ATHENS – Kirby Smart can walk out of Georgia football practices and ask for feedback from Jay Johnson, who’s not an assistant coach this year but used to be a Big Ten offensive coordinator. Or Smart could turn to Scott Fountain, who was an SEC special teams coordinator last year.
When there’s a player wellness issue, Smart can turn to Jonas Jennings and Fernando Velasco, two former Bulldogs now on the team’s support staff. And if Smart, in his second year as a head coach, wants to talk someone who knows what it’s like to be in that chair, he could call in Mike Cavan, a former head coach at SMU and Valdosta State.
The exact number of support staffers employed by Smart’s football program is hard to pin down, partly because not every hire is publicized, and partly because it’s ever-evolving. Someone else may have been hired in the time it took to read these first few paragraphs.
Smart explained the rationale last week while attending SEC meetings.
“I certainly think that if you look at a player to staff ratio, football is easily the most under (staffed),” Smart said. “Because we’ve got 130 (players). It’s hard to manage 130 guys when you’re talking about class, off field, behavioral issues, everything. I mean, just support. So we need the support that we have.”
While the support staff is certainly bigger than it ever was during the Mark Richt era, Smart is only keeping up with the trend around the SEC. Especially at Alabama, Smart’s former school.
And the rest of the country has noticed too.
‘What are these people going to do?’
The NCAA has done preliminary research on staff sizes, as legislation is considered to curtail it. But at SEC meetings last week in Destin, there was a definite pushback to the idea of a hard limit. Commissioner Greg Sankey said it was important to look at the roles of support staffers, not the amount of the on each team’s staff.
NCAA rules currently allow a head coach to employ nine full-time on-field assistant coaches. (A 10th one will be allowed starting next January). Those assistant coaches and the head coach are the only ones allowed to recruit on the road. There can also be four graduate assistants, the only other personnel allowed to coach during practice or games. There can also be up to five members of a strength and conditioning staff.
But outside of that, major college programs have been adding staff. They often get nebulous titles such as quality control, director of player personnel, director of player development, or analyst. This past season UGA’s media guide included a director of football operations (Josh Lee), director of player personnel (Marshall Malchow), director of on-campus recruiting (Lukman Abdulai), assistant director football operations (Jay Chapman), director of player wellness (Bryant Gantt), two player relations coordinators (Olten Downs and Bakari Guice), and four different quality control staffers … among others.
It’s all legal per NCAA rules, but they’re prohibited from recruiting, coaching on the field. UGA athletics director Greg McGarity, a skeptic a few years ago, said: “Any position that we have here needs to be justified. … What are these people going to do?”
But even Georgia eventually relented, even before Smart arrived. When Jeremy Pruitt – a former Alabama support staffer – was hired as Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2013, Georgia’s support staff began to expand. (Richt had indicated he wanted to expand his staff even before Pruitt arrived.)
Then Smart was hired as head coach last year, and while it hasn’t appeared to go to Alabama levels, the support staff has definitely increased. Cavan was already with the school, but in some cases it’s just been Smart wisely grabbing a coaching free agent: Johnson, who was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, was out of a job in January. Fountain, who had been Auburn’s special teams coordinator and tight ends coach, was demoted to an off-field role after last season.
Smart, talking before Fountain’s hiring became known, explained Johnson’s role in relation to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“(Johnson is) a great idea guy, and he’s been around the game,” Smart said. “Chaney gets to spend more time with our players, but Jay gets to spend more time studying other teams and what they do, and more changes in college football.”
‘It’s hard to pick a number’
Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne, who was hired away from Arizona earlier this year, comes into a program that has set the national standard for hiring support staff. Nick Saban is renowned for bringing in coaches looking for work – Steve Sarkisian among them last year – or hiring high school coaches in off-field roles, who eventually work their way into a full-time role. Pruitt is among those who went that route, as is current Georgia outside linebacker coach Kevin Sherrer.
Byrne said he thinks the way Saban has “structured our program” is borne out in the results over the years.
“You always have to recognize that you have to work within the resources that you have at the university,” Byrne said. “And so you have to pay attention to that. And at the same time what gives you the opportunity to have the most success on the field, in the classroom, and supporting your student-athletes is important as well.”
Byrne also said that “at the end of the day we’ll do what’s best for the University of Alabama.” Which reflects the thinking around the conference, and as long as schools in the SEC are flush with funds, they are unlikely to relent to any national pressure to curtail the hires.
It’s possible that the support staff hires could be curtailed by a new NCAA rule for football, which prevents teams from recruiting someone with a relationship (including coach-player) with someone on your staff in a non-coaching role. It’s a rule that has existed in basketball for about a decade, but which football coaches protested vehemently.
Either way, it’s the law now. But it’s also likely that when it comes to hiring people they think can help, SEC coaches will still find a way.
“I think it’s hard to pick a number,” Smart said. And I think that’s why we’re all talking about it. It’s like are there four teams in a playoff, or are there eight teams. So where does that number go?”