Large staffs give edge to big schools

Originally Published: June 13, 2012
By Alex Scarborough | ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Doug Nussmeier arrived at the University of Alabama campus in January, he was struck by the machine-like efficiency of the athletic department. The swath of crimson-accented employees acts like a tiny colony of bees, buzzing in unison, working toward a singular purpose.

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
UA Athletic PhotographyDoug Nussmeier did not expect the large and organized staff structure when he arrived at Alabama.

There are 146 non-coaches who work in the university's athletic department. There are nine individuals who work under athletic director Mal Moore alone. There are positions that range from your run-of-the-mill secretary to titles such as assistant director of player personnel and recruiting operations coordinator.

Each has his or her purpose in the grand scheme of things -- what Nussmeier called coach Nick Saban's "organizational structure."

"He's so detailed in preparation," said Nussmeier, who enters his first season as the Tide's offensive coordinator. "To have that structure in place and be able to come into a situation where you're able to integrate into the system and not create the system, it's been a huge advantage for me."

When Nussmeier decided to leave the University of Washington for Tuscaloosa, he married into the "Saban system" as much as the coach himself.

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.

Since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, the amount of money paid to the support staff and administration has risen steadily. From 2009-11, the salaries and benefits paid to support staff have gone up 31.7 percent, an increase of $4,366,308, according to figures obtained by ESPN.

When Moore was asked how he felt about his return on investment, his answer was as succinct as it was matter-of-fact: "I think our record in recent years says it all." The Crimson Tide have won two national championships in the past three years and figure to begin the 2012 season ranked in the top five. That success has caused others to take notice and follow suit.


Playing the numbers game

Last Thursday, the University of Georgia finalized a contract extension for coach Mark Richt. While Richt made roughly $2.81 million last year, that's only 21.9 percent of what UGA paid its support staff and administration as a whole.

The Bulldogs ended last season competing for the SEC title and earned a bowl berth. This season, they figure to impact the league even more.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is entering his third season with the Bulldogs. He too received a contract extension after a solid campaign last season. The UGA defense ranked fifth in the nation, thanks in no small part to a support staff that includes several dedicated graduate assistants and interns, Grantham said.

Grantham said he works roughly 100 hours a week as it is. Take away the staff around him, and he might never see the outside of his office on the UGA campus.

"There's a lot of guys that work behind the scenes in the preparation part, in the video part and then in the recruiting aspect, too," Grantham said. "There's no way that one person can do all that."

As is the case with Alabama, the Georgia coaching staff uses the support staff to its advantage, working in the background to create a competitive advantage.

"Let's say that Week 1 we're playing Buffalo," Grantham explained. "While we're doing that game plan, [the support staff is] working on the next opponent. That way when I come in on Sunday, I have a book in front of me that has the depth chart, their favorite formations by personnel, what kind of personnel they run, has their runs drawn up, their passes drawn up, has a tendency section. I can have the identity of this team within 25-30 minutes."

Grantham went to Athens after time as the defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys and defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. He said that colleges have caught on to the way NFL organizations structure their personnel and have replicated it on campuses across the country.

"People mimic each other," Grantham said. "The game has gotten so precise and so detailed that it forces people to do those things to stay up with everybody."

Building the structure

At North Texas, Dan McCarney is playing catch up. In his second season leading the Mean Green, the former University of Florida defensive line coach is trying to build a solid structure to support his plans for the future of the North Texas program.

[+] EnlargeDan McCarney
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireThere are a lot less people around Dan McCarney in North Texas than during his time in Florida.

At Florida, he had a support staff at his fingertips that rivaled any program in the country. In Denton, Texas, he has less than one-sixth of that budget ($3.5 million) for his support staff and administration, a difference of $18.2 million.

"At Florida it was like it is at Alabama," McCarney explained. "[Urban] Meyer loved having a lot of people around, whether it's another set of eyes, another set of feet, two more hands, two more opinions. We had lots of people, whether it was helping in the weight room, whether it was the recruiting office, whether it was just the front office meeting and greeting people and sending a message about Gator Nation."

McCarney remembered the sheer volume of the staff at Florida fondly, laughing as he recalled the interview process.

"The first time I actually went into the offices, the introductions seemed like they were endless," McCarney said. "It wasn't just the defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, strength coach. It was all those other people that help out. For me, it was really neat to see."

The support staff pays off immensely in the recruiting process, McCarney said. Since coaches aren't allowed to have direct contact with recruits during unofficial visits, it's the job of others to show them around the campus and make a positive impression. At Florida, McCarney recalled having recruits chauffeured around in an oversized golf cart by, "good young people that have a loyalty and a love for the university."

"I learned a lot from my time with Urban," McCarney said. "But that's one thing that you can't help but impact you from a positive way by getting more young people, more young guys involved and give them a chance. And then it's really neat to see them mature and flourish."

At North Texas, McCarney is trying to foster the same environment he witnessed firsthand in Gainesville. Working on a limited budget, McCarney has had to rely on interns to lend support where possible.

"Interns helping in recruiting, interns helping our director of football operations, interns helping work the front desk," McCarney said, rattling off a laundry list of areas of need. "Here we don't have the budget to pay our interns, so it's strictly voluntary."

But there's another side to having a large staff: There's not always safety in numbers.

As McCarney understands, with each new responsibility you place in the hands of an employee, the circle widens and the opportunity for mistakes grows. The NCAA is always watching, and whether it's a head coach or a random member of the support staff, they represent the university, and if someone commits an infraction it's the university that's ultimately responsible.

"You have to be smart about it," McCarney said. "The rules and regulation and compliance have to be very communicative. The last thing you want is some innocent person that's moved into your staff help out breaking some rule or jeopardizing your program over something they weren't educated on."

So far, those instances have been few and far between at programs such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The larger the staff, the more precise it is, and the more prepared it is for what lies ahead.

And until something changes to shake that mindset, bigger will always be better.

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter