The ever-expanding college football coaching staff and how Nick Saban started it all

Nick SabanChris Graythen/Getty Images

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A Florida support staff member paces near the 50-yard line, staring across the field of the Georgia Dome. It's December and the SEC Championship Game will begin in an hour -- No. 18 Florida vs. No. 2 Alabama. Players from both teams warm up, yet it's not an athlete who has this young, up-and-coming coach's attention. He looks over at the opposing sideline and marvels at the size of the crimson-clad throng of coaches at Nick Saban's beck and call.

Florida is outnumbered, again.

It's no less shocking than a week earlier, he says, when he was struck by the disparity in the number of coaches when they hosted Florida State to end the regular season. But instead of Saban, it was former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher who had a king-sized support staff at his disposal, a flood of graduate assistants, analysts, quality control and player personnel-types.

Of course they weren't the reason Florida lost to its in-state rival by three touchdowns -- only the head coach and nine assistant coaches participate in the execution of the game -- but there was no escaping this staffer's belief that manpower had something to do with each program's standing. They'd go on to lose to Alabama, too, and afterward the thought of doing more with less felt antiquated and impractical.

It's wild to think about, a behemoth like Florida being behind anyone in terms of resources, but there's some truth to it. There's an arms race taking place in college football that has even the most distinguished of programs feeling as if they're a step behind. And you can thank Saban for not just being ahead of the curve, but throwing the first curve to begin with.

Fast-forward four months and Jim McElwain is in his office on the Florida campus, slouched in a chair with his feet resting on a coffee table. He explains why he made expanding the support staff a priority when he was hired late in 2014, but he's not bullish on their current numbers. "We're far from having as many as a lot of people have," he says.

Not counting nine assistant coaches, there are 20 people listed in the staff directory, including directors of football administration, player personnel, player development and external communication. There are three graduate assistants, three quality control coaches and three program assistants. One such program assistant -- a role that typically goes to coaches breaking into the profession -- is Bret Ingalls, who was hired this offseason after spending the past seven years as a running back and offensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints.

"They're in there grinding right now," McElwain says, motioning to a room down the hall.

Asked specifically what some of his support staff are up to, he wonders, "What day is it?"

"It's Thursday, right?" he says. "So they should be on Kentucky, which is Game 2, on certain parts -- red zone or personnel groupings."

Let that sink in for a moment: It's one of the slowest days of the offseason, all the assistant coaches are on the road recruiting and Florida has a team of employees, including at least one NFL vet, breaking down an opponent they won't see for months. It seems like a luxury to have such specialized talent, yet McElwain insists he doesn't have the manpower of other programs. And he's right. Watch the sideline before an Alabama, Florida State or Ohio State game and you'll see more team-issued polo shirts than you can count.

USC employs a Chief of Staff, Tennessee a Sports Technology Coordinator, Penn State a Special Teams Recruiting Assistant for Quality Control. The titles are products of creative human resources departments, but the thought process is simple and powerful: more bodies equals more wins. As long as the NCAA won't restrict the number of non-coaching personnel, there's nothing stopping the arms race.

The desire for more man power is met by seemingly unlimited budgets. There's no such thing as being over-qualified anymore. These days you can't find a perennial top-25 program without a fully stocked staff, while traditionally second-tier programs are pushing to expand theirs. Tom Herman, who made his name as offensive coordinator at Ohio State before becoming head coach at Houston, said if the budget were there, "I'd take an army."

Florida's army includes a 24-hour recruiting department, and Nebraska's a former NFL general manager. Michigan's army supplies the resources for Jim Harbaugh's nationwide satellite camp tour, and Alabama's resources are such that coaches rarely attend camps and yet they're all covered.

Why would Florida bother to stick some poor soul on the recruiting graveyard shift, monitoring social media feeds? To McElwain, it's obvious.

"Why? Because we all want to win, right? And we can, right? And if you're not, someone else is," he says. "Like I said, if you're not willing to evolve and you get comfortable in what you're doing then you get passed by."

* * *

It started with Saban's arrival at Alabama. Four national championships later, everyone is playing copycat.

Looking at the college game through the lens of his time in the NFL, Saban beefed up the Tide's organizational infrastructure, adding bodies to the personnel department and bringing in accomplished coaches to lend a hand wherever possible.

Getting an accurate number of everyone working in the Mal Moore Athletic Facility is difficult -- in 2012, there were 146 non-coaches on the athletic department payroll -- but a few big names stand out over the past few years. For instance, when McElwain was offensive coordinator, he had former Power 5 offensive coordinators Mike Groh (Virginia) and Billy Napier (Clemson) on his staff. Kevin Steele, who had been a head coach at Baylor, served as director of player personnel in 2013. The next year, former Washington assistant and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi joined the staff as an analyst. This year, former Maryland O.C. Mike Locksley will hold a similar position.

