College Sports Problem: Too Many Coaches, Too Much Practice

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By Patrick Dobel

Michigan will deserve whatever punishment the NCAA grinds out after their own self-imposed penalties, but the two issues that entangled Michigan--illegal coaches and excess practice and workout times bedevil the entire NCAA athletic structure.

Don't know if you've noticed these days but the coaches, trainers, director of operations and managers often outnumber of the players on the sideline of Division 1A college games. And football makes basketball shrinking violates.

If you go to a modern Division 1A football practices the fields are clogged with guys running around with clip boards charting players, shouting out to coaches and standing around with their arms folded looking serious. Football is permitted 9 coaches and two graduate assistants, period!!!  The limit is designed to promote competitive equity. They are the people who teach football.

But the football collects hundreds of hanger ons and many ex-players and others who want to break into coaching ranks. Support staff swells to accommodate them. Football offices bulge with directors of operations, then director of operations for offense, defense and special teams. You have student assistants to the graduate assistants  (Michigan called them quality control assistants). Many other schools stock up their strength and conditioning coaches--no limits on them--with coaching aspirants who are not trained in strength in conditioning but crowd around to be sort of almost assistant coaches.

All of them spill out onto practice fields. In the name of helping teach coaches the NCAA permits all this and writes arcane impossible distinctions about who can do what to whom. Non-coach coaches can chart plays and call out to coaches but not to players. Conditioning guys can work on explosive speed out of stances but not technical rips or pushes that would be considered football. Coaching staffs explode and bloat and somewhere in this maelstrom  the Head Coach presides. Somewhere else, usually not on the field, compliance staff worry because the NCAA has handled this mess by minutely describing what each level of proto-coach or operations person or conditioning person can do. No one can keep track of it, not the Head Coach, nor the coaches themselves and compliance almost never has the time to be there all the time and watch every violation, and the violations occur constantly.

The rules lead to esoteric distinctions where real coaches teach a player a stance (which is football) then quality or conditioning guys can teach how to explode out of the stance. The coach can teach proper footwork to the cornerback and the conditioning guy can work on the speed and quickness of response. The distinctions merge coaching and non-coaching in a manner impossible to parse. Unless you have compliance folks covering the multiple fields that modern football practice covers, the number of effective versus legal coaches balloons and competitive equity is destroyed. The rich schools all figure out different nomenclatures to hide the coaching and develop elaborate job desriptions to meld and merge the distinctions.

The problem is the collision between the desperate desire of so many to enter coaching ranks and the small number of  legal positions. The aspirants take on operational or coordination role, but push hard to get on the field and mime coaching responsibilities. If you read the description of the guilty Michigan parties they are filled with endless verbiage about coordination, communication, overseeing minute details, watching and splicing tapes, recording etc. The rich programs collect these psuedo-coaches because they can make things easier and, in theory, free coaches up for more direct one on one work or to spend time on planing and coaching. The rich schools lard the field increasing the number  the probability of violations.

The NCAA has dithered with this for years. Right now a new set of definitions are wending their way through the process. They are being cut to death by a thousand deaths from ADs and coaches and special interest groups who argue that it helps people become coaches and also helps coaches who are now burdened with huge public appearance and fund raising obligations. The key, quite frankly, is simple. Draw clear clean lines--it can be done no matter what the special interests claim--just don't let the operations, quality control and strength and conditioning guys on the field. Just draw the damn line.

The practices would be better organized, more efficient, easier to police and actually comport with the spirit and intent of the rule where teams are supposed to have a limit on coaches to protect competitive equity. Right now the rich pile on and the rules are a mockery and the poor strive to keep up, invent new positions but can't catch up. Draw the line around practice--legal coaches and trainers, that's it. That would be too simple and it would actually solve the problem. So the NCAA won't do it.

The other problem that infected Michigan pervades all big time college athletics in all sports. The average student athlete spends 35-41 hours a week on conditioning, workouts, tape and sport related activity even in the off season. The NCAA has strong regulations that students can only have a very limited contact with coaches during off season. Yet players play ball, run drills themselves and work on tape on their own. Most importantly, they work on strength and conditioning. Again there are limits on official time, but to lift on your off time is allowed and it is dangerous to lift and condition without having trained professionals around. So players work out under supervision far beyond the permitted time.

It's called Involuntary voluntaries. The coach does not require it, but the coach hints strongly or sets goals--increase weight, quickness, jumping ability, speed, shot efficiency--the goal does not matter. The coach makes clear, and this is their right, it is good outcome based leadership--that to be their best, to stand a chance to play, the student athlete needs to reach these standards.
No direct or overt punishment will be applied, and coaches are not allowed to even watch informal practices and strength and conditioning staff are not allowed to report on voluntary work; but everyone knows what everyone is doing. it is a game of mirrors. The result is that athletes compete and work full time in the off seasons. Michigan went too far in how it "organized" and "oversaw" these practices and conditioning, but point is that players exceed limits on their own time because if they don't they will be beat out by others who do.

The dilemma is clear. Any coach given a choice between more practice time and less and more coaches and fewer, will choose more coaches and more practice time. The Universities hire and fire coaches on the basis of winning and losing. The Universities created this winner take all world and the coaches respond.

Any player given a choice between starting and not starting will want to play. The players face a prisoner's dilemma. If none of the players did involuntary voluntaries, then it would be fine. But once just one player works harder and does an extra ten hours on voluntary conditioning or scrimmaging, then he or she gets an advantage. The coaches will find out about their exceptional "work ethic." It only takes one who wants to excel or start and everyone else who wants to play and excel joins in. This is about elite athletes who generally love their sport and want to grow and excel and play. Even with complex legislations designed to minimize direct contact with coaches, players spend that 30-45 hours a week anyway. 
No legislation will solve the real problem of student athletes spending 40 hours a week on sport in off season. The elite athletes will do the extra time because they are elite athletes. The NCAA could prohibit them from using school facilities, and the athletes would find private trainers or go off site. It does not matter. Coaches can urge student athletes to spend more time on studies or get a real life, but when time comes to pick players, the coaches will go with those who worked out and got better--the coach must win.
The coach's need to win and the athletes desire to excel create an alchemy that infuses all college sports.