In college football, you can’t have too many assistant coaches

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and players enter the field for the first half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football playoff game against Washington in Atlanta on Dec. 31, 2016. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and players enter the field for the first half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football playoff game against Washington in Atlanta on Dec. 31, 2016. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) AP

Back when the ACC started, Maryland was a national football power under head coach Jim Tatum. His Terrapins were unanimously voted national champions in 1953, the ACC’s inaugural season, and posted a 73-15-4 record over his nine years at College Park. Then “Sunny Jim” jumped ship and returned to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina.

The intra-league move, a rarity to this day, proved not only distinctive but fatal. On July 23, 1959, after three seasons at Chapel Hill, Tatum, 46, died of what was diagnosed as a “rickettsial disease” believed to be tick-borne Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Tatum’s onfield success was attributed in part to superior organization and robust resources, including seven assistant coaches. That level of support caused Duke’s Bill Murray, a fellow Hall of Famer, to lobby school officials to allow him to hire a comparable contingent of assistants, parity he finally reached in 1960, still ahead of many peers.

More than a half-century later, the issue of staff size remains a sore point. In fact, the issue has flared recently with the introduction by Alabama’s Nick Saban of platoons of behind-the-scenes reinforcements.

“Saban changed the game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN last year. “He changed it for everybody, changed the whole model. And you see the results that they’ve had.” As in, four of the last eight national titles and a championship game loss to the Tigers to cap the 2016 season.

Now that virtually every ACC program has erected or is constructing an on-campus TV broadcast studio in anticipation of the 2019 start of the ACC Network; an indoor football practice facility; and a grandiose player lounge, tutoring, and/or conditioning center, the athletic arms race has shifted to building cadres of football personnel – a less permanent but no less tangible resource. NCAA rules allow FBS teams a head coach, nine assistant coaches and four graduate assistants, all authorized for hands-on work with players. The NCAA also sanctions five strength and conditioning coordinators. “That’s kind of where the labeling ends,” says Michael Strickland, the ACC’s Senior Associate Commissioner for football.

Beyond that lie “quality control” and other creatively christened positions, staff depth that threatens the aspirations of less generously endowed programs.

Legislation approved earlier this year by the NCAA Division I Council that set an early signing date and expanded flexibility for prospects to make official campus visits also provided a 10th assistant coach starting in January 2018. The recruiting changes drew gripes and muttering about “unintended consequences” from ACC coaches at the league’s Charlotte media kickoff earlier this month. No one complained about the cost of adding a staffer, however. Several coaches instead spoke covetously of all those suited aides on basketball benches, seemingly one assistant for every two players.

Dino Babers, trying to resurrect Syracuse football, shrugged off staff size as a concern. Not so divisional-rivals Dave Doeren and Dave Clausen. After declaring that “On any given day, you can beat anybody” in the ACC’s stacked Atlantic Division, Doeren insisted N.C. State was disadvantaged in comparison to perennial powers Clemson and Florida State. N.C. State has the second-smallest athletic income of eight public universities in the ACC, almost $25 million less than Clemson and $33 million less than FSU, according to figures compiled by USA Today. (Private schools budgets are hidden, exploiting a dubious exemption to public disclosure rules despite accepting public funds.)

Looking to Tallahassee and Clemson, which between them produced the last six ACC champions, the Wolfpack coach says plaintively: “They have a tremendously larger budget than we do. They have different things they can showcase in recruiting than we do. They have a lot more personnel working than we do. So there’s a gap.”

No kidding. Florida State, for instance, specifies 10 “quality control” staffers in its football media guide, six on offense. One assistant coach is called the recruiting coordinator, but he’s backed by a Director of Player Personnel, an Assistant Director of Player Personnel, a Coordinator of On-Campus Recruiting and a Recruiting Assistant. There are three video coordinators.

Clemson’s non-coaching reserves include a “Director of Football Coaching Technology” and Brad Scott, a former offensive coordinator at FSU under Bobby Bowden, serving as “Assistant AD, Player Development.” The Tigers have a senior offensive analyst, an assistant for defensive player development and a coordinator of football recruiting communications.

Keep in mind, N.C. State hardly operates with a skeleton crew. The football media guide lists two football operations staffers, three quality control assistants, four strength and conditioning coaches, four grad assistants, a six-member recruiting regiment and nine on-field assistants. Asked what he could address with more staff, Doeren goes global: “Campus visits. Scouting. Projects. Work load.”

Then, barely taking a breath, he reels off a litany of tasks he’d order filled if he could. “’I’d like you to go study the NFL red zone for me. Go take 16 games and give me a report on them. I’d like you to go look at all the recruits in the Tampa-Orlando area that are 6-5 and 240 pounds or bigger. Bring me a report on that. I want you to take all the North Carolina 2019 kids and write a report for me.’ When you’ve got 50 guys instead of five, it’s different, right?”

This backstage bonanza has landed on the agenda of the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee, which is also examining a 14-week season and bowl qualifying, among other topics. The staffing issue, and whether there should be controls, creates an interesting philosophical dilemma. Leagues such as the ACC thrive on equal sharing of TV, bowl and NCAA basketball tournament revenues, essentially a socialistic formulation. A standardized cap on staff size would be consistent with that approach. On the other hand, there’s a claim to be made that he who generates more of the swag should have more to spend and few restrictions on how to spend it. That’s how free-range capitalism works.

Finding the middle ground in that debate will be no simple matter. Coaches with fewer resources already perceived a lost edge. Asked if he favors a staff limit, Wake’s Clawson says: “If I worked at Wake Forest I’d say yes. If I worked at Clemson or Florida State I’d say no.”

Clawson likens the staffing disparity to building a house with 20 workers versus two. “There’s no catch up. These places just add positions and add positions,” he laments. “They’re able to do things that take burdens off their coaching staff. We’re on the low end of that. I think it should be uniform. They’ve established limits on everything else,” Clawson says of the NCAA, “except this. It would be nice to be on the same footing as everybody else.”

But according to Duke’s David Cutcliffe, another private-school practitioner, a staffing cap already exists. After detailing his program’s handsome behind-the-scene support – buoyed by Duke’s newfound financial commitment to football – Cutcliffe acknowledges it doesn’t rival those of the game’s big boys. “I don’t really begrudge that,” he says. “You spend on any business what you want to spend.”

Where staff matters most, Cutcliffe insists, is on the sidelines. There, the NCAA does dictate a “level playing field,” the organization’s competitive default. “Florida State can’t have any more out there than that,” says the 35-year college coaching veteran, reassured even if his less-seasoned ACC colleagues are not.