Kirby Smart’s support staff at Georgia raises bar for football success
Anyone else observing the binge investing into college football coaching and support staffs may label it excessive.
To Georgia athletics director Josh Brooks, whose program sits No. 1 in the College Football Playoff, it’s called attention to detail.
“There’s so much that goes on that we’ve never lived through,” Brooks told USA TODAY Sports while reflecting upon the logistical challenges that preceded the Bulldogs winning the national title last season in a pressurized playoff system equivalent to back-to-back title games.
“Coaches want to maximize every opportunity they have, so when you think about preparation for a contest – whether you’re talking about travel, nutrition, weightlifting, sleep, you want to make sure everything is maximized at 100%. You don’t want to go into a contest thinking, ‘Man, if we just had better nutrition … .’ You can’t risk not having your team prepared. Everything is important.”
In its annual review of college football compensation, USA TODAY Sports has found that exhaustive pursuit to address every aspect of the game has powerfully amplified the investment colleges are making in their support staffs. Even as the number of assistant coaches making at least $1 million continues to grow, a market is now developing around competition for people in specialized areas. Jobs such as manager of applied sport science, dietician – and then jobs to oversee all those other jobs: General manager/director of scouting and development; associate athletics director/football chief of staff; football chief operating officer.
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In the SEC alone, schools are quietly amassing football support staffs that would rival the size of a first-year biology class – with Florida touting 68 full-time support-staff personnel, LSU 61, and Georgia 56. This is all for a roster of roughly 120 players, mind you.
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Expanded position-by-position scrutiny and the increased attention on new technologies, analytics, social media and branding also are driving this, along with the major wrinkles introduced by the advent of athletes’ opportunities to make money from their name, image and likeness and the increasingly active transfer portal.
USA TODAY Sports’ analysis found there were at least 49 assistant coaches across the nation making $1 million or more this season – including one at a Group of Five school, Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk. And, for the first time, a strength coach is making $1 million, Oklahoma State’s Rob Glass.
But the SEC leads with 21 million-dollar assistants (nearly double the number in the Big Ten), and a more focused look at the football-fervent conference via data compiled from open-records requests to its 13 public schools shows they are spending a total of $55.5 million on support staff this year. That’s an average of $4.3 million per school. (Vanderbilt, a private university, does not have to disclose such data). USA TODAY Sports obtained athletics department employee salary lists from each public school except Florida, then used online department staff directories and team media guides to identify football staff personnel. Florida’s athletics department, like others in the state, is organized in a fashion that gives it latitude in handling open-records requests; it provided aggregate data about the number of its football support staffers and their pay.
Let’s begin where the hardware currently resides: Georgia. The Bulldogs, beyond paying head coach Kirby Smart $10.25 million this season, are paying their 10 assistant coaches a combined $8.4 million (not including $1.8 million spent in connection with buyouts new hires owed their previous employers) and are devoting a separate $4.8 million to support staffers who provide depth and counsel for Smart.
This newly robust market has led Georgia to count three chefs and six “quality control coordinators” among its support staff, including former Bulldogs quarterback Mike Bobo, who has been Colorado State’s head coach and now is making $147,925. Mike Cavan, the former head coach at Valdosta State, East Tennessee and SMU, now earns $202,210 while wearing the less-pressurized hat of director of football administration.
Among other findings:
►Florida, which spends $6.2 million on its 68-member support staff, employs what it has titled a senior director of recruiting innovation.
►Mississippi employs 12 player-personnel analysts earning from $48,954 to $100,000 per year.
►Auburn invests $238,600 annually in its three dieticians.
►And LSU’s $5 million crew includes four senior defensive analysts, a lead defensive analyst, a regular defensive analyst, along with four assistant development coaches and a six-figure position for the manager of applied sport science.
According to that job description, that individual oversees ‘the collection, analysis, visualization, and interpretation of training load, biometric, and key performance data from the various sports science technologies utilized within the football program.’
Brooks credits Smart for his program’s surge in support, a page the coach took from observing Nick Saban’s machine of assistants and how they operated while Smart served eight years as defensive coordinator at Alabama.
“When (Smart) got to Georgia, he laid out a vision of where he wanted to take the program, and there wasn’t one thing that wasn’t well thought out,” Brooks said.
“His record speaks for itself. At those moments when you win a championship, you realize the work and all the resources we put into it has paid off. And when that season’s over, you know you can’t go back in time and retro-add resources. So, it keeps our focus on the mission and makes us want to keep giving our coaches the resources they need.”
While Brooks believes the money being spent is worth it, many other universities breaking the bank over football personnel are being cast as derelict, neglectful of the intended ambitions of higher education.
“You can look at this from a lot of different angles, but from every angle it doesn’t make sense, and it is a lack of integrity on the part of these institutions,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals in swimming at the 1984 Olympics and is founder/CEO of the advocacy group Champion Women.
“Go talk to the English and science professors who are doing amazing work, and let’s see how much they make. There’s no resemblance between this and what a school is supposed to be doing. The reason they don’t pay taxes is because they are supposed to be fulfilling that mission (of higher education). To see these statistics and facts, that’s corrupting all that is good about sports.”
