Strength coach Dave Ballou is all about breaking through barriers, but he was nearly stopped from taking a new job because of the NCAA’s new recruiting regulations for Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Ballou, who was the physical conditioning coach at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) last season, was a finalist for the 2014 National Strength and Conditioning Association High School Strength Coach of the Year. In January, he was hired as a strength coach for Notre Dame’s football team, but soon ran into a snag.
Part of the new legislation prohibits FBS schools from hiring, for non-field coaching jobs, people who are close to a prospective student-athlete for a two-year period before and after the student’s anticipated and actual enrollment at the school. The Irish already have three underclassmen on their roster who went to IMG and Notre Dame is in the running for several 2018 IMG recruits. The legislation was made retroactive to Jan. 18 and while Ballou had agreed with the Irish on the terms of his new job before that, his hiring wasn’t announced until Jan 30.
Not wanting to jeopardize the athletic eligibility of Notre Dame sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr., freshman offensive lineman Robert Hainsey and sophomore safety Spencer Perry, all of whom went to IMG, Ballou went back to Bradenton this spring until the situation was sorted out. Ballou was not available for comment.
“At the time it was going on, he felt he had to come back here, because he was not going to put those kids at risk,” IMG coach Kevin Wright said. “He came back and worked with us for a couple of weeks before he got the call from the NCAA it was OK for him to take that job.”
Closing an entryway to college coaching
Most high school coaches approve of most of the NCAA’s new rule changes, such as allowing juniors official visits or the new December early signing period. However, while Ballou made it under the wire, many high school coaches are worried the new legislation will hinder their ability to land a college job. DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) football coach Elijah Brooks said off-the-field jobs have been the biggest entryway for high school coaches into on-field college coaching jobs.
“Nowadays, the trend has been the off-the-field job as a recruiting guy or analyst or QC (quality control) position,” Brooks said. “Now, a high school guy, unless you’re a head coach who has great connections, it’s going to be tough getting a job in college. … Many of these high school coaches like coaching at top programs because they know their exposure to colleges make their chance to jump high. I’m interested to see how this future is going to look like.”
Veteran Colquitt County (Moultrie, Ga.) football coach Rush Propst has had 15 former assistants go on to coach in college and can tick off the names of his former assistants (at Hoover, Ala.), who got their first college job in off-the-field positions.
“If this rule was in effect 10 years ago, Jeremy Pruitt (Alabama’s defensive coordinator) would not be in college, Kevin Sherrer (Georgia’s outside linebackers coach) would not be in college and Chip Lindsey (Auburn’s offensive coordinator) wouldn’t be in college, among others,” Propst said. “For the American Football Coaches Association to not [stand] up and do something about this rule is a travesty.”
During its annual meeting in January, AFCA members voted to support the overall package, including the portion of the proposal dealing with “individuals associated with a prospect.” Todd Berry, the AFCA’s executive director, said at the time that the reform package was not a finished product but a first step that could be tweaked later.
There are plenty of other examples of college assistants who got their break in non-field roles, including Clemson safeties coach Mickey Conn, who was hired first as the Tigers’ defensive analyst two years ago out of Grayson (Loganville, Ga.) or Michigan linebackers and special teams coach Chris Partridge, who got his start with the Wolverines as a recruiting coordinator out of Paramus (N.J.) Catholic.
UNLV coach Tony Sanchez is that rare football coach to make the leap to being a head coach in college straight from being a high school coach at Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas). He said the most innovative football is being done at the high school level and the inability to hire high school coaches hurts college football.
“To me, it’s a right-to-work issue,” Sanchez said. “If I cannot hire somebody and pay them $100,000 and they’re making $55,000 as a high school football coach, that’s a chance to better their life. How is that constitutionally OK? I probably know as many high school coaches as anybody. This spring, we had a bunch of smart high school coaches hang out with us. I would love to bring some of those guys on at some point in some capacity and give them an opportunity. But I want to get to know them, I want to see their work ethic. I want to see their true knowledge on a daily basis and if is what I think it is, those are the guys I eventually end up hiring as on-the-field assistants. But now that transitional phase is no longer. To me, it’s just a good ol’ boy network, a way to grandfather people in and keep the outside people out.”
Rule could force former college coaches to make a tough choice
Bergen Catholic (Oradell, N.J.) coach Nunzio Campanile, whose younger brother Anthony is the receivers coach at Rutgers, said the new rules could keep coaches from taking a high school assistant’s job, knowing it could hurt their chances of landing a college job down the line.
“You see a lot of success former high school coaches are having in college,” Campanile said. “To limit that opportunity because of a couple guys are maybe trying to take advantages of relationships is unfortunate. … I just hired a young guy who played for me whose goal is to be a Division I college coach. One of the things we talked about is the number of opportunities and relationships he’s going to make working at Bergen Catholic. Now, he’s in a pretty tough spot because he’s taken the job and doing a good job and I don’t know if he’s going to get a fair shot.”
Those concerns are echoed by Wright, who has hired former college assistants who are hoping to get back to the college ranks.
“We’ve had to hire a couple of positions,” Wright said. “The applicants I’m getting, the guys that I’m getting from colleges, I’ve had to sit down with some with them and tell them because of the rule, they’re going to have a tough time going back to coach in college.”
Others may have a hard time ever making that jump. Crisp County (Cordele, Ga.) coach Shelton Felton, in only his second season as the Cougars’ head coach, led his team to a 13-1 record and the state semifinals. He was in line for a job as a defensive analyst at Auburn. However, when the new rules came out, because Auburn had signed Crisp defensive lineman Markaviest Bryant, Felton had to back out of the job.
“I stepped back on my own because my kid decided to go to Auburn late,” Felton said. “I will never put myself in front of a kid. I think it’s something they need to fix. It hurts high school coaches who have dreams and aspire to be at the highest level.”
He adds that most big-time programs aren’t going to take a chance on a high school coach in an on-field position.
“It’s hard to justify to those big schools and their board members and booster clubs, that you’re going to hire a high school coach for an on-the-field position,” Felton said. “But when you give high school coaches a chance to work as analysts and strength coaches, they can show their worth to move forward.”
Propst said one way to get the NCAA to reverse course would be to go to the courts.
“I’ve been told by several college coaches that someone should file a class-action lawsuit,” Propst said. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen happen to high school football coaches.”