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After so many years and so many moves, West Virginia safeties coach Tony Gibson has developed a routine. Whenever he changes jobs -- and he has been at four schools in four years -- Gibson will head to his new stop a few months ahead of his family, giving him time to complete the current recruiting cycle before being reunited with his wife and two children.
To Gibson, this makes the best of a challenging situation -- one that is all too familiar for assistant coaches throughout college football.
Only a select few assistants have true job security. The rest, from the lower rung of the Football Bowl Subdivision to the top programs in college football, must grow accustomed to the strain and pressure of instability. In many ways, being an assistant coach on the FBS level is an itinerant profession, one that stands in direct contrast to what in comparison is the stability of serving as a head coach.
"It's been tough," Gibson said of his four-year, four-school progression. "So what you look for is at this level, as anywhere in life, you want to be stable and have your kids and family all happy. There were a few years when it was hard on everybody."
He's not alone. According to USA TODAY Sports' annual survey of assistant football coaches' salaries, nine assistants have worked at four different schools over the last four years. Two of them, Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and UTEP offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, have served at a different school in each of the last five seasons.
Another assistant, Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, has spent the last seven years at six different stops -- one being a season with the Detroit Lions in 2008. Since the end of that 2008 season, Loeffler has spent two seasons at Florida, one year at Temple, one unforgettably unproductive year at Auburn and one season with the Hokies.
"There's a few of us here over the last few years that have had to move year after year," North Carolina State offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "It's just sometimes because you have to, sometimes because you think it's the right move. I guess like in any business you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. You've just got to keep going."
Even the nation's elite programs are not immune to significant coaching turnover. Florida State, which sits at No. 1 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll, entered this season with six new assistant coaches. Alabama has won three of the last four national championships despite changing offensive coordinators and losing several key assistants.
It's simply part of the lifestyle: College football assistants must accept the sort of upheaval and lack of stability that can be taxing to coaches and their families.
"Yeah, it's challenging," Loeffler said. "But a lot of those situations that we were in, a lot of that was out of your control. You didn't have a say, because you were there for such a short period of time, catching the end of the road of some deals. You've just got to deal with it."
Said Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry, the third vice president of the American Football Coaches Association: "You have to be a tremendous competitor to survive at the collegiate level. And in the process of doing that, in that competitive nature, you've got to have a strong moral fiber about you."
Gibson is one of the lucky ones. Despite holding four jobs in four years, only once has he been forced to re-enter the hiring pool via firing. That came after the 2010 season, when the insecurity of Gibson's final few weeks working under coach Rich Rodriguez at Michigan -- the entire staff was let go after a Gator Bowl loss -- had him in "scramble mode."
"Nobody knew what was going to happen," Gibson said. "You don't know where your next paycheck is going to come from. It's tough on everybody. It's tough on my kids, tough on my wife. I was fortunate within a couple days to get the job offer at Pittsburgh (in 2011) and take it."
When the coaching staff was fired at Michigan in early 2011, athletics director Dave Brandon said the school would pay Gibson and his fellow assistants through the end of June, regardless of whether they were hired elsewhere. But that stands as the exception to the rule. Many FBS assistant coaches work under tight contractual obligations.
At Army, for example, most coaches serve under one-year contracts and are required to live in housing provided by the athletics department. If fired, an assistant coach must vacate his school housing within 30 days -- or pay the athletics department $300 a day for extra time.
At Rutgers, if some assistant coaches terminate their contracts without cause before the conclusion of the last game of the season, including a bowl, they would have to pay the school an amount equal to their annual salary. Middle Tennessee State has the right to fire many of its assistants at any time without further payment, an agreement far different from most buyouts associated with a head coach's contract.
The average pay for assistant coaches at the FBS level has risen the last 12 months to nearly $216,000, up 7.5% from the 2012 season. There are 23 assistants making at least $600,000 this year, more than double the number at that level in 2010.
"We make more money than we ever dreamed," Canada said. "I started out making five grand. Twenty years ago, I don't think anyone would have ever thought that things would get the way they are."
Yet with increased pay comes increased scrutiny for head coaches and assistants alike; with increased scrutiny and increased pressure come increased expectations, which in turn plays a large role in the number of quick-trigger coaching moves seen on the FBS level.
"The way that this profession has changed -- the pressure to win, the pressure to win right now -- it's you better win," Loeffler said. "And if you don't win, you normally have to move from next job to next job. It's what occurs in college football, and you've got to find ways to do it the right way and obviously find ways to win. That's our business right now."
Biggest drawback: Moving
Assistants are often aided by the close-knit nature of the profession, the sort of fraternity in which one coach might, through the grapevine, help another coach land on his feet after a staffing change.
"Our profession is very small," Loeffler said. "Everyone knows everyone, and whenever job changes occur, guys try to help others out and find them work. And I've been fortunate that that's how it's occurred for myself in these five years of -- uh -- bouncing around, to say the least."
Far more so than with head coaches, where the hiring process is more complex, FBS assistants benefit greatly from prior relationships: Gibson, for example, has worked with Rodriguez at four different stops -- at Glenville State in 1996, West Virginia from 2001 to 2007, Michigan from 2008 to 2010 and Arizona in 2012. Canada's experience under North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren, the former coach at Northern Illinois, brought him to the Atlantic Coast Conference school after one year at Wisconsin.
Even with the help of colleagues among the coaching ranks, assistant coaches who spoke with USA TODAY Sports referenced how difficult it can be to uproot families multiple times during a five-year span.
"I think the most difficult thing is your family, moving your family from place to place to place," Loeffler said. "Coaching is coaching wherever you're at. It's what you do, and it's the same routine pretty much regardless of what organization or program you're with. So I think the most difficult aspect of whenever you're bouncing from place to place is relocating your family."
Amid stops at Michigan, Pittsburgh, Arizona and West Virginia, Gibson's son and daughter attended three high schools. If his family was resilient at first, Gibson said, the moves became more and more difficult until he returned to West Virginia, where he had coached from 2001 to 2007.
Said Canada: "For the most part, for us being around kids and coaching, I think a lot of us would say we've got the greatest job. Honestly, the part you don't like is the moving."
The path to head coach
So what motivates assistant coaches to handle the vagaries of the profession -- the movement, the lack of security, the strain and stress it places on families? There's the paycheck, of course, and the financial stability it provides for coaches and their families -- even if, for most, money is not the prime motivator.
Down the road, assistant coaches also can work their way up the ladder, following the well-traveled path from graduate assistant to position coach to coordinator to head coach.
Said Berry: "I think everybody's a little different along those lines in terms of their motivation, but there's certainly a significant number of individuals out there that make moves based off of not necessarily the money or happiness but rather what's going to give them the best opportunity to further their career and maybe be head coaches down the road."
But for assistant coaches who spoke with USA TODAY Sports, the job itself, despite its pressures and instability, is the draw.
"I'm sure if you look from afar, if you didn't know the business or if you didn't know what goes in and out of it, you'd probably say we are crazy," Loeffler said. "But 99.9% of the coaches are extremely passionate about what they do -- and I'm one of those guys."
Said Canada: "There's a guy who said to me a long time ago, 'If you could live without it, you would.' As coaches, we grind and we work, we're on the road recruiting and everything else, we love what we do and we love being around the guys. I think a lot of us would say that."
Contributing: Jodi Upton