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April 20, 2013
Saban's support staff big part of Alabama's process
TUSCALOOSA | On Tuesday, the University of Alabama's support of the football program was further validated with a series of pay raises for Crimson Tide assistant coaches that keeps them among the best-paid in the profession.
But support for coach Nick Saban's three-time national champions comes from both above and below.
A vast team of help commonly referred to as the support staff performs a variety of tasks that help keep the Crimson Tide's football engine running, and UA has made a committed investment in that arm of the program as well. An open-records request by The Tuscaloosa News for a list of UA employees tasked solely to football revealed 24 non-coaching personnel, not including graduate assistants, set to earn an aggregate total of $1.6 million this year.
And like anything else in college sports, the way champions do things is copied by others. The size of support staffs in college football are on the rise among the schools with the necessary resources.
Support staffs around college football can assist in a number of different ways. Some are involved, under certain NCAA restrictions, in recruiting efforts. Others may help with game preparation, team travel operations, player development and more.
UA coach Nick Saban said support staffers in multiple roles contribute in a variety of ways, from operations director Joe Pannunzio's organization of the team's trip to the White House this week, to what Saban called "the best medical staff in the country," to the work of academic counselors who help improve student-athlete academic performance "that doesn't get talked about enough."
Saban also commented on recruiting efforts being fine-tuned.
"You can waste a lot of time. I can spend three hours watching a player, or I can spend 10 minutes watching a player, and see just as much, if somebody takes the time to put the right plays together. That's a lot of work," Saban said. "We've probably evaluated 500 players this year, maybe more. I've probably evaluated 500 players. The rest of the staff probably evaluated twice that many to say 'These are the guys you should look at.' It really takes a lot of work."
Russ Callaway, a member of the UA support staff last year, had game preparation among his roles as a quality control analyst.
For players and fans, the day was done when the clock hit zeroes at Bryant-Denny Stadium last fall. For Callaway, it was just beginning.
"As soon as the game was done, we'd sprint over to the office and type everything in so all the coaches can get started on grading the film," Callaway said. "By the time they had watched the film at 2 p.m. on Sunday, we had the next opponent fully broken down so there was no wait time as far as getting them the breakdown books or reports that we always do."
Former intern George Helow, now at Florida State, likened the effort to an assembly line, with groups of support staff members working together on tasks to help the coaching staff not only prepare for upcoming opponents, but make corrections as well.
Two of the upper level roles on the support staff are the Directors of Player Personnel and Player Development. Former UA defensive coordinator Kevin Steele holds the player personnel role now, while former Vigor High coach Kerry Stevenson and Willie Carl Martin work in player development.
Kevin Sherrer worked in player development for UA last year.
"Day to day, I was there to support the players, help those guys with any kind of issues they had off the field," Sherrer said. "I was a laiason for the academic support staff, help them get the guys to and from, staying on class work, things like that."
Sherrer said he worked with defensive players, while Martin worked with offensive players.
"Once the season rolled around we had off the field roles in organizing practice, getting things together, breakdowns, people working on pushing information toward the on-field staff," Sherrer added. "It was multiple roles. From helping football ops, to helping with recruiting when people came in on weekends."
Saban said one key element to the success of Alabama's support personnel is that the players have trust in their ability to do their jobs well.
"The number one thing they do is, the players trust the people. The players trust the people," Saban said. "They trust Miss Amy (Bragg) in nutrition, they trust the medical staff, they trust everybody here. You can't have a good team if you don't have that."
In recent years, and even moreso in recent months, there has been a proliferation of stronger support staffs for college football coaches. In just a few months on the job, new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has hired Dell McGee, Chip Lindsey, and Brent Dearmon -- all previously high school coaches -- in off-field football roles.
Kentucky recently hired an additional staffer to help with recruiting. More such hires are expected.
Former Arkansas and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said that while he would like to see more equity across college football in the size of support staffs, he believes Saban has done a service to the coaching profession with the way he has handled his support team.
