When Alabama switched offensive coordinators during last season’s playoff run, the Crimson Tide had an in-house solution. Steve Sarkisian, a former Washington and Southern California head coach stepped up from the support staff to help Nick Saban and Co. in the title game against Clemson.
Western Kentucky didn’t have that kind of luxury this year when offensive line coach Geoff Dart was diagnosed with brain tumors in October and underwent surgery, limiting his availability the rest of the season. The Hilltoppers relied on tight ends coach Ryan Mahaffey and graduate assistant Harris Bivin to pick up the slack.
Hilltoppers coach Mike Sanford shrugged off the notion that his school and other Group of Five programs are at a disadvantage because their Power Five counterparts have much bigger staffs.
“If you have, say, 20 people on your entire staff who know exactly what their roles are and do their roles incredibly well , I don’t think you need 35-40 people,” said Sanford, a former Notre Dame and Stanford assistant. “I think sometimes there might be a situation where there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and there are a lot of opinions and there can almost be diminishing returns as it relates to production.”
Still, the larger support staffs at Power Five programs give those schools a decided edge in recruiting and scouting. Sanford noted that larger staffs also give some Power Five schools a deeper bench of future coaching candidates or potential emergency fill-ins. NCAA rules allow each team to have nine on-field assistants — a 10th will be permitted starting next year — as well as four graduate assistants, but there’s no limit on how many people schools can have on support staffs.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the chair of the NCAA Division I football oversight committee, said earlier this year the panel has made it a priority to take a “deep dive” on staff composition. One proposal issued by the Division I Council in October involved requiring schools to designate 30 people who can participate in recruiting activities on campus. That list would include the head coach plus all on-field assistants and graduate assistants.
“There are some differences in terms of what programs can afford,” Bowlsby said. “It isn’t necessarily about trying to legislate equality, but if you have more guys looking at tape, there’s probably a pretty good idea you’ll get a better analysis on it.”
Power Five programs definitely have more people looking at tape.
For instance, Alabama’s staff directory lists eight analysts, two directors of player development, a director and associate director of recruiting operations, a director and associate director and assistant director of football operations, a director of recruitment, plus a director and assistant director of player personnel or personnel operations. They make a combined total of over $1.2 million, a sum higher than the head coach’s salary at most Group of Five programs.
For comparison’s sake, Mid-American Conference school Ball State has one director of player personnel for on-campus recruiting, one video coordinator and one chief of staff. Many Group of Five programs have graduate assistants doing jobs performed by support staffers at bigger programs.
Still, settling on a staff size in hopes of providing a more equal playing field is complicated.
“I think it’s hard to pick a number,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
Who fills these support staff positions at Power Five programs? Sometimes they’re people working their way up the coaching profession, but other support staffers have plenty of experience already.
One of Auburn’s analysts is Al Borges, a longtime offensive coordinator at several schools and a two-time finalist for the Broyles Award given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach. Other analysts include former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn (at Notre Dame), former Miami and Mississippi offensive coordinator Dan Werner (Alabama) and former San Diego Chargers, Boston College and Maryland assistant Kevin Lempa (Michigan).
Alabama’s support staff last year included Sarkisian as well as former New Mexico head coach and Maryland interim head coach Mike Locksley, who parlayed those spots into bigger roles (Sarkisian is now the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and Locksley is Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach).
Although NCAA rules prevent support staffers from off-campus recruiting and from providing technical or tactical instruction to athletes, there is still plenty they can do. Some break down film of opponents weeks in advance, giving the full-time coaches a head start on preparing for upcoming games. Others coordinate recruiting visits and communicate with prospects on social media.
Idaho coach Paul Petrino noted other benefits from his experience working as an assistant on bigger staffs at Illinois and Arkansas. Petrino doesn’t have full-time quality control coaches or analysts at Idaho, a Sun Belt program moving down to the Football Championship Subdivision next season.
“You have so much more guys helping in recruiting, writing recruiting letters, evaluating recruiting film that your position coaches can spend a lot more time with their players academically and spend more time with them one on one,” Petrino said. “It’s definitely beneficial for student athletes when you have more support staff.”
The question is how much is too much.
“In my opinion, is it beneficial? Yes,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said this summer. “Do I feel like there needs to be a limit on the number (of staffers) — does there need to be some sort of rule put into effect for that? Yes, I do. Some staffs have quite a bit more than others, and I think it’s getting a little bit out of hand.”
The differences can be found within conferences, too. Purdue has a smaller support staff than many Big Ten rivals. Kentucky doesn’t have nearly as large a staff as Alabama.
The NCAA would like to find a way to bridge that gap, but it’s tough to build a consensus on an ideal size for support staffs.
“I think there needs to be something to make it more equally competitive across the board, but nobody really knows how to rein that in and still be fair,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “I do think there’s room for additional personnel, but just in terms of what they do and how many you can actually have, that’s just a real tough conversation to find a spot that’s fair for everybody.”