Mike Locksley spent the winter of 2016 in coaching exile, awaiting another chance.
Little did Locksley realize it would lead to the biggest opportunity of his career, though the path back to the field would begin with a backup role.
Locksley had helped sign the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2003 at Florida and called plays for Illinois during the 2008 Rose Bowl. Three years later, though, he was fired amid controversy and with a 2-26 record as head coach at New Mexico. He was let go again during Maryland’s housecleaning after the 2015 season.
A few months later, Saban lured Locksley into the the fold in Tuscaloosa as an offensive analyst on the Crimson Tide’s support staff — a collection of talent as impressive with Alabama’s two-deep depth chart.
Like Tosh Lupoi, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian before him, Locksley soon rose from behind the scenes to a place on Saban’s coaching staff. When Billy Napier left for Arizona State, Locksley became the Crimson Tide’s receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, receiving a raise of more than $550,000.
Saban's unparalleled success and the increasing demands of football coaches have inspired others to follow the Alabama model when building a support staff, adding as many roster spots as possible.
Bielema’s support staff last season totaled 18 members to rank 13th in the 14-team SEC, according to an Orlando Sentinel survey of 2016 media guides. Alabama and Georgia boast 29 support staff members, South Carolina 25, Florida 23 and LSU 23.
Schools can have nine on-field coaches, five strength and conditioning coaches and four graduate assistants. Support staff members are unlimited — and continue to grow in number.
Saban’s support staff is so vast and fluid it might help if everyone wore name tags.
“I was there three years, and I still didn't learn everybody's name in that building,” Kiffin said in May during an interview with an Arkansas radio station, according to CBSSports.com. “There were so many people.”
The Football Oversight Committee hopes to find out who’s who, who is doing what and how many people are enough as the NCAA considers capping the number of support staff members allowed. Staff rule changes are possible as early as next year.
First and foremost, the committee wants to ensure support staff members comply with NCAA rules and do not interact with players during practice or games. Another concern is the growing gulf between the number of staff members larger and smaller programs can hire, widening to the division between the Power 5 conference programs and everyone else.
“Every time you talk to athletic directors, they talk about the model being unsustainable,” UCLA athletics director Dan Guerrero said. “It is, in many cases, for a lot of institutions. But for other institutions it’s not. Those where it isn’t really kind of move the needle and drive the train for everyone else.”
When he first got into coaching in 1995 at Auburn, Will Muschamp was one of two graduate assistants on defense. Two more GAs on offense, one on special teams, a recruiting secretary and a recruiting coordinator made up the rest of the Tigers’ support staff.
Full-time coaches filled in the gaps.
As head coach at South Carolina, Muschamp now has a staff position to handle virtually any role.
The Gamecocks have three analysts on each side of the ball, two graduate assistants apiece for offense, defense, special teams and strength and conditioning, a director of player development, a director of player personnel and a director of high school relations. Muschamp also has an assistant director of recruiting for both offense and defense and another in charge of on-campus recruiting.
“The landscape of marketing your program and recruiting and accumulating film and evaluating the film has changed,” said Muschamp, who was a longtime Saban assistant. “Now you have people that are doing those things instead of you doing it on the side of what you’re already doing. That’s been something that’s sped our process up.”
Some wonder whether the trend has become a runaway train.
Saban’s success and his high-profile promotions, including bumping former Power 5 head coach Steve Sarkisian up from quality control assistant to offensive coordinator for the national title game, thrust the issue into the spotlight.
But the growth of support staff sizes and increasing strain on athletic budgets over the past 10 years has been an ongoing discussion behind the scenes.
“I was telling my guys yesterday that I was on the recruiting cabinet in 2007 and it was a topic that we talked about for two days,” Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich said. “It’s 2017 and we’re still no closer to an answer. It’s a very, very difficult question because, again, it goes to the culture of the school and the commitment in various programs.
“I don’t know. There might be a one-size fits all, but it might be a big size.”
Every football program requires a lot of manpower to manage 85 scholarship players and a host of walk-ons juggling football, classwork and a life off the field increasingly more complex and visible due to social media.
To help with these demands, the NCAA approved the addition of a 10th assistant coach in January.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said it still is not nearly enough, especially when compared with other sports. Men’s basketball, for example, allows four coaches and several support staff members to manage around 15 athletes.
“It’s hard to manage 130 guys when you’re talking about class, off field, behavior issues, everything. Just support,” said Smart, another former Saban assistant. “We need the support that we have. Picking a number on that, I think that’s tough.”
For now, the number of support staff people ultimately depends on the school, its budget and a head coach’s vision.
Based on his four years under Saban at Alabama, UF coach Jim McElwain arrived from Colorado State with big ideas. McElwain, the son of a high school English teacher, sees value in Saban’s approach to hiring support staff.
“Hedging back to your days of education, class size, that’s one of the biggest issues all these school districts face,” McElwain said. “The bigger the class size, sometimes the less teaching that goes on. So I think it’s really good.”
