College hoops staffs specialize to meet roster, NIL demands
Kelvin Sampson has been around college basketball long enough to remember when preseason practices started in October following a true offseason, teams remained largely intact for multiple seasons and players weren’t permitted to pursue endorsement deals.
It might as well be a different planet now.
The way Houston’s coach sees it, the top-tier programs must evolve to better manage recruiting, the transfer portal and roster demands, and athlete compensation deals.
“Absolutely, you have to,” the 67-year-old Sampson said as March Madness headed to Sweet 16 weekend. “To (manage) those kinds of things, you’ve got to have specialization on your staff.”
That means bolstering support staffs, much like how analysts and quality control staffers have become common across college football. Specialized roles for recruiting, scouting or analytics. Adding special assistants to aid head coaches, general managers to navigate the new era of players profiting from use their name, image and likeness (NIL), even creative-content staffers to pump out videos or social media to promote the program's brand.
If anything, staffs are starting to resemble their counterparts in the pros.
“I’ve got three – I guess there are four of them now – former (graduate assistants) and managers that work in the front office at the (NBA’s) Phoenix Suns,” Kansas State first-year coach Jerome Tang said before clinching a Sweet 16 appearance. “Those guys told me that the four guys that are on the bench across the country are probably the same. It’s the next level that separates you.”
March Madness resumes Thursday, and there are examples of these increasingly specialized staffs on teams still chasing a national title.
Six teams — Houston, Xavier, Texas, Arkansas, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic — have an assistant or special assistant to the head coach, often designed as catch-all helpers who shoulder administrative duties while potentially taking on tasks such as breaking down film. Tang and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo each has a chief of staff.
Top overall seed Alabama has a director of scouting and analytics. Fellow Southeastern Conference team Tennessee has someone overseeing analytics.
Titles vary. The goal doesn’t.
“I have people on my staff in charge of something with one of our kids 24 hours a day,” Sampson said. “And it’s all built around relationships. You know, these kids can transfer today and not even have to tell the coach. They can just go to the compliance office. … So in order to combat those kinds of things, it’s more and more important that you’re involved in their daily lives.”
Kevin Sutton joined Kansas State’s staff as director of strategies, working with game plans, scouting and film review. He is part of a broader effort to deal with roster management in the portal era, when rosters change dramatically from one year to the next.
“It’s the college version of free agency and it’s something that goes on all the time and it continues to grow on a daily basis,” Sutton said. “We have to retain our players. … So having a larger to staff to be able to be involved in the current players’ lives and then have an eye on what’s happening outside of your program in terms of the transfer portal.”
Juggling that with the core goal – winning games — isn’t easy, either.
For Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, that meant stopping game-prep work last year for recruiting Zooms on the eve of beating No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga to reach a second straight regional final.
“I think it was five, maybe four (Zooms), before we played Gonzaga the night before, up until maybe 11:15, 11:30 at night doing Zooms when you are trying to make an Elite Eight, playing in a Sweet 16 game,” he said.
Musselman, whose team is fresh off beating 1-seed and reigning national champion Kansas, has a 14-person support staff beyond his three assistants and the goal of being “at the forefront of analytics.” That includes a director of internal operations, director of scouting, recruiting coordinator, assistant director of recruiting and scouting, and seven graduate assistants.
Consider it the trickle-down of NBA influence into college ranks.
“Players watch the NBA guys, they want to be like them, play like them, be in an offense like them,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team reached the tournament’s second round. “Then you look at staffs. And as universities try to keep up and provide the best for their student-athletes, then you’re getting into analytics. You’re getting into nutrition. You’re getting into player development."
That has included the very-pro-sounding role of GM, arriving at Duke and DePaul as an NIL resource to players.
Daniel G. Marks fills a similar role as the first chief program strategist at Howard, which reached the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1992. He spent nine seasons with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, including the 2020-21 championship season.
Marks said he is coming with an open mind to work with coach Kenny Blakeney.
“Even when coming up with a title for my job, it's like: What's a title that other people are going to say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, what does he do?'” he said. "(Blakeney) wants programs across the country to look at Howard and say ... 'How can we learn that and emulate that?'"
Those were all things Duke's Jon Scheyer considered in building his first staff to replace retired Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski. Notably, the 35-year-old added former Elon head coach Mike Schrage as special assistant to provide experience, then hired former Nike and NBA staffer Rachel Baker as general manager.
Guard Jeremy Roach said the setup gave players “so many people who can help us out.” And it helped Duke win an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title before falling in the NCAA second round.
The challenge for Scheyer and his peers? Be ready for whatever comes next.
“Communication's really important and just being current,” Scheyer said. “I'm not even talking age. I'm talking current in terms of understanding what these guys are going through, their families.
“It's so much more than it used to be. ... We have the staff to do that. We've done an amazing job while still getting a feel for each other. So that's something where we have to be better next year, because it can be all different next year.”