ESPN's Alex Scarborough has a very interesting article today about the growing size of the support staff in the University of Alabama Athletic department and how that has led to the recent success of the school's sports teams, particularly football. According to the report, there are 146 non-coaches working in the department and between 2009 and 2011 the budget for them jumped 31.7 percent, to about $18.1 million.
How this helps Alabama's teams succeed is demonstrated by Coach Saban's "system" in the football program, Scarborough argues. Saban uses the structure of his support staff to maximize the effectiveness of his coaches.
The "system" is predicated on responsibilities. Each person knows his or her role and is accountable for seeing it through. While the games are being played on Saturdays, someone is cutting up game film for the next week's opponent, analyzing tendencies and strengths and weaknesses. Before assistant coaches ever lay eyes on some prospects, someone will have gathered film and packaged it into a highlight reel. Instead of having coaches work on responsibilities A through Z, the support staff is able to work ahead and cut down the to-do list, allowing coaches to focus on what's important.
So while the focus on how financial resources of a program are used tends to be on the salaries of the head coaches and their assistants, Scarborough rightly points out that there seems to be advantage for schools that fund a support staff that allows these personnel to do their jobs. Of course that means the NCAA is pondering doing something stupid.
In 2009 the Knight Commission surveyed college presidents nationwide and issued a report that specifically recommended that the NCAA should "limit the number of staff members assigned to a particular sport whose duties do not involve either academic support or health and safety, such as "directors of sport operations" and video personnel."
A year later the NCAA's Division I Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet proposed capping support personnel at four for I-A football teams, two for I-AA football teams and one each for men's and women's basketball teams. While the Knight Commission was concerned about the professionalization of college athletics, the NCAA seemed more interested in the unfair advantage such staffs gave larger schools.
According to the Birmingham News report at the time, the NCAA legislation would have affected nine Alabama off-the-field staff members such as the team's director of player development and recruiting operations coordinator (and not the lower-level staff described Scarborough's report). This proposal was on the agenda for last year's NCAA Division I Legislative Council and Board of Directors meetings but seems to have gone nowhere (if anyone has any information on this, we'd love to see it) and thank goodness.
Scarborough article lays out how these personnel and their staff are critical for allowing coaches to perform their jobs. A restriction on their number means the coaches would be forced to undertake those responsibilities again. That prospect runs face-first into the other recommendation of the Knight Commission -- restrict coaches salaries. We'll just assume their implementation policy is "work smarter, not harder."
Obviously, a policy group's recommendation and couple of articles on the topic over the past several years does not a NCAA jihad make. But it was exactly this kind of tortured logic that led to the demise of the athletic dorm two decades ago. And given we are talking about an institution that limits the size of football media guides in the name of "fairness," it's only a matter of time before they set their eyes on this issue. Forewarned is forearmed.