Nick Saban's model is coming under attack. It won't stop him from beating everyone
- If the NCAA changes its rules to cap the size of football staffs, it will only expose itself to costly lawsuits. It won't help teams compete with Alabama on the field.
DESTIN, Fla. — Nick Saban didn’t bring a soapbox issue with him to the SEC’s spring meeting, but the Alabama coach remained keenly aware that his way of doing business is about to come under attack by those who believe if they keep changing the rules on him, maybe he’ll stop winning so many games.
“A lot of the things that happen in college football—this is no disrespect to anyone—is there's a lot of paranoia that someone else has an advantage on someone else, whether it's a conference, whether it's one team versus another, whether it's one conference versus another,” Saban said this week. “So if we can sort of create some rules that sort of, some kind of way negate that advantage that somebody creates or pass a rule that creates some advantages for us … I think there's some of that that goes on.”
Saban knows some of that goes on. In fact, he’s one of the main reasons rules get created. This is the rare year when none of the rule changes were prompted by something Saban did. That won’t be the case next year, when a variety of NCAA committees will take up the issue of staff size in college football. That’s a direct frontal assault on Saban’s way of doing business.
Some of the rules changes this year were aimed at the man who has proven Saban’s equal at figuring out exactly what the rules will allow—even if he hasn’t won quite as many games. While covering the Big 12 meetings in Phoenix earlier this month, a coach in that league stood outside a meeting room and cracked “Half of what we talk about in there is because of Jim Harbaugh.” The rest, presumably, is because of Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. (Just wait until the Sun Belt Conference sponsors legislation to outlaw giant slides.)
When the Power 5 conferences got their wish to create rules for themselves, I wrote that hopefully it would force a new attitude in college sports. Instead of attempting to ban whatever innovations the smartest coaches developed, perhaps coaches and athletic directors would adopt a better approach. If you want to do something, great. If you don’t want to—or can’t—do it, that’s also fine. But after spending time at meetings for the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC this spring, it’s quite clear no one’s attitude has changed. The whining continues unabated.
The problem for all those who believe they can legislate parity into existence—and that’s most of the people in college athletics—is that no matter how many rules they make, it won’t make them smarter than Saban or Harbaugh or Meyer or Swinney. Whatever they decide, the best coaches in the business will adapt and keep the existing power dynamic in place. That’s why they need to ditch the staff size discussion before they waste an entire winter and spring on it in a few months.
Alabama has a huge staff. Each assistant coach has an analogous analyst—either a young coach trying to break into the business or a veteran living that buyout life—who provides another set of eyes as the coaches break down opponents, review practice video and create game plans. Another set of staffers works in the recruiting office, breaking down video into only the most digestible chunks so the on-field coaches can evaluate prospects in the most efficient manner possible. Some of these people also offer opinions on the quality of various recruits even though the NCAA officially bans anyone but the head coach and the nine on-field assistants from evaluating prospects. (This is the ultimate in stupidity. It’s quite silly to ban someone from having an opinion on a Hudl clip they watched, and it’s impossible to enforce such a ban.)
Does Alabama’s huge staff give it an advantage over opponents? Sure. So does its huge stadium and its decades of tradition. Other schools have followed suit, adding analysts and recruiting staffers. Former Alabama coordinator Kirby Smart is building a similar machine at Georgia. Former Alabama coordinator Jim McElwain began staffing up the moment he became the head coach at Florida. The Gators’ previous coach, former Saban (LSU vintage) coordinator Will Muschamp, had asked to expand his staff and met with resistance. In the Big Ten, Harbaugh has beefed up his staff. Tom Herman is bulking up his staff in his first year at Texas. One of his hires was creative director Matt Lange, who handles all the graphics Texas coaches send to recruits and post on social media. Where did Lange work before Texas? Alabama.
But not every coach has chosen to supersize his staff. One successful coach asked a few years ago for an explanation of Saban’s organizational chart. After hearing it, he said that would never work for his program. “I don’t trust that many people,” he said. Most coaches don’t feel that way. Most would hire a huge staff if their school had the money. But most of their schools don’t have the kind of money an Alabama or a Michigan has. And since the prevailing attitude in college sports is to ban anything that everyone can’t do, a lot of coaches and athletic directors want to limit staff size. They shouldn’t, though.
Some of the rules created in response to Saban’s tactics were necessary. The oversigning rules instituted by the SEC a few years ago have kept coaches from signing players—thus banning other schools from recruiting said players—for whom the coaches have no actual scholarship.
The rule made in 2008 that banned head coaches from hitting the road during the spring evaluation period was idiotic. It came to be because some coaches didn’t want to work as hard as Saban or Meyer, who was then at Florida. That rule should never have been made and should be repealed.
A staff size cap would be equally foolish and potentially much more expensive. If the schools band together and cap the number of staffers each football program can have, all they’ll do is eliminate jobs and expose the NCAA to costly lawsuits. The schools aren’t dealing with students this time. They’ve enjoyed the latitude to collude and cap the compensation athletes receive. But the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t have to rule in this case that the affected parties are employees or potential employees. The support staffers absolutely are employees in every sense of the word. If the schools collude to cap this particular labor market, someone is getting dragged into court and probably coming out with a lot less money.
The schools have tried this sort of thing already. In the 1990s, they created what they called “restricted earnings coaches” in various sports to keep schools with more money from hiring all the best assistant coaches. So for certain positions, schools could pay the coaches no more than $16,000 a year. Some coaches filed a class action lawsuit, claiming that a group of competitors (the schools) had colluded (by voting 305–23 to make the NCAA rule) to create a wage ceiling. And that’s exactly what the schools had done. The NCAA lost in federal court and then agreed to drop its appeal and pay $54.5 million to the affected coaches.
The same thing could happen in this case. This would be different from the Individual Associated With a Prospect rule the NCAA just passed. That rule bans schools from hiring a parent or coach of a recruit to a support position within two years of that recruit signing with the school. In that case, if a school really wants to hire that parent or coach, it still can by hiring the person to one of the 10 on-field coaching positions. That rule also doesn’t keep any other schools from hiring that coach or parent to a support position. A staff size cap, on the other hand, would create a finite number of positions in college football. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday that he would leave any sort of antitrust questions “to the lawyers,” but common sense suggests that would be a pretty clear-cut case of competitors colluding to cap a particular labor market.
Common sense also suggests that if the schools did make a rule, the smarter coaches would simply figure out another way to do what they wanted within the parameters of the rule. Saban, Harbaugh, Meyer and Swinney would still be smarter than most of their competitors, and they would still win more games than most of their competitors.
So hopefully the coaches, athletic directors and administrators who serve on the various NCAA committees that intend to study staff size will heed this piece of friendly advice. Stop trying to beat Saban in the boardroom. It won’t keep him from beating you on the field.