On a wall outside of Ohio State's football meeting room, a pair of framed team photos celebrate the program's 2002 and 2012 undefeated seasons. The shots are virtually identical—100-plus players in scarlet uniforms spread among five rows of risers in an end zone of Ohio Stadium. But in the older photo, one row of staffers in white polo shirts—coaches, trainers, equipment managers, etc.—stands behind the players. In 2012, that group takes up two rows. Over 10 years, the program's support staff nearly doubled, and it now includes such formal-sounding positions as director of player development, high school relations director and director of player personnel. Head coach Urban Meyer stands apart from the pack in the bottom left corner of the frame. "My staff that I enjoyed the most was at Bowling Green [in '01]—nine assistant coaches, a couple of [graduate assistants], one strength coach, and that was it," he says. "Now, our staff meetings, we have all these chairs in our room." Not that he'd turn away the extra help. "We can't be put at a competitive disadvantage," he says.
Having spent the last decade perennially one-upping each other with $5 million head-coaching salaries, high-tech locker rooms and weight rooms the size of a city block, the latest college football arms race is playing out in programs' staff directories. While NCAA rules strictly define the number of coaches that can instruct players on the field (the head coach, nine assistants and four GAs), there are no limits on how many people can help behind the scenes. Over the past few years—and this off-season in particular—the nation's richest programs have loaded up on these largely invisible but invaluable figures, some with job titles lifted straight from the NFL and others known by the vague descriptor of analyst. Most deal primarily with recruiting. Although they can't call, write or visit prospects, they can field calls, contact high school coaches, maintain databases and set up visits and camps. "In the last year, you've heard more head coaches say, 'He's going to join our recruiting department,' " says Pete Roussel, publisher of the industry news site CoachingSearch.com. "Three years ago, there was no such thing as a recruiting department."
Other staffers break down game and practice tape and handle tedious but helpful special projects. (One such request from Meyer: "List in order our most efficient run [plays] last year against teams that run the 3--4 [defense].") Meanwhile, titles like player development coordinator might be cynically viewed as code for babysitter. "You've got 125 to 130 players a year, and coaches are gone so much," says Texas head coach Mack Brown. "You'd like to have people that have coached be around them on a daily basis."
Previously, a coach might have handed out a low-paying, entry-level office job to a former player trying to break into the business. Now, bolstered by revenue from the boom in conference television contracts, many athletic departments are ponying up for legitimate salaries. "We've seen a shift in the last two years to, Let's hire the best possible guy," says Roussel. Last winter, an NCAA proposal that would have lifted restrictions on noncoaches' contact with recruits likely accelerated the trend. Alabama coach Nick Saban hired his onetime defensive coordinator Kevin Steele—a former Baylor head coach—as player personnel director. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hired three veteran high school coaches from the region for off-field positions. Arizona State's Todd Graham hired longtime LSU aide Sherman Morris and gave him the title of assistant athletics director for recruiting. And though the proposal has been suspended, the hiring hasn't abated.
June 10, 2013
The off-season's most notable convert, however, is Texas's Brown. Despite working for the nation's richest athletic department ($163.3 million in revenue in 2011--12), Brown's staff had remained relatively lean. "When I would hire [assistants] from other schools, they would come in and say what those teams were doing," he says. "I realized our personnel support was not up to the same levels."
This spring Brown hired Patrick Suddes, formerly a Saban staffer with the Miami Dolphins and at Alabama, to be his first player personnel director. He also hired an assistant to Suddes (Justin Wright) and, as a "football analyst," longtime Texas high school coach Bob Shipley, father of former 'Horns receiver Jordan and current receiver Jaxon. Suddes, 31, is essentially an on-campus recruiting coordinator. Shipley's role is more football-centric, primarily self-scouting and evaluating the 'Horns defense, but his connections to Texas high school coaches don't hurt. "We're more organized," says Brown. "We're getting out a lot more information. We're generating more enthusiasm about our program."