Yet the job descriptions go well beyond keeping tabs on the star tailback’s grades, monitoring Instagram accounts and breaking down Tennessee’s tendencies on third-and-7. More staff also facilitates more in-depth analysis, preparation and, hopefully, wins.
“I was at the [Chicago] Cubs spring training facility a couple of years ago and we got into a discussion about the number of analysts that they have — it is unbelievable,” Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said. “It’s one of the reasons they’re doing so well. There is the whole trend of mining data, so how do you address that?”
Swarbrick, however, has a another, more critical question that also has the Football Oversight Committee’s attention.
“Quality control,” Swarbrick said. “Shadow coaches. That’s the one we need to be careful of and fully understand what we’re doing in those areas. We just spent a long period time getting to the point where we’ve approved a 10th coach; let’s make sure they’re the only 10 people coaching.”
The increasing numbers of off-the-field staff can create challenges, real or perceived. To address them, the SEC requires support staff members wear different shirts at practices.
“There’s certain people that can’t be coaching on the field,” Bielema said. “But when you have so many guys, people automatically think that’s happening. The different roles that they play are very, very specific.
“I think everybody just wants to make sure everybody is following the rules.”
The right size
How big is too big? Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason believes he has the answer, though he does not expect everyone to agree.
Mason said his experience coaching in the NFL and later at Stanford taught him a bigger is not always better.
“For me, I like less because I want to know what everybody is doing in my program,” he said. “Sometimes when you have more, more isn’t better because you have to manage all those guys, and at the end of the day all of us are responsible for our programs. If something goes awry or something happens in our program, we’re the ones held liable.
“Could we have more? Oh yeah. Would I have more? No. I like where we’re at.”
But with 21 support staff members listed in its 2016 media guide, Vanderbilt is not hurting for bodies.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has 19 support staff members and would like to see all SEC schools with roughly equal numbers. Freeze’s reasoning stems less from losses suffered on the field than on the recruiting trail.
“There’s only so many things you can do to get a team ready for a game, or break down another team,” he said. “If you get too many people with too many ideas that would be too confusing for me and our coordinators. I don’t know that it’s a great competitive advantage, except for recruiting. Now, you have more recruits being bombarded by more staff.
“Don’t see it on the field. Do see it in recruiting.”
Freeze even has seen some of his support staff recruited, by SEC West heavyweight Alabama.
Tyler Siskey, who helped Ole Miss land the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation in 2013, joined the Crimson Tide as an analyst a few months after his big National Signing Day effort.
This past spring, Saban added ousted Rebels offensive coordinator Dan Werner to Alabama’s support staff.
Freeze isn’t the only who wants to see support staff numbers curtailed and controlled.
“I think there has to be some limits because of the size,” FAU athletics director Pat Chun said. “It does create some form of inequity.”
To keep up, the Owls have gotten creative since naming Kiffin their head coach. He hired his father and longtime NFL defensive coordinator, Monte, to serve as a defensive analyst.
“Obviously that’s a unique circumstance,” Chun said. “I see even the limited things we’ve been able to do with our staff. I think it puts us at an advantage because of the quality of guys that Lane’s brought in to help with the off-the-field stuff.”
The campuses of Alabama and UAB sit an hour from each other, yet the schools are world apart in football.
Alabama has won five national titles since 2007 under Saban. Meanwhile, UAB dropped its program after the 2014 season before later reinstating it in to resume this season.
The Football Oversight Committee, in theory, hopes to address the support staff needs of all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision members. In reality, it is a big ask to legislate for schools with such diverse goals and resources.
“There is a discussion about that, but I still think we’re a long ways away from seeing something concrete,” first-year Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said. “We all have to manage the resources that we have to work with. It’s not always going to be a completely level field with those things; each school is unique in its own way.”
Meanwhile, Byrne protege Scott Stricklin, in his first year at UF, said one issue is universal for all schools.
“The majority of our students on campuses who are student-athletes don’t get full scholarships. Why is that never been an issue?” Stricklin asked. “We have baseball players and softball players and soccer players and a lot of track athletes who come on our campuses and they’re having to take out student loans to be athletes on our campus, even if they’re on scholarship because they’re not on a full scholarship, [unlike the majority of football and men’s basketball players].
“I don’t think that’s right.”
Stricklin’s former school, Mississippi State, has an SEC-low 16 support staff members. But he said he is “comfortable” with what the Gators are doing in football - the cash cow of every SEC athletic department.
Saban and his former assistants, including McElwain, hopes the NCAA does not try to hinder their approach to the game. In fact, the 55-year-old McElwain wonders why support staffs sizes are an issue at all.
“My personal opinion is people are making a really big deal over something that isn’t,” McElwain said. “Honestly, look, you’re going to give opportunities to people. I don’t care what profession you’re in. I don’t know if there’s any other business in America that limits the amount of employees they can have.
“There’s not a business in the world that says, ‘Hey, you can’t have X amount of people.’”
Staff writer Matt Murschel contributed to this report. Edgar Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.