at practice and games. Only 14 designated coaches are actually supposed to be coaching, based on long-standing NCAA guidelines. Non-coaching support positions, though, are growing so large that they’re difficult to regulate.

The bottom line is that many in the sport believe the non-coaching positions are indeed coaching when they’re not supposed to.

“We’re concerned with the proliferation and the functions of these positions,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who chairs the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee.

First Look podcast, with football staff discussion beginning at the 9:35 mark:

The burgeoning size of the support staffs became a mainstream issue during the Alabama-Florida State season opener when ABC cameras showed 15 coaches and staffers in a crowded Crimson Tide press box. By comparison, Florida State, football royalty in its own right, had 10 coaches and staffers in its box, prompting announcer Chris Fowler to point out the football brain power these schools have amassed with their “endless resources.”

But in coaching circles, staff size and the creation of new positions, like the analyst, has been an ongoing issue for those trying to maintain competitive balance as well as those seeking an edge.

Judging by the University of Alabama’s football media guide, Nick Saban’s support staff has roughly tripled in the last decade, handling everything from recruiting communication to social media, data analytics and facilities.

With that growth across college football has come another layer of administration, jobs like chief of staff or GM, which didn’t exist just a few years ago but are now necessary to manage so many people. Bowlsby said some football staffs number as many as 150 people, counting student assistants, although many of those staff positions work on other sports in addition to football.

Support staffs include all personnel outside of the 14 designated coaches, and can range from strength coaches to dieticians and football administrators, as well as the latest trend — analysts. The analyst positions are not supposed to directly coach the players, but they can be part of the staff that game plans and scouts opponents — they are known as the assistant coach for the assistant coach. Alabama and Florida State have 10 analysts each, and some of them are veteran coaches who have been around the game for years.

Some schools are screaming that the football elite are gaining even more of a competitive advantage because they can afford to hire more people in these roles.

“We have very clear rules on who can coach and who can’t coach, and we’re basically ignoring those rules right now,” Bowlsby said.

■ ■ ■ ■

The growth and evolution of the football staff has prompted the Football Oversight Committee to work with the American Football Coaches Association on stricter regulations.

The NCAA doesn’t currently have rules on how many staffers can be in the press box during a game, but it is considering new rules that would limit how many headsets are active — six in the box and nine on the sidelines. The sidelines are supposed to be limited to 60 credentialed team personnel, but Bowlsby believes that rule isn’t being enforced, either.

Another proposal would require FBS schools to designate 30 individuals who would be allowed to participate in on-campus recruiting.

One change already on the books is the addition of a 10th position coach, giving coaching staffs 15 positions total — head coach plus 10 assistants and four graduate assistants.

The committee is not attempting to cap the number of analysts, just restrict their coaching contact with players. The AFCA is on board with the tighter standards.

The size of college football support staffs became a mainstream issue during an early season Alabama-Florida State game when ABC showed 15 coaches and staffers in Alabama’s booth and 10 in Florida State’s (below), prompting announcer Chris Fowler to cite the schools’ “endless resources.”

“Student athletes deserve as much help as the school can afford to give them,” said Todd Berry, the AFCA’s executive director and former head coach at Louisiana-Monroe. “The downside is the way it affects competitive fairness. It skews others’ ability to be successful. A lot of coaches feel the pressure to make sure they’re keeping up with the Joneses.”

As far as anyone can tell, Alabama, under Saban, was the first program to add coaches and call them “analysts.” Saban brought on Dean Altobelli as an analyst in 2010 and since then the Crimson Tide has added nine more analyst positions and filled many of them with seasoned coaches, like Dan Werner, who was offensive coordinator at Ole Miss when the Rebels twice beat Alabama.

Other schools have followed suit by hiring additional support staffers to help with coaching and recruiting, not wanting Saban to gain a competitive edge, but most still don’t have the Tide’s numbers.

A survey of the 65 power five schools for the 2017 season showed that only Boston College doesn’t have an analyst position and most schools have three to five (see chart). Schools in the SEC average more analyst positions than other conferences.

Most analysts are young, up-and-coming coaches who grade players’ performances and help the team prepare for the next opponent — pretty routine entry-level duties.

It’s the high-profile coaches, like former head coaches, coordinators and NFL assistants, who draw the attention when they turn up as an analyst at a big football power.

Auburn’s support staff features longtime offensive coordinator Al Borges, South Carolina has veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on its staff of analysts, and Notre Dame’s analysts include Jeff Quinn, the former head coach at Buffalo. Sonny Dykes, fired as head coach at California last year, resurfaced this season as an analyst at TCU.

