Football once was a simple game coached by simple men who preferred simple ideas expressed in as few syllables as possible. If Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes or Don James or Bo Schembechler felt that a grunt would suffice in response to a query, that's what they provided, often begrudgingly.
They were head football coaches, so that's what we called them. They, in turn, gave the men who worked as their assistants simple names, such as "running backs coach" or "offensive coordinator" or "secondary coach."
It all seemed so straightforward. Of course, times change. We live in an age of verbosity and specialization, where big money rules and we monetize everything. College football is no exception.
For example, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe recently promoted Scottie Montgomery. Not too long ago, we'd have congratulated Montgomery on becoming the Blue Devils' offensive coordinator, but that would be a simple description sufficient only in a simpler time. No, last week Montgomery was named "The Baxter Family Associate Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator." That was a promotion from "The Baxter Family Associate Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Passing Game."
Montgomery's new name perfectly encapsulates our topic here: the recent expansion of coaching titles.
Start with "The Baxter Family" part of Montgomery's title, which tells you who is saving Duke from paying Montgomery's salary. His position is endowed, a trend that started in the Ivy League and is gaining traction among FBS schools, such as Stanford and Northwestern, among others.
Stanford coach David Shaw is the "Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football." Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the "Dan and Susan Jones Family Head Football Coach." Do you think they include those titles when they introduce themselves at cocktail parties?
This is not a flippant matter to the program, though. An endowed coaching title potentially saves an athletic department millions of dollars.
"There's a misnomer out there that Stanford is swimming in cash," said Shaw, whose coordinators also both hold endowed positions. "We have enough money to do the things we need to do, but we are constantly taking money from donors who are willing to help in any way they can. Especially with the way football coaching salaries have skyrocketed, to be able to offset that through gifts and not have the university bear all that on its own, to free up money for some other things, that's huge."
But the new style of coaching titles becoming almost complete sentences is more than someone picking up the tab for a coach's salary and then getting his name thrown up on the official roster and on a plaque outside the football office.
Last year, Montgomery was the "associate head coach/offensive coordinator/passing game." Now he's the "associate head coach/offensive coordinator." That may seem like he lost a title, but he actually gained playcalling duties, which belonged to Kurt Roper this past season before he left for Florida.
So Montgomery's promotion cost him two words but earned him a coveted responsibility.
At USC, Steve Sarkisian has an offensive line coach, Tim Drevno, who is also the Trojans' running game coordinator. His defensive backs coach, Keith Heyward, is also his defensive "pass game coordinator." Sark also has an associate head coach for defense (linebackers coach Peter Sirmon) and an associate head coach for offense (tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo) as well as an assistant head coach (running backs coach and special teams coordinator Johnny Nansen).
Now, on one hand, it might seem like we are making sport of all this. And we are. But once you move past the reflexive snark from an outside observer, these titles actually own a perfectly defensible logic.
"I don't know when those types of titles started coming into effect, but the reality is they've been around for quite a while," Sarkisian explained. "Everybody has responsibilities on a weekly basis, things they are responsible for to the staff, whether it's on the offensive side of the ball or the defensive side of the ball. That's the emphasis of the work they do. So I've always felt like why not title the guy for what he does?"
Because an offensive line coach directs what the offense does at the point of attack -- the blocking scheme -- he becomes the point man in the running game. He informs the other offensive coaches of adjustments and potential checks for running plays. Ergo, he coordinates the running game under the auspices of offensive coordinator Clay Helton and Sarkisian, who is the primary play-caller.
In other words, Sarkisian and other head coaches add words to titles to formalize and specify responsibilities. That way everyone knows who does what. As for Sarkisian's "associate head" coaches on offense and defense and single "assistant head" coach, those also specify responsibilities. Sirmon is Sarkisian's No. 2 on defense under coordinator Justin Wilcox, as Tuiasosopo is on offense under Helton. Nansen is Sarkisian's administrative No. 2 for the entire program.
"The assistant head coach is really the guy that I lean on on a daily basis, fundamentally for our roster, for our team, for issues outside of our team -- donors, boosters, a variety of things," Sarkisian said. "The assistant head coach is kind of for the overall program, while the associate head coach deals directly with one side of the ball."
These titles aren't standardized across college football. Each head coach has his own vision of how he names and distributes responsibilities.
Penn State's Brent Pry is head coach James Franklin's "assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach." At Oklahoma, Mike Stoops is his brother Bob's "associate head coach/defensive coordinator/safeties coach." Auburn's Rodney Garner is Gus Malzahn's "associate head coach/defensive line coach." UCLA's Adrian Klemm is head coach Jim Mora's "running game coordinator/offensive line/associate head coach."
Sometimes it's just semantics. For example, Shaw designated his former defensive coordinator, Derek Mason, as "associate head coach," making him No. 2 in command. Why "associate" instead of "assistant"? Shaw said he thought it sounded better.
These titles are a mouthful, but they also serve purposes on both ends. A head coach is able to specifically designate responsibilities, and an assistant is able to have a title to put on a resume. Those aren't just empty words, either. Being a designated No. 2 often justifies an increase in salary. Ace recruiters are often given additional titles -- as well as pay raises -- so they don't seem like "just," say, a defensive line coach. These titles also tell potential future employers that the specified assistant is on a head coaching track, not unlike a vice president. For example, Mason is now the head coach at Vanderbilt.
"I think it's great for me, but I think it's also great for that person," said Shaw, who shortly will officially name offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren as his new "associate" head coach. "I think Derek appreciated that in preparation to be a head coach."
"The value is placed on responsibility, and those titles assign responsibility," Mason said. "[With Shaw], it was about giving us responsibility as leaders and making sure that we were seen as leaders who can lead."
So there is method -- as well as money -- in this madness of long-winded coaching titles. Oh, but it's not just coaches. Did we mention that Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is officially the "Chris and Courtney Combe Vice President for Athletics and Recreation"?