Eliah Drinkwitz isn’t sure where he’d be now if he hadn’t been plucked a few years back from the high school ranks.
“Somewhere in Arkansas trying to coach a little football,” he said.
Instead, a job at Auburn — offensive analyst, $16,000 a year without benefits — became his entrée to college football, leading eventually to his current position as North Carolina State’s offensive coordinator. It’s why Drinkwitz is opposed to a proposed NCAA rule that would practically prohibit — or at least significantly curtail — hiring high school coaches for support roles in college football programs.
The proposal, part of a comprehensive recruiting reform package to be considered this week by the NCAA’s Division I Council, is an attempt to prevent hires made in hopes of gaining an edge with recruits who are associated with the new employee. It applies to “individuals associated with a prospect” (IAWP); along with high school coaches, it would apply to junior college coaches, as well as others such as family members of recruits. It would mirror a rule already in place for NCAA basketball.
But it’s the potential impact on high school coaches’ career aspirations that has some coaches up in arms.
“This rule will in essence be a death sentence to any high school coach wanting to coach college (football),” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s putting an end to it, and it’s not fair.”
A college would be prevented from hiring a high school coach for a support role if it had recruited a player from his school in the previous two years and would be prohibited from recruiting players from that high school for two years after the hire.
The practice of hiring to gain a recruiting advantage is more prevalent in college basketball than in football. But the recent proliferation of off-field support positions at the higher levels of FBS football programs has led to concern it could become a trend in football, as well.
“I see why they’re (considering) it, because staff sizes are blowing up,” said Southern Methodist coach Chad Morris, who was a highly successful Texas high school coach before breaking into college coaching as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator in 2010. “But I’ve got coaches on my staff that would not have the opportunity to get into college coaching if this rule was in play. It limits them. They’re being punished because of it.”
Other potentially significant changes in the recruiting reform package include: an earlier signing date and earlier official recruiting visits, the addition of a 10th assistant coach and changes to summer football camps. There’s consensus that sweeping changes to the recruiting model are necessary, but disagreement over some of the individual proposals — and yet, the entire reform package is bundled together, intended to be voted on as a whole.
During its annual meeting in January, members of the American Football Coaches Association voted to support the overall package, including the IAWP proposal. Todd Berry, the AFCA’s executive director and the former head coach at Louisiana-Monroe, said the reform package is only a first step that could be tweaked later.
“This is the most dramatic legislation in my lifetime as a coach,” Berry said. “It could have significantly the most impact. … There are little pieces people don’t agree with, but I think the whole process is a wonderful step forward toward trying to fix problems. This is not a finished product. This just a step. Let’s take some steps and look at finished products down the road.”
The IAWP rule proposal does not prohibit hiring high school coaches for an on-field assistant coaching position — which was the path of Morris and Malzahn — or limit recruiting from the coach’s former high school in that instance. But such direct moves aren’t the norm.
More often, the path is more like that of Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was an assistant at Hoover (Ala.) High School when he was hired as Alabama’s director of player development, then later moved into on-field roles. Or of Drinkwitz, who was offensive coordinator at Springdale (Ark.) High when he was hired at Auburn, then moved with Malzahn to Arkansas State as an on-field assistant, and from there to Boise State and now North Carolina State.
“The problem is it’s hard to hire a guy right into an on-field role without any prior (college coaching) experience,” Drinkwitz said. “… You’re grooming them for this (on-field) position. It’s a great way to train up a staff.”
Said Malzahn: “The goal is they learn college football for a year or two and then they get a job (as an on-field assistant).”
Malzahn, who was a high school coach before moving into college coaching in 2006 as an assistant at Arkansas, has hired nine high school coaches, including Drinkwitz.
“Not one time did I recruit any of their players,” he said. “I’m trying to put good high school coaches and people into college football. We’re not hiring them to get players here. If that rule passes, it’s gonna hurt. Every one of those (nine coaches), I wouldn’t have been able to hire.”
Another rule proposal, in an attempt to achieve a similar goal, would prevent hiring high school coaches and others associated with recruits to work at colleges’ summer camps. Taken together, Berry said he recognized the proposals would do “collateral damage” to the career aspirations of high school coaches but suggested the rules were necessary to quell the potential for abuse in hiring people to try to lure recruits.
“It’s not rampant,” Berry said, “but we’re seeing it, and it’s not the way we want to go. We borrowed the basketball model. It’s a workable framework for the NCAA to enforce, so it made great sense to take the model already out there.”
But Morris and others said there are significant differences in recruiting practices of basketball and football and that hiring to lure recruits isn’t likely to become a trend.
“I’m not blind to the situation,” Morris said. “You’ve got a great player you’re trying to get to your school, you try to hire the coach — that happens. … But to limit an opportunity, I just think that’s wrong.”