"We learn things all the time from other people, how they do things," Saban said. "We're always looking for a better way, and everybody is responsible for that. So when you have the opportunity to get somebody like Mike, they bring a lot to the table. ... He'll have some ideas that will contribute to what we're doing in a certain segment systematically. There are a lot of benefits in bringing somebody with his experience aboard."

Saban disciples have followed suit, whether it's McElwain at Florida, Fisher at Florida State or Kirby Smart at Georgia. Former Saban assistant Will Muschamp has already made noticeable changes to the staff at South Carolina. Retired Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier told XM Radio recently, "I don't know how many they've got, but ... we've got about 12 more than when I was there, in one year."

The rest of the college game has taken notice. In late April, The Seattle Times reported that former Cal coach Jeff Tedford was in talks with Washington about becoming an "offensive consultant." In late June, Ohio State confirmed that it had hired former Kentucky coach and longtime NFL and college assistant Joker Phillips as an offensive quality control coach.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley said, "I don't know when Nick started it like he did, but since that time we've seen a number of people added to staffs."

This offseason, the Cornhuskers upped the ante, adding former St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney. Devaney started with the title of Chief of Staff but landed on Executive Personnel Director and Special Assistant to the Head Coach. Essentially, he won't coach a down, but he'll be Riley's eyes and ears in the building. Total cost: $300,000 per year, according to reports.

Already Riley said he has seen their relationship pay off. When Riley reviewed tape of spring practice, Devaney was by his side, picking up on second-stringers who "can help us and play 15-20 plays a game." In recruiting, Devaney has begun the process of overhauling the language the staff uses in evaluations. Now it's number- and color-coded. Looking over a sheet Devaney put on his desk a few days ago, Riley started with the rare Blue-9 prospect and worked down from light blue to red to light red, green, purple, orange, black and pink.

On and on it goes, each program trying to outdo the other. Just last month, Michigan State announced it hired former Detroit Lions interim general manager and vice president of pro personnel Sheldon White as a program consultant.

"Saban changed the game," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He changed it for everybody, changed the whole model. And you see the results that they've had."

* * *

Texas recruiting coordinator Brian Jean Mary couldn't imagine doing his job without a support staff behind him. If he did, there would be no sleep.

The simple act of evaluating film of recruits would take up his entire day. Then he'd have to steal a few hours for communicating with prospects. Then he'd have to find a few more hours for staying on top of social media activity. And somehow in the middle of all that, he'd need to remember to squeeze in some time to fulfill the other part of his title: linebackers coach.

So it's up to the support staff to be their eyes, ears and extra set of hands.

"You name it and you have someone there helping you," Mary said. "They're our information source."

Before any Texas coach sees tape of a recruit, it passes through the support staff. A report is filled out and height, weight and track times are documented. If there's anything redeemable about the prospect, coaches want to hear about it, Mary said. For instance, they're trained to look for defensive backs who play both ways because defensive coordinator Vance Bedford believes it leads to better ball skills -- "Instead of making a pass-breakup they can make an interception," Mary said.

And that's to say nothing of the recruiting courtship that follows.

Social media has allowed for constant contact with recruits, making around-the-clock staffing a priority. There are emails, daily mailers and graphics to send out. Finding out what's on a prospect's mind is as simple as monitoring his social media feed.

Tennessee recruiting coordinator Robert Gillespie said that it's "no different than an NFL team having a marketing department."

"While we're in meetings, doing X's and O's, you've got to have a think tank of people that are constantly on the internet, looking at things that kids are into and finding new ways to attract kids," Gillespie said.

Of course someone has to put those ideas into action, and that's where even more hired guns come in. The latest trend: graphic designers. No knowledge of the 3-4 defense required.

Although Matt Lange and Tony Turnquist fall under the banner of Crimson Tide Productions, their Twitter bios read "Director of Football Creative for the Alabama Crimson Tide" and "Alabama Football Assistant Director of Graphic Design," respectively. Together, they produce stylized and sophisticated graphics targeting recruits, touting everything from Saban's record as a head coach to his history of getting players to the NFL. A favorite hashtag of theirs: #BuiltByBama.

You could argue their role is small, but Alabama remains the gold standard in recruiting, with top-three finishes in the ESPN class rankings every year since 2008. When Alabama received its championship rings following last season, Lange and Turnquist were given the same hardware as players and coaches.

Smart, who served as Alabama's defensive coordinator since 2008, thought so much of their work that shortly after he was hired as Georgia's head coach this offseason, he went to athletic director Greg McGarrity for approval to create a graphic designer position on staff. The Bulldogs already had an estimated 35 people on the payroll, but no one dedicated to reaching prospects through what Mary refers to as "visual eye candy."

"They're football recruiting positions, but they're not football positions," Smart said. "Those people, they don't know the ins and outs of football. They know the ins and outs of making edits."

As staffs have grown larger and more complex, the lines between what a coach is and isn't have become blurred. Everyone plays a role, and sometimes the most interesting work is being done nowhere near a football field.