National spending surge away from sidelines
Staffs are bulging nationally, not just in the SEC.
Consider the move that was finalized last week when fired Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule inherited a Nebraska program from the fired Scott Frost.
The Cornhuskers (4-8) employ 56 assistants and paid football staff – the daunting figure rivaling the 73 personnel (front-office staff, business office, coaches and support staff) that backed Ruhle’s NFL efforts with the Panthers.
To some who’ve been around the game for decades, like seven-time SEC coach of the year Steve Spurrier, the former Heisman Trophy winner and 1996 national championship coach at Florida, the excessive spending is rooted in the sport’s prevailing mentality amid the riches of television, sponsorship and ticket revenue.
“There’s so much money, they think overkill is OK,” Spurrier said. “It’s, ‘If you’re not spending money, you’re not trying hard enough.’ ”
Spurrier takes pride in telling friends what managing a bare-bones staff was like a generation ago.
A review of the Florida national title team’s media guide shows Spurrier kept nine assistant coaches and a support staff of 26 that counted one academic counselor, a massage therapist, a chaplain, his personal secretary and a head of security.
“You know who the first nutritionist at the University of Florida was? You’re looking at him,” he says. “And I did it by telling the guys to put something green on their plate every meal. You know, some of these kids grow up and it’s all fried food. We really emphasized vegetables and fruit, and I’d stand over their plates to make sure. We realized if you don’t make them do it, they will not do it.”
On one hand, Spurrier is proud that his former strength and conditioning coach, Oklahoma State’s Glass, has become the first in his field to earn $1 million annually.
Glass, who was credited by Cowboys coach Mike Gundy for dutifully strengthening the roster that paced Oklahoma State over Notre Dame in last season’s Fiesta Bowl, is among the army of those working away from the cameras and sidelines to inspire, advise, feed and transport the sport’s massive rosters.
Still, the “Head Ball Coach” takes a blunt view on those who are engaging in the hiring frenzy, blowing through money and struggling to win.
“Attitude and effort are way more important than having an extra 60 people hanging around on your staff,” Spurrier said. “You must have direction from the top and you must have team-first attitude, effort and leadership within the players.”
Missouri, Florida expanding money pool
Meanwhile, SEC coaches including Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz and Florida’s Billy Napier have doubled down on their intentions to spend big to recruit the best staff talent.
Under first-year coach Napier, the Gators increased their support staff spending from $3.85 million to the conference-leading $6.2 million while he won approval to spend more than $1.5 million than Florida paid on assistant coaches in 2021.
With that, Florida poached Katie Turner, Georgia’s former assistant athletic director of recruiting, after Turner helped the Bulldogs land top-five and top-three recruiting classes in each of the past two off-seasons.
Turner came to Georgia from Alabama, where, as a student, she was on the recruiting team that produced three consecutive No. 1 classes.
Turner now serves as Florida’s assistant athletic director of recruiting strategy. USA TODAY Sports’ request to speak to Turner was declined by a university spokesman.
Amanda Gilpin, assistant director of football operations charged with handling travel and logistics for the Razorbacks, is readying a 25-member advance team and a separate, 150-strong gathering of players and coaches who’ll journey to Memphis on Dec. 28 for the Liberty Bowl vs. Kansas.
Earlier this season, Gilpin directed the team’s unexpected journey to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, because the public airport runway near Auburn was unavailable due to repairs.
An only child raised by Mississippi season-ticket-holding parents – “Growing up in the deep South, there was no choice. It’s Faith, Family, Football,” Gilpin said – she’s worked in recruiting and operations for coaches including David Cutcliffe, Ed Orgeron, Lane Kiffin, Houston Nutt and now Arkansas’ Sam Pittman.
That experience certainly counted when Arkansas agreed to pay her $123,000 this year.
‘Coaches are looking at every single detail’
At Auburn, first-year football dietician Allison Scherer, 28, earns $84,000 annually.
“Every school labels its positions differently, so we’re trying to get to more standardized labels,” Scherer said in an unintentional comic reference to the intrigue over the precise job descriptions of all these employees.
Maintaining daily contact with the players and working the sidelines on game days, Scherer employs a regimen that can allow “fun” fried and fat foods early in the week before turning to high-quality proteins, carbohydrates and hydration as kickoff nears.
It’s now far more advanced than Spurrier’s “get something green on your plate” refrain.
“That relationship you build with them, being on a different level, is amazing,” she said. “You always have a purpose for what you do, and the coaches are looking at every single detail, with experts in those fields to look at those areas to get us to move forward.
“Do I think there might be too many hands in the pot at times? Sure. But when you look at the small margins of error that college football has between being a loser and a winner, between being weaker and stronger, you have to look at those details. So, I think it’s needed, especially for us, being so new in the career field.
“Our staff is evolving because of the need and that need is being seen. There is a benefit to it.”
Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @pugboxing and Steve Berkowitz @ByBerkowitz