Several more analysts have filtered down from the pro ranks, like Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder at Oklahoma State, New York Jets quarterback coach Kevin Patullo at Texas A&M and New Orleans Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon at LSU.

“It continues to grow and I don’t know where the end is,” said Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director who was deputy AD at Alabama around the time this trend took off. “Analysts are not supposed to be coaching, but you look in the booth and there’s 14 people and they all have headsets on. That’s how you get started with allegations.”

■ ■ ■ ■

Bowlsby’s group currently is conducting its own survey to determine support staff size and expenses for FBS programs.

A report last year showed that the Crimson Tide’s spending on non-coaching positions in football had increased from $837,000 to nearly $3 million in the decade from 2006-15.

Ray Anderson, athletic director at Arizona State, has worked for NFL clubs and the league office. In his four years at ASU, he’s seen college football staffs grow to the point that they resemble the NFL staffs he used to be a part of.

“It’s becoming a big problem because of the cost and the sheer size,” said Anderson, who serves with Bowlsby on the Football Oversight Committee and chairs the NCAA’s competition committee. “How are programs going to keep up? There’s an ever-increasing cost to being competitive.”

Theoretically, schools can hire as many analysts or consultants as they can afford, as long as those positions don’t instruct the players. These analyst jobs typically are filled by veteran coaches who no longer want to recruit, recently fired coaches trying to get back on their feet, or up-and-coming coaches looking to build their résumé.
Analysts, in addition to scouting and video work, also can sit in on coaches meetings and strategy sessions, so it’s clear to see how more analysts create a competitive advantage for the schools willing to invest in the position.

“Having the analysts handle game prep, film study or other duties that traditionally fall on the position coach, it allows them to be more efficient with their time and be more directly involved with the student athletes within the NCAA’s allowable hours,” said Greg Byrne, Alabama’s athletic director.

Saban has been especially critical of any restrictions that would limit the analyst role. Pay for most analyst positions starts around $40,000 a year and goes up to around six figures. In some cases, analysts are still being paid by their previous school after they had been fired.

“We have the fewest number of coaches, per athlete, of any sport in college,” Saban said at a press conference earlier this year. “People that complain about staff sizes … we pay interns very little money. You’d be surprised at how cheap the labor really is. It’s almost criminal. Why you have administrators complaining about cheap labor, trying to promote the profession. … I guess it’s the paranoia about what somebody else is doing and how much it costs, but other schools can do it, they just choose not to.”

■ ■ ■ ■

The evolution of the game also has spawned nontraditional positions for personnel with nontraditional football backgrounds.

Gerrod Lambrecht, chief of staff for Central Florida coach Scott Frost, ran a health care company in Indianapolis before joining his high school buddy at the Orlando school.

At LSU, Austin Thomas is one of the few college administrators with the GM title, a term used almost exclusively in professional sports. Thomas, who never played or coached the game, earned his masters from Tennessee in sport management and now oversees the day-to-day operations and personnel within LSU football. The Tigers hyped him as the first collegiate GM in the country when he was given the title last year.

And at least two college football staffers came out of the ministry to join support staffs.

Sean Pugh, Purdue’s director of player development, was pastor at two churches from 2010 to 2016 before joining Jeff Brohm’s staff to work with the players on everything from character development to Bible studies. Likewise, Rev. Charles Jackson, who has the same title at South Carolina, is pastor at New Laurel Street Missionary Baptist Church in Columbia, a role he has retained since joining Will Muschamp’s staff last year.

Positions like that would have been a luxury in the not-too-distant past. But now a director of player personnel or character development, as some schools call it, is commonplace in the power five.

“There’s a huge burden on football to be successful because it does so much to support the enterprise,” said Dave Hart, the former AD at Tennessee who previously worked at Alabama and Florida State, and now consults with athletic departments. “All of this is part of the investment schools are making in football.”

While the support staff grows in new and intriguing directions, the NCAA for now seems locked in on managing the analyst positions that have attracted so many more coaches into these new roles. The bigger football powers, such as Alabama and Florida State, list as many as 10 analysts on each of their staffs, LSU has eight and others in the SEC employ seven. In other conferences, schools mostly list three analysts — one each for offense, defense and special teams.

The NCAA, meanwhile, is trying to create a level playing field, while every big-spending football program in the country looks for an edge.

“A lot of what we’re seeing mirrors the commitment and investment the NFL has made — the explosion in staff size, the growth in administration,” Hart said. “It is a trend but it can only be implemented by those institutions that have the resources to support that kind of growth.”

’Bama’s Nick Saban says, “We have the fewest number of coaches, per athlete, of any sport.”