Assembling a Staff: Part I

Mired in a recruiting dead period and now a more than two weeks into his tenure at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh is hard at work on assembling the nine assistant coaches who will comprise his first staff. Recruiting may be the lifeblood of a program, and the results that come on the field in the fall may be the ultimate measuring stick, but this time and these hires are critically important for Harbaugh.

With Stanford still on winter break and the returning players on the football team not back on campus until next week, the work done by Jim Harbaugh of late has centered upon recruiting and hiring his coaching staff.  The former is a subject we cover thoroughly around here, but we would like to take a look at the latter today.

It is hard to overstate the importance of assistant coaches in college football.  In almost all NCAA sports, the head coach is only as good as his or her staff, but football is a unique case.  No other sport comes close to the 100-plus players on a roster and the recruiting classes that frequently number 20-plus.  There is less ability for a head coach to directly impact the development of individual players, due to these numbers.  There is also less opportunity for a head coach to be personally involved in individual recruitments.  Assistants carry much of the responsibility in both of these duties, which makes each assistant coaching hire a decision that can make or break important chunks of your roster.  There are nine full-time assistant coaches allowed for a program currently in college football

This explains why there is more attention paid to the transactions (hiring, firing and departures) of football assistant coaches than any other college sport.  Football is the biggest bread-winner in college athletics, and those nine assistants carry a good deal of the load on their shoulder for its success.

Football also has the shortest lifespan of assistant coaches among college sports.  Head coaches are given short leashes by their athletic directors because of the big bucks at stake, and a fired head coach typically spells the death for most/all of his assistants.  Moreover, the amount of responsibility laid upon football assistants makes them more visible and more accountable for successes and failures.  Thus, the best assistants can be quickly hired away by other college programs or the NFL, while poorly performing assistants can be fired or without hesitation.

Why delve into this dissertation on assistant football coaches?  Because the hiring of a brand new staff by a first-year head coach presents the most attractive opportunity for assistant coaches of perhaps his entire tenure.  Assistants are paid well, relative to their brethren in other college sports, but they live a nomadic life that bounces their families from town to town often every two or three years.  The volatility described above bounces assistants from one job to the next with alarming regularity.  Only one assistant coach on Stanford's 2006 staff had more than two years of running continuity on The Farm.  Granted, the Cardinal head coaching volatility in recent years has been higher than that of many Division I-A programs, but you will be hard pressed to find many coaches in the Pac-10 with more than five consecutive years at that school.

Assistants recognize that when they join a staff that has a standing head coach, there is not only the risk of his own success/failure in the next one to two years, but the likelihood of his head coach staying in that job beyond the next two or three years is slim.  If that head coach has success, he could jump to the next best opportunity and pay raise.  If that head coach has difficulty, he could be canned.  Seven current Pac-10 head coaches have been tenured for four years or less.

The best bet for stability when an assistant coach is searching for a job is when a new head coach has just been hired.  Most new head coach hires can expect rope for at least three or four years, and one rousing season of success in a rebuilding situation can earn a contract extension.  Just as with recruits, assistant coaches seeking stability relish the chance to come in on the ground floor of a new program.  It takes more than money, facilities and good kids to attract a coach.  The reasonable probability of being able to grow roots in a town, particularly for his wife and kids, is a great lure.

For all of his failures and despite his poor previous record as a head coach, Buddy Teevens attracted a pretty good staff when he started his first year at Stanford.  Including: Mike Sanford, now the head coach at UNLV; Mark Banker, successful as defensive coordinator at Oregon State the past four season; Tom Quinn, now coaching with the New York Giants; Wayne Moses, now with the St. Louis Rams; David Kelly, a nationally coveted recruiter; and Tom Williams, a well-regarded young coach lured away from Washington and considered a candidate last month for the Stanford head job.  Walt Harris' hires were so well-regarded that he lost two to the NFL within weeks of their arrival and then lost three coordinators (defensive, special teams and recruiting) to the NFL after his first year - plus two other assistants were poached.

This is all to say that Jim Harbaugh has today probably his best chance at hiring his best assistant coaches while at Stanford.  This is the time to leverage his rolodex and bring in the biggest and best guns he can.  Recognizing the opportunity and importance with these hires, Harbaugh is understandably taking his time.  Hurrying a hire by a week or two may immediately gratify public perception or a particular recruiting need, but that decision may marginalize the program for years to follow.  There are currently five full-time assistant coaches working with Harbaugh in the Football Office...

Up next: Part II


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