A horn sounds and the Vikings players spread out onto two practice fields in a scene that resembles a rush-hour subway.
A full training camp roster takes a lot of hands to manage, but Kevin O’Connell’s staff has it covered, and then some.
O’Connell assembled a staff of 28 assistant coaches in his first season, an organization record. Along with the traditional coordinator roles, O’Connell hired a game management coordinator (Ryan Cordell) and an assistant coach (Mike Pettine) who previously served as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
The staff includes a quarterbacks coach and an assistant quarterbacks coach to oversee the three quarterbacks on the roster.
There is an inside linebackers coach, an outside linebackers coach and an assistant linebackers coach.
Dwight Schrute would approve of this staff.
“When you can have a 1-to-1 position coach ratio on two fields, I think it’s fantastic for the players,” O’Connell said. “It’s fantastic for every person on our team to feel like they’re being watched, developed and trained hard.”
An undersized coaching staff is not unique to the Vikings. It has subtly become another tentacle in the arms race that governs all sports leagues, professional and college.
Pay raises and spacious facilities get more attention as conspicuous signs of a team’s commitment, but a trend of adding coaching staffs is gaining steam.
Nick Saban’s football staff at Alabama features 13 analysts who assist full-time coaches, graduate assistants and special assistants to the head coach. The panel of analysts includes a former SEC head coach and a defensive backs coach with 30 years of experience between the NFL and major college football.
Former Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder had 11 assistants on his staff last season. NBA teams have 15 players on the roster during the season.
Although not technically a member of Rocco Baldelli’s field staff, the Twins baseball operations department employs a run creation coordinator and a run prevention coordinator.
These examples make one stop and think: How did teams survive before?
Poor Bud Grant only had four assistants on his 1967 Vikings staff.
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason recalls returning to the football facility as part of the Big Ten Network broadcast crew and, while sitting down for a production meeting with then-coach Jerry Kill, noticing the chairs lined up along the wall that surrounded their large table.
Mason didn’t have those chairs when he coached in the early 2000s because he didn’t need them. His staff could fit on the conference table. Kill had a meeting with the staff after the broadcast crew finished the conversation.
“The door opened and all these people started coming in,” Mason said. “I look and think, Who the hell are all these guys??”
Specialization drives growth
Times change, things evolve. Like SUVs and televisions, coaching staffs have grown in size over the years.
Money is at the root of it, of course. Teams have far more financial resources available now than ever before, so they identified another area in which to spend.
The unspoken motto: If you have it, spend it.
Coaches fear falling behind rivals in every aspect of the arms race. If they see the opposing coaching staff multiply, they will want something similar. That’s just the nature of the sport.
Executives say staff size is not a status symbol. They point to several benefits of having more coaches.
“People are getting more specialized,” said Timberwolves coach Chris Finch, who has six assistants.
NBA teams are hiring assistant coaches to oversee specific areas. A team can hire a shooting coach, a coach to run the defense, an architect for the offense, multiple player development coaches.
“The modern athlete demands more personal attention,” Finch said. “It’s all about building relationships.”
This personal touch is easier to accomplish if an assistant coach has either one-on-one sessions or just a few players at a time when he studies video, or does post-practice skill development work, or spends time with the players. away from the facility.
Finch noted that it’s not just coaching staffs that are expanding in professional sports. Front offices have created new positions beyond traditional roles, along with the performance side as teams place more emphasis on coaching, sports science and analytics.
More coaches means more messages and ideas are sent to the players, which Finch admits can be tricky for a coach.
“You have to make sure the right messages and the same messages are going out,” he said. “We still want all of our coaches to have a relationship with all of our players. You risk some turf battles sometimes if you don’t have a healthy functional staff.”
Part of O’Connell’s plan to hire a large staff includes preparing for when his aides leave for other jobs. Circulation is a way of life in the coaching profession. Coaches come and go constantly.
O’Connell hopes that by having multiple coaches at each position, he is insulating his staff and players from major disruption if one assistant moves on.
“We have some great coaches here on campus who are ready to take on some roles,” he said.
Similar to his roster, O’Connell wants depth on his coaching staff, an assistant’s assistant at various positions. This is a new frontier in the search for a competitive advantage.