"If you look at what Nick has done, he's helped so many young coaches get jobs," Nutt said. "I have former players who want to get into the profession so bad. I would have to tell them, 'I don't have a spot for you.' They want it so bad they'll volunteer. I have to tell them, 'Well, there's no volunteer spot.'"
The Tuscaloosa News sent email requests to media relations representatives at every school in the Southeastern Conference asking how many employees each had tasked solely to football. More than half responded, with the numbers providing some interesting insight.
Support staffs at Georgia, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, for instance, reported support staffs similar in size to Alabama's, if not necessarily structured the same way. Others reported smaller staffs, such as South Carolina at 14.
While some support titles, such as director of player personnel, are common at many schools, others are more school specific.
And the tasks performed by a given staffer vary by school as well.
"There's not one set blueprint model. Not everybody has the same formula," Nutt added.
While support staffs are on the rise at some schools, others lack the means to grow their support help. NCAA rules limit schools to four on-field graduate assistants and no more than five strength coaches, though various other roles are not capped. Texas coach Mack Brown commented to reporters in February that he believes the NCAA will eventually cap the number of all support staff roles that a school can employ.
"There is not a limit right now on analyst or quality control guys. I think you'll see a limit put on that in the future; just my opinion," Brown said.
Similar legislation has been proposed before, and failed.
"It's complicated. Once upon a time we tried to limit it at the NCAA level, and we ended up getting sued and it cost us almost 100 million dollars to settle it. It's a very difficult thing to legislate," said Wright Waters, former Sun Belt Conference commissioner. "I think a bigger issue is what are they doing, as opposed to how many. If we're paying people for the sake of paying people., that's wrong. But if these people are actively engaged in making the game safer, making the game more competitive, helping players be better students, I'm not sure I've got a problem with it."
With a college coaching career that has jumped from Florida, to Illinois, to Southern Miss, and now to North Carolina, Tar Heels defensive coordinator Dan Disch has experienced support staffs at four different schools from four different conferences in a little over a decade.
"It's not even close," Disch said when asked if his support team at Southern Miss compared to what he has now at UNC. "But we're not even close to the next program up. ... We look like Southern Miss to the next level up. It's amazing when you go up the ladder, the difference."
Nutt said he would favor a limit to the number of support staffers a school can hire, but would prefer it be a higher numbers that schools with smaller resources could aspire to, rather than a lower number than would force layoffs.
"Not everybody can afford to put the same number of people to work, but I think there is a lot of merit to those positions," Nutt said.
The quality of a support staff isn't impacted only by its numbers, either. The quality of the applicant, and the salary required to attract the best candidates, factor strongly as well.
Decades ago, the best way to break into the college football coaching ranks was to begin as a head coach at the high school level. As the college football landscape evolved, working as a graduate assistant overtook the high school path as the quickest and best way to pursue the profession.
Support staff jobs may be next as the gateway of choice.
Former Alabama defensive back Kelvin Sigler once coached at Mobile Blount High, and now is the defensive backs coach at Northern Illinois. But he didn't go straight from one to the other -- he worked a stint in quality control under Saban in between.
Callaway left his analyst role at Alabama soon after the Crimson Tide's national championship win over Notre Dame. Today, he's the wide receivers coach at Murray State. Sherrer went from player development at UA to become South Alabama's defensive coordinator.
And that's not where the list ends.
"Step back and look at it from 30,000 feet. It's probably a pretty good thing for the profession globally, even if they're not actively engaged in coaching, on the field and making decisions, but they're around it," Waters said. "Then they move onto other positions, it probably improves the quality of the profession down the road. That's probably a good thing."
Senior Bowl director Phil Savage, who has experience in NFL personnel roles, said he believes support staff jobs at the college level will eventually attract NFL scouts.
"I think you'll see some scouts in the NFL say 'Instead of traveling 200 days a year, I'd rather go to X university and be part of a team and work from a campus," Savage said. "After the (NFL) draft, I think you'll see a lot of schools go after scouts to head up their entire recruiting departments."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.