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Contributed article>>> Remember the Gs: The Forgotten Coaches in College Football

The following article was written by Jarrod James and Molly Harry. It is pending publication in the International Journal of Sport Management.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill find that 93% of GAs are enrolled in graduate degree programs while only 61% believe they will graduate.

Graduate assistants say role conflict, time, and pay inhibit their success and well-being.

Remember the Gs: The Forgotten Coaches in College Football

The college football playoff and bowl games have ended but right now there is another part of the football season going on that can have huge implications on multiple programs in college football. This part of the season is commonly referred to as the “Coaching Carousel.” Programs around the country have been hiring and firing coaches since the regular season ended back in early December. This carousel turns the lives of head coaches and their assistant coaches upside down as they uproot their families and move on to their next destination. Most of the names involved are well known and covered extensively on television and the internet. However, there is a large population of coaches involved that you never hear mentioned. A group of coaches that often get forgotten even though their lives are also thrown into limbo during this time. That group would be the graduate assistant coaches that work in every college football program in the country.

Limbo is the perfect word to describe this group because that’s where they often find themselves during their time as graduate assistants. Graduate assistant coaches in Division-I FBS football occupy a middle ground – not quite coaches, not quite students – that leaves an often-undefined role that leads to this group often being overlooked, overworked, and underpaid. In a time when schools are paying full-time coaches larger salaries than ever before, and there is talk of maybe even paying the players, the status and welfare of graduate assistants should also be re-examined.

As one graduate assistant coach said, there is “lack of clarity with what we are defined as – support staff instruments or as up-and-coming coaches that will eventually take over this profession.”

These “GAs,” or “Gs,” as they are called in their programs represent the current pool of millennials that will one day take the reins of Division I-FBS football, yet, their treatment varies widely from team to team and school to school.

They idolize coaches like Auburn Offensive Coordinator Kenny Dillingham and head coach Lincoln Riley, young coaches who remind them that if they work hard, they too can make their way up from a GA to the power seat of a Division I-FBS Power Five program.

However, the conditions of their GA status may also lead to their exploitation, inciting the need for higher powers to step in and protect them. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we surveyed nearly one hundred GAs across the Division I-FBS level to see what they thought about their roles. We found there was a lack of support to make sure that these student-coaches had the resources necessary to accomplish both their academic and athletic pursuits.

The official title of the GA role, as determined by the NCAA, is “Graduate Assistant Coach.” A graduate assistant coach in Division I-FBS football can be anyone who has received a college degree, is no more than seven years removed from their exhausted eligibility, and qualifies to be a graduate assistant based on the rules of their university. Some schools do not require their GAs to take classes like regular graduate students, but even still, roughly 93% of current Division I-FBS football GAs are pursuing master’s degrees.

“Higher Education is extremely expensive. Having the opportunity to obtain a free education while coaching college football is obviously a tremendous benefit to being a GA,” responded one participant. “Obtaining my master’s degree also provides me with another route, if coaching doesn't work out.”

Previous research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s found that GAs’ roles as coaches hindered their success as a student, but no research about this group of coaches has been done since then. As mentioned above, our research found that 93% of current GAs were pursuing a master’s degree as part of their assistantship, but only 61% believed that they would actually graduate from their program. Two main reasons for not completing their degree emerged from our study: a lack of time available to complete their coursework during their GA eligibility period at their school, and a conflict of interests in balancing their responsibilities as students and coaches.

Some would argue that GAs are not at their schools to get a degree, but to coach. To do so would be similar to assuming that student-athletes are not at their schools to obtain a degree, but to play a sport. While our research cannot determine the personal objectives of a student-coach, it can set the precedent for the expectations we desire for our students, either as coaches or players, and protect their status as a student-coach by supporting both their academic and athletic pursuits.

When asked why he did not think he would receive his master’s degree, one GA responded, “The time frame in which I can get school work done is very, very small because [of] the work demands placed upon us here.”

The work demands placed on GAs can be intense. GAs are typically at their offices before the full-time coaching staff arrives around 7:00 AM and they keep working well after the full-time coaches leave, roughly around 10:00 PM, depending on the program. GAs work this hard to demonstrate that they have what it takes to be a Division I football coach, but this often leaves academics as an afterthought.

As one GA put it, “I think in this line of work, you need to pick what is more important to you. Would you rather get a master's? Or would you rather impress your coaches?” The majority of GAs surveyed grapple with this dilemma every year.

