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The elephant in the room this time is an actual, or at least costumed, elephant. In the NCAA's upcoming analysis of college football staff sizes, Alabama's Crimson Tide will be at the center of the debate over how big is too big.
If you thought Big Al, Alabama's elephant mascot, was large, take a look at the Crimson Tide's sideline during a football game. The support staff could hardly be supported by an actual elephant.
"I see some sidelines where there's more defensive coordinators standing on the sideline than... are normal," said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, searching for the right words.
Bielema didn't mention Alabama, of course. No one wants to point fingers or name names. Bob Bowlsby, the chairman of the NCAA Oversight Committee, didn't when he told CBSSports.com that one FBS team reportedly has 97 staff members who work directly for the football program, but anyone who is looking at excess in college football generally looks first toward Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The NCAA is beginning to take an interest in the size and structure of staffs, and the NCAA Council recently commissioned a study that showed Notre Dame had the largest football staff in the country with 45 employees. CBSSports reported, however, that those numbers came from counting the names listed on team websites. Under that methodology, Texas (44), Georgia (42), Auburn (41) and Michigan (40) followed the Irish in the top five of staff size.
South Carolina's website lists 33 people on its football staff. That's everyone from coach Will Mushamp and his nine on-field assistants to analysts such as former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to Kim Fields, Muschamp's assistant and director of operations.
"I'm not for it growing any more," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "That may just be because I don't know how to manage it more than I already do. I don't want any more people in our building really. We have enough people to do their jobs and do it effectively. I do wish we could come to some consensus that this is the number, this what you're allowed to have."
That appears unlikely to happen. For starters, Freeze is one of the few SEC coaches who publicly favors a cap.
"It's up to the university," Muschamp said. "Whatever that head coach and that athletic director and that president can pay and feel comfortable with, that's what they should have."
More importantly, decision-makers such as SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey don't favor a cap.
"I am not going to talk about size in this context, but I think discussing structure and roles is entirely appropriate - who is involved in coaching and who is not involved in coaching," said Sankey, adding that the NCAA Oversight Committee would be taking up that question soon and he would wait to see what plan emerged from those meetings.
Any cap on number of employees or the earnings of those employees could violate federal employment law, a fact the NCAA learned the hard way when it had to pay $54.5 million in 1999 to settle a class action lawsuit by assistant coaches who had their wages restricted by a vote of the NCAA membership.
"You can't limit the number of employees," Bielema said. "Now I think you can limit what they do on the field. There's obviously restrictions on that, how many guys can be in a press box, I think we can limit that; but if there's going to be 200 people in the program, I don't see how you can limit that."
The growing numbers of college football staffers do everything from assist in the recruiting office to scout future opponents to work in the weight room. The Gamecocks, for instance, have Johnson — who has been the defensive coordinator at four SEC schools — serving as an analyst. In that role, he is not allowed to assist in on-field coaching but can watch practice and film and pass along anything he gleans.
Although Muschamp doesn't want a cap on support staffs, he does believe that there is diminishing value in adding more bodies at some point.
"I don't like dead weight within the program, so you have to be smart keeping the guys around that are truly helping your program," he said.
One way the staffs have helped is by serving as a de facto minor league system for major programs. For instance, Saban probably wouldn't have been comfortable enough to fire former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin one week before the national title game, which he did in January, if he hadn't had former Southern Cal coach and highly regarded offensive mind Steve Sarkisian waiting in the wings as an offensive analyst. Sarkisian was able to step right in with a complete understanding of all of the team's terminology, personnel and philosophy.
"One thing that really comes into play is when you're able to hire someone from within that's been in your program maybe two years on a side show, and then all of a sudden they're on the front stage," Bielema said. "To plug those guys in right away is a huge asset."
South Carolina outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson got his start as a strength and conditioning assistant under Muschamp at Florida and then got his first on-field job under Muschamp with the Gamecocks last season.
As for Saban, he doesn't see any reason why his team should be singled out.
"I don't think we came up with anything that caused any of the changes that we're doing right now," he said. "I think everybody is working hard to stay on the cutting edge, within the rules of course, to do the best things they can for their team, their organization so they have the best chance to be successful. I think that's what everybody is really trying to do. I don't know what we did to cause any of this."
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