It's no accident that Brown plucked Suddes from Alabama, the program that Brown said in February is "ahead of all of us with the number of personnel they've hired." After Saban's program won three national championships in four years, the entire sport is chasing it. That starts with copying a model inspired by Saban's tenure as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to '94. Belichick had a farm system of bright, young and usually low-paid grunts that helped the organization run more efficiently. They included future NFL G.M.s Phil Savage and Scott Pioli and future head coaches Jim Schwartz and Eric Mangini. "Bill's philosophy was, Get the right young guys and try to grow them in the organization," says Saban, who did the same at LSU and has expanded the program at Bama.
According to the Tuscaloosa News, last year Alabama employed 24 noncoaching individuals devoted solely to football (not including graduate assistants) and pays them a combined $1.6 million. Some handle off-field issues such as discipline, while others deal with the minutiae of down-and-distance. As recently as 2009 there was no one on Saban's staff with the title of analyst; last year there were nine.
Many analysts have moved back and forth between off-field and on-field duties, including receivers coach Billy Napier, a former Clemson offensive coordinator who in 2011 took an analyst job at Alabama. One current analyst, Joe Palcic, was formerly Indiana's co--defensive coordinator. Some of these coaches are simply between jobs or looking to get off the field and cash in on their recruiting prowess.
Russ Callaway, now Murray State's receivers coach, took an analyst job at Alabama in 2011 following his playing career at Valdosta State. He says that in Saban's organization every coach was unofficially paired with his own analyst or grad assistant. Callaway, the son of former UAB head coach Neil Callaway, worked primarily with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. While Callaway's main duty was game prep—marathon days spent breaking down opponents' tape, in and out of season—he was also a researcher on recruits. If, for example, Smart heard about a promising 10th-grader, Callaway would seek out video of the player on YouTube, write a report and pass it along to the player personnel people (who themselves employ student assistants to cut up the highlights). Says Callaway, "It was so machinelike, how we had it set up."
Based on Callaway's description, it's possible that Alabama is bending an NCAA rule that states noncoaches may not partake in "activities involving athletics evaluations." (The NCAA confirms that only "the head coach, nine assistants and four graduate assistants" are allowed to "evaluate prospects, which would include viewing prospects' tapes.") Saban says analysts and administrative assistants have no input into which players Alabama decides to recruit—their work simply allows the program to cast a wider net. "Some of the younger guys, they don't really know a football player from a load of coal," says the coach. "But they know it's [jersey] number 1. So they put on a tape every play that number 1 is involved in.... I can watch a guy more efficiently because I'm not trying to find him on the film. The 50 plays I watch are the 50 plays that give you the evaluation you need."
Ali Smith, the defensive coordinator--recruiting coordinator at Gadsden (Ala.) City High, has helped shepherd players to schools as varied as Alabama and Yale in the past five years. Smith has noticed the explosion in staff sizes at bigger schools, but he says assistant and head coaches still do most of the heavy lifting of recruiting. The ancillary staff members, Smith says, call high school coaches to ensure players are making planned visits, coming to games or attending summer camps. "They do more of the confirming," Smith says.
With such busy work off their hands, coaches can concentrate on strategy and recruiting. Administrative assistants chart every rep in every drill. If, near the end of game-week preparations, Saban suggests a certain pressure to Smart, the coordinator can check how many times his defense has practiced that pressure. If the number seems insufficient, Smart might suggest something they've worked on more thoroughly. "Everybody thinks we're creating an advantage," says Saban. "But the only advantage we create is the efficiency in what we do and how we do it."
Skeptics wonder whether Alabama envy is causing other programs to go overboard. "The best way to emulate Nick is to get those big offensive and defensive linemen," says Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville. "If you don't have those, I don't care if you have 100 assistants, it's not going to make a difference."
