Alabama, elite programs sneaking in coaching experience at GA level
Nick Saban hired former UVA off. coordinator Mike Groh as a graduate assistant
Critics worry elite teams are expanding their braintrusts by exploiting a loophole
Proponents like Saban insist the NCAA can't prevent a hire from earning a living
Like so many professionals who lost their jobs this past year, Mike Groh accepted a severe pay cut and steep slide down the organizational depth chart when he signed up for a new gig. But unlike a CPA's shift to a retail tax preparer, Groh's re-entry into his chosen field has ruffled some of his colleagues' feathers.
Groh, 37, spent the past eight seasons as an assistant coach at Virginia. From 2006-08, he served as offensive coordinator. During a December staff shakeup, Virginia head coach Al Groh fired his son. The younger Groh landed at Alabama, but not as an assistant coach. This season, he'll be a graduate assistant.
At Alabama, Groh, who still receives money from Virginia, will take graduate classes and earn a salary comparable to a Starbucks barista. But he'll also be allowed to coach players on the field, and that has coaches and administrators concerned. They worry elite programs are exploiting a position typically used to provide an aspiring coach entry into a competitive field to augment their already substantial coaching braintrusts.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has heard that criticism, but feels no need to defend hiring Groh, a move well within NCAA rules -- at least for now. "He's going to graduate school," Saban said. "He didn't have a job. He should have an opportunity to work. We're not violating any rules."
The number -- and qualifications -- of people who coach on the field in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision was a hot topic at conference meetings this year. The NCAA's recruiting and personnel issues cabinet discussed the issue this week at a meeting in Newport Beach, Calif., and it likely will remain a discussion point through the next NCAA legislative cycle. In addition to the graduate assistant conundrum, coaches and administrators also worry richer programs can bloat their staffs with interns and other personnel. This, some fear, will further widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. And the bigger the staff, the greater the risk of violating the NCAA rule that allows only the head coach, nine salaried assistant coaches and two graduate assistants to coach players on the field.
"Some have the resources to do whatever they want in terms of video guys, trainers and strength coaches, and that's fine," ACC associate commissioner Michael Kelly said. "More power to them. ... Really, the field is what we want to zero in on the most."
But not all under Kelly agree. Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich, the ACC representative to the personnel issues cabinet, briefed league coaches last month on the cabinet's discussion of the issue last winter. Radakovich found a rapt audience. "Our coaches were already kind of worried about this," Kelly said.
At Tennessee, former NFL defensive tackle Chester McGlockton works as an intern. At Florida, former NFL tailback Terry Jackson serves as director of player and community relations. At South Florida, Stephen Bird, who has worked as an assistant at Pittsburgh, Kent State, Tulane, Middle Tennessee State, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Bowling Green, recently joined the Bulls' staff as an offensive graduate assistant. In addition to two on-field graduate assistants, Michigan's 2008 media guide lists two defensive quality control positions, two offensive quality control positions, a special teams quality control position, a recruiting coordinator and a recruiting operations assistant.
No one has accused the above programs of breaking any rules. However, many coaches and athletic directors -- particularly at schools that can't afford to hire specialized staff members and multiple interns -- view those positions with suspicion.
Last month, SEC coaches asked their athletic directors to consider adding two more on-field graduate assistants to alleviate worries about who could offer football instruction and who couldn't. Saban, who supported the proposal, said the move would offer more opportunities for minority coaches to enter the field. "Personally, I'd like to see us be allowed to have more GAs on the field to be able to develop coaches," Saban said. "I think we should be doing more to develop minority coaches, and I think that's one of the ways you could do it. ... We seem to take no responsibility for that in the NCAA. We're much more about restricting size."
SEC athletic directors and presidents disagreed. They shot down the proposal to add graduate assistants and suggested forwarding legislation to the NCAA to close what they consider a loophole that allows experienced coaches to accept graduate assistant jobs. Under the SEC's proposed rule, aspiring coaches would be able to serve as a graduate assistant for seven years after receiving their first bachelor's degree or exhausting their NCAA eligibility.
But that rule, and any other that restricts employment opportunity, might not stand up to a legal challenge, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said. "I don't think you can restrict what an institution can do from a hiring perspective," said Hamilton, the SEC's representative to the personnel issues cabinet. "So that's problematic." As for the other staff positions, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, a former attorney and judge, pointed to the NCAA's 1999 settlement which restricted coaches' earnings when he warned any rule limiting salary probably would not hold up in court. "The last time the NCAA tried to restrict earnings, they settled the lawsuit for the nice, tidy sum of [$54.5 million]," Slive said. "The law does allow for limitations on the number of coaches. But the antitrust laws do not allow you to interfere with somebody's ability to earn a livelihood."
For Alabama's Saban, that point matters most. He helped spark this discussion by hiring Groh, but he doesn't feel responsible for ending it. "We wouldn't cut out the right to work anyplace else," Saban said.
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