"Every school is trying to take advantage of support staff every way they can," Smart said. "What role can they play? What role will the NCAA allow them to do? Try to maximize those benefits."

* * *

Ever since the dawn of football, coaches have been obsessed with filming practices and games for review. Thousands of hours are spent pausing, fast-forwarding and rewinding frames of their own team and future opponents, not to mention scouring tape of recruits they get from high schools.

Joe Harrington, who has been at Tennessee for 26 years now, is one of those film gophers. He sets up cameras, uploads the video and makes sure it gets into the right hands. He takes in all the recruit highlights and feeds them into the system, too.

But now, instead of working largely on his own, he has a handful of assistants, some of whom are full time. And with underlings taking care of some of the grunt work, it has freed him up to work on more ambitious projects befitting his title of Sports Technology Coordinator. In 2013, he got a drone to film practice. This year's pet project: virtual reality.

Instead of buying the tech from an outside company at a considerable cost, Harrington created his own version during his free time, reading through chat rooms and scouring the dark corners of the internet for tips.

"I was like that guy trying to build his own Ironman suit, I kept running into wall after all," he said. "... When it finally worked, it was one of the most professionally satisfying things I've ever done.

Now, when Tennessee starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs takes a snap during practice, there's a camera set up right beside him, capturing everything. When practice is over, his backups put on goggles and take virtual reps: a 360 degree vantage point that gives them the ability to turn their heads right and left to see where the rush is coming from and what routes are being run.

Those extra reps could, in theory, make the transition to in-game action smoother. And all because of support staffer who majored in communications and never played a down of college football.

* * *

Mark Stoops remembers his "a-ha moment." It was right around the time he first got to Florida State. Fisher had just taken over as head coach for the retired Bobby Bowden, and there was a mandatory meeting for the entire staff.

What first struck Stoops was just how many people were in the room. Then Fisher got angry.

"There were some things leaking out of the building," Stoops said. "And Jimbo was going on a rampage."

Fisher looked around at everyone. Stoops, who was defensive coordinator at the time, said there was someone behind Fisher whom he turned to and shouted, "And you!"

Only there was a pause.

"He didn't even know who he was," Stoops said, laughing.

"We were just building it," he said. "But that's when it struck me, that a-ha moment that, 'Wow, we have a lot of people working here.' And I say that in a good way."

Now, Stoops, who has been head coach at Kentucky since 2013, has a large staff of his own. This year he found his offensive coaches were so cramped in their offices that he had to turn over the team staff room so they could meet as one. That won't be a problem with the new football facility, which is under construction, and will be able to handle twice as many people.

But it raises the question: Is bigger really better?

Former Wisconsin coach turned athletic director Barry Alvarez doesn't necessarily think so. He told ESPN that he has "strong feelings" about the number of football-specific staff at some FBS programs.

"Sometimes you can get too many guys involved," he said. "I don't know how you keep track of responsibilities and hold people accountable when you have so many of them around."

For some, the growing number of football personnel represents an unfair advantage created by those with deeper pockets.

Former Texas coach Mack Brown told CBS Sports he wanted to curb the 38-50 member staffs because "it's too big to be fair to everybody because all we would be doing is letting those that have money and those that will spend that money in football getting ahead of others."

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who joined the NCAA Oversight Committee this year, would like to see a limit on the number of staff but less restrictions on what each staffer is able to do.

"It's hard to see parity in the nature of what college football is," Mullen said matter-of-factly. "It's not set up that way."

Of course not everyone agrees there's a problem.

Swinney, the Clemson coach, says he thinks having a great support staff is "awesome for our players."

"They want you to be accountable for your players, but then they want to complain when you have a good staff in place to help you do that," he said. "I've never understood that argument. You can't run Nike the same as you run Joe's Mom & Pop Shoe Store. It's just a difference, and it's always going to be that way. You can't run East Carolina the same way as the University of Alabama. It just is what it is."

He added: "We're fortunate. Just like when you make certain money, OK, well, I can afford a five-bedroom house instead of a two-bedroom house. At the end of the day, they're both houses, and they're both serving the purpose, but I made a little more money so I'm going to get the five-bedroom."

McElwain isn't for spending money just to spend it, but he's not going to back off adding to the staff when he sees a need, either. People would be amazed by the workload, he said.

The idea of having a Chief of Staff was brought up to McElwain and a staffer in his office chimed in, asking whether a program would still have a Director of Football Ops in that scenario.

"Oh yeah, they do," he said. "That's actually very common."

McElwain continued, listing other positions: "Director of Player Personnel, Director of High School Relations, Director of On-campus Recruiting, Director of Player Development. Director, director, director."

McElwain paused for a moment, ready to make a point.

"But ultimately, no matter what it is, it all stops on that desk," he said.

Two months later, Alabama moved another desk into its football offices. Former Philadelphia Eagles Vice President of Player Personnel Ed Marynowitz was looking for work, so Saban created a new position for him: Associate Athletics Director for Football.

The rich get richer every day.

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