The schools are also conflicted with how to classify their GAs: are they students or are they coaches? The NCAA allows GAs to accept employee benefits such as life and health insurance if it is offered by the school. However, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act (2016) determined that any graduate student was in fact a student at their university and not an employee, making the NCAA bylaw unenforceable. At the same time, schools hesitate to give their GA coaches the full rights of a student, such as proper financial aid, student health insurance, and access to student housing, because it is pre-determined that GAs are at the school to coach (i.e., employees) and not to get a degree (i.e., students). So once again, these “student-coaches” are left in limbo.

Graduate assistant coaches’ inconsistent classification may also impact their job security. If the head coach and his staff are fired, are the GAs also fired? Can they be guaranteed that the new staff will retain them as coaches? Can you fire “students?” If so, how would this impact their academic status? Since coaches are usually fired in between semesters, are the GAs able to complete that academic year? Are their credits transferrable? If not, are they eligible for any type of severance pay like the “full-time” coaches? All of these are questions that often have no clear answers and leave many GAs wondering where they fit into the chaos that is the coaching carousel.

The last component of this uncertain career path is any resemblance of a uniform scale of pay for GAs. For decades GA’s have spoken out about their pay with regards to the number of hours they worked, but to no avail. In our study, when asked what they disliked about being a GA the most, a significant number of GAs in our study responded, “pay.” While the public debates that college coaches are paid too much and the student-athletes are paid too little, few tend to think of the student-coaches who may be paid little to nothing at all.

When speaking about pay, one GA responded, “We make less money than our student-athletes do when you add up our pay checks vs. their scholarship checks.”

According to the NCAA, GAs may not be paid more than full grant-in-aid, which includes cost of attendance. However, it is not mandated that graduate assistants receive that value as payment, only that their pay may not exceed that value. This rule has potentially exploited GAs by establishing a “salary cap” without setting a “minimum wage.” So once again there is a lack of clarity that leaves this issue unresolved and the financial well-being of GAs falls through the cracks. With the pressures of being a Division-I FBS coach, and wondering how to make ends meet, it is not surprising that completing a homework assignment might be the last thing on a GA’s mind.

“As a GA, I am responsible to manage all the defensive operations, recruit in order to show that I can, and increase my chances to get a full-time position. On top of this, I make $12,000 a year and drive Uber on the side just to be able to pay bills. With all those commitments, school comes last.”

The hardships that GAs face are clear. What’s also clear is that these student-coaches know what they’re signing up for when they pursue this career path. Despite the challenges the GAs faced, many of them still found joy in being able to do something that they loved: coach football.

When asked, “What was the best thing about being a GA,” one responded, “Seeing the development of the young men I work with and seeing my development as a coach.”

Another replied, “The ability to personally affect the lives of young men, whose position as a student-athlete I have previous experience in.”

Coaching football can also bring GAs meaningful relationships that they cherish, and those relationships can be critical to their future in the coaching profession. One stated, “I have found that even as a Graduate Assistant, it is still very much possible to form significant and valuable relationships…Whether that is with the players, other GAs/support staffs, or the full-time coaches, I have made a lot of quality relationships over the years that I very much appreciate.”

Again, there can be benefit for the sacrifices that GAs make in their lives in pursuit of their academic and coaching dreams. As stated above, they know what they’re getting into when they become a GA, but that doesn’t mean the hardships they endure, or their overall welfare should be ignored.

The GA exists as a middle-man. He is not a full-time coach, nor is he as valued as a player. He is not a full-time student, nor is he a full-time employee. This leaves football GAs in a vulnerable position and highly exploitable if their roles are not clearly outlined and further protected. There are plenty of smart, strategic thinkers in academia and college football who, if given the time, support and sense of urgency, could develop feasible paths forward that would do exactly that; protect the GAs in their academic and athletic pursuits.

The one thing that is clear in this world that is severely lacking clarity is that the whole GA system needs to be reevaluated against the backdrop of modern-day college football. Today’s college football is strikingly more lucrative than it ever was when the first GA joined a college coaching staff. As the debate continues about how to compensate coaches and student-athletes for their role in the business of college football, so too should the role of GAs be considered in this discussion. It’s long past time for the NCAA, university presidents and their athletic directors to remember the Gs.

This research is currently pending official publication via the International Journal of Sport Management.

Jarrod James is a Graduate Assistant and NFL Intern Coach, having completed his Master’s in Sport Administration at the University of North Carolina. Molly Harry is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia studying Higher Education with a focus in Intercollegiate Athletics. Further questions can be emailed to Jarrod James at JarrodJames62@gmail.com and Molly Harry at mh4yf@virginia.edu.

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