This year Texas's Brown is serving as president of the American Football Coaches Association. Even though he has boosted his staff, Brown and the AFCA board of trustees drafted a proposal in April placing "limitations on coaching staffs and non-coaching staff personnel" for consideration by the NCAA. There is concern that FBS schools with smaller budgets than Alabama, Ohio State or Texas won't be able to keep up with the wealthy competitors. "If you don't have some parameters in place, you could eventually have a football staff member for every two or three [players], and I don't think that's healthy for the industry," says Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne. "We want to make sure we have resources at Arizona for all of our 20 sports."
Saban, not surprisingly, sees it differently. "Part of the reason I try to create lots of opportunities for a lot of young guys is that's how I got started," he says. "My college coach [at Kent State], Don James, wanted me to be a GA. If that hadn't happened, I'd have never been a coach."
The NCAA has tried to curb bloated support staffs. The Big East successfully pushed a measure through the NCAA last year that limits all teams to five strength and conditioning coaches. Because strength coaches are allowed to work with players year round, some schools were hiring position coaches for the role, gaming a loophole to get more coaching time with players. But since 2011 the NCAA Legislative Council has shot down five proposals to limit the number of noncoaching staff members, with proposed limits between five and nine. Critics saw the measures as unenforceable and disagreed over which jobs should be exempt from the total. Does, say, a coach's secretary count as support staff? If not, what's to stop a program from hiring 15 secretaries? "I don't think we should regulate how many [employees] and what their job titles should be," says Washington AD Scott Woodward. "If someone does something that's irregular or over the top, shame on the institution."
Even if the majority of FBS schools feel otherwise, it could take a year or more for new legislation to make it through the NCAA's maze of committees. In the meantime an industry full of hypercompetitive coaches is inundating recruits with letters and Facebook messages—and the more help they have doing it, the better.
When Dabo Swinney became Clemson's head coach in late 2008 the program had one support staffer. When he approached administrators about expanding the staff, "they looked at me like I had three eyeballs," he says. But today, the football program has seven people with director, assistant athletic director or associate athletic director in their titles—including former South Carolina head coach and Clemson offensive coordinator Brad Scott, who acts as a high school liaison. Still, Swinney feels he's lagging behind the competition. Beyond that, he knows it's even harder for FBS schools with smaller budgets than Clemson's. "It's not right to have a donkey running in the Kentucky Derby," he says.
The larger derby is ongoing, and it's unclear whether we're anywhere near the finish line. It's a great time to be a polo shirt manufacturer.
Keep up with the Something to Prove series, and look for features on TCU and the situation at Rutgers at SI.com/mag
For 2013, Bama's support roster runs to 24, including seven analysts and many former coaches
Previous: Miami assistant; Murray State coach
Previous: Grad assistant to Saban; Michigan State student manager
Previous: Baylor coach; Clemson, Alabama defensive coordinator
Previous: Ole Miss coordinator of recruiting development; offensive coordinator at St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile
Previous: Alabama staff intern
Willie Carl Martin
Previous: Coach at Benjamin Russell High in Alexander City, Ala.
Previous: Coach at Vigor High in Prichard, Ala.
Previous: Alabama staff intern
Previous: Lawyer at Miller Canfield; played at MSU
Previous: Arkansas offensive lineman and grad assistant
Previous: Jacksonville (Ala.) State offensive coordinator
Previous: Indiana co--defensive coordinator
Previous: Jacksonville Jaguars offensive assistant and scout
Previous: Northwestern (La.) State special teams coordinator/tight ends coach
Previous: Alabama defensive back and student assistant
STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING
Previous: New Orleans Hornets strength coach
Previous: Green Bay Packers and Alabama defensive lineman/center
Previous: Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Alabama defensive tackle
Previous: Alabama intern; assistant at Jesuit High in New Orleans
Previous: Assistant at Stanhope Elmore High in Millbrook, Ala.
Previous: Held same role since 1980
Previous: Indianapolis Colts video assistant
Previous: Master's candidate at Alabama's sports management program
Previous: Murray State and Georgia Southern video coordinator