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Based on Callaway's description, it's possible that Alabama is bending an NCAA rule that states noncoaches may not partake in "activities involving athletics evaluations." (The NCAA confirms that only "the head coach, nine assistants and four graduate assistants" are allowed to "evaluate prospects, which would include viewing prospects' tapes.") Saban says analysts and administrative assistants have no input into which players Alabama decides to recruit—their work simply allows the program to cast a wider net. "Some of the younger guys, they don't really know a football player from a load of coal," says the coach. "But they know it's [jersey] number 1. So they put on a tape every play that number 1 is involved in.... I can watch a guy more efficiently because I'm not trying to find him on the film. The 50 plays I watch are the 50 plays that give you the evaluation you need."
Ali Smith, the defensive coordinator--recruiting coordinator at Gadsden (Ala.) City High, has helped shepherd players to schools as varied as Alabama and Yale in the past five years. Smith has noticed the explosion in staff sizes at bigger schools, but he says assistant and head coaches still do most of the heavy lifting of recruiting. The ancillary staff members, Smith says, call high school coaches to ensure players are making planned visits, coming to games or attending summer camps. "They do more of the confirming," Smith says.
With such busy work off their hands, coaches can concentrate on strategy and recruiting. Administrative assistants chart every rep in every drill. If, near the end of game-week preparations, Saban suggests a certain pressure to Smart, the coordinator can check how many times his defense has practiced that pressure. If the number seems insufficient, Smart might suggest something they've worked on more thoroughly. "Everybody thinks we're creating an advantage," says Saban. "But the only advantage we create is the efficiency in what we do and how we do it."
Skeptics wonder whether Alabama envy is causing other programs to go overboard. "The best way to emulate Nick is to get those big offensive and defensive linemen," says Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville. "If you don't have those, I don't care if you have 100 assistants, it's not going to make a difference."
This year Texas's Brown is serving as president of the American Football Coaches Association. Even though he has boosted his staff, Brown and the AFCA board of trustees drafted a proposal in April placing "limitations on coaching staffs and non-coaching staff personnel" for consideration by the NCAA. There is concern that FBS schools with smaller budgets than Alabama, Ohio State or Texas won't be able to keep up with the wealthy competitors. "If you don't have some parameters in place, you could eventually have a football staff member for every two or three [players], and I don't think that's healthy for the industry," says Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne. "We want to make sure we have resources at Arizona for all of our 20 sports."
Saban, not surprisingly, sees it differently. "Part of the reason I try to create lots of opportunities for a lot of young guys is that's how I got started," he says. "My college coach [at Kent State], Don James, wanted me to be a GA. If that hadn't happened, I'd have never been a coach."
The NCAA has tried to curb bloated support staffs. The Big East successfully pushed a measure through the NCAA last year that limits all teams to five strength and conditioning coaches. Because strength coaches are allowed to work with players year round, some schools were hiring position coaches for the role, gaming a loophole to get more coaching time with players. But since 2011 the NCAA Legislative Council has shot down five proposals to limit the number of noncoaching staff members, with proposed limits between five and nine. Critics saw the measures as unenforceable and disagreed over which jobs should be exempt from the total. Does, say, a coach's secretary count as support staff? If not, what's to stop a program from hiring 15 secretaries? "I don't think we should regulate how many [employees] and what their job titles should be," says Washington AD Scott Woodward. "If someone does something that's irregular or over the top, shame on the institution."
Even if the majority of FBS schools feel otherwise, it could take a year or more for new legislation to make it through the NCAA's maze of committees. In the meantime an industry full of hypercompetitive coaches is inundating recruits with letters and Facebook messages—and the more help they have doing it, the better.
When Dabo Swinney became Clemson's head coach in late 2008 the program had one support staffer. When he approached administrators about expanding the staff, "they looked at me like I had three eyeballs," he says. But today, the football program has seven people with director, assistant athletic director or associate athletic director in their titles—including former South Carolina head coach and Clemson offensive coordinator Brad Scott, who acts as a high school liaison. Still, Swinney feels he's lagging behind the competition. Beyond that, he knows it's even harder for FBS schools with smaller budgets than Clemson's. "It's not right to have a donkey running in the Kentucky Derby," he says.
The larger derby is ongoing, and it's unclear whether we're anywhere near the finish line. It's a great time to be a polo shirt manufacturer.