They operate in the figurative shadows of college football offices. Their job titles tend to vary in name and murkiness. They assist actual coaches even as they aren’t actual coaches, even though some used to be actual coaches and may yet resume actual coaching someday.

Don’t fret if that got confusing. What’s clear is that, in the bizarre American pursuit of football victory by universities, the people who serve those universities as “analysts” — support staffs for coaches — just got another turn of episodic attention. A coach who exited Maryland after 2015, then became an analyst at Alabama in 2016, then became Alabama’s offensive coordinator by 2018, just became head coach at Maryland for 2019.

If there’s ever an analyst hall of fame (in Alabama, probably), there will be a spot for new Maryland Coach Michael Locksley. There might be one also for DJ Durkin, the fired Maryland coach who visited Alabama lately, leading to a fresh twist in a strange land: analyst speculation. No, Alabama didn’t hire Durkin, so he could not join the ranks of Steve Sarkisian, who went from fired Southern California coach in 2015 to analyst and then fleeting offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2016, or Dan Werner, who has gone from Mississippi offensive coordinator to Alabama analyst to South Carolina quarterbacks coach.

Werner and South Carolina declined an interview request, bolstering the image of analysts as cryptic beings reluctant to discuss what’s perfectly legal and unregulated. It will remain legal and unregulated for the foreseeable future, unless enough people come to believe rich programs wreak competitive disadvantage when they stockpile analysts in a way the proletariat programs ­cannot.

What the hell is an analyst?

An analyst is sort of an assistant to assistants, helping out the assistant coaches in a given program who, by NCAA rule, may not number more than 10. He cannot actively coach, but he helps the active coaches work more efficiently by doing some of the stuff that clogs their wretched days. He’s also basically an emblem of the bloating of football staffs in an era in which No. 1 Alabama’s website lists one head coach (Nick Saban), the NCAA limit of 10 assistant coaches and 55 other people with various titles — including two state troopers and 13 with the title of “analyst.”

An analyst might go to work at 6:30 or 7 a.m., then remain pretty much as late as the coaches do, be it 11 p.m., said Keary Colbert, the Southern California tight ends coach and former USC wide receiver, NFL wide receiver (five teams), Alabama offensive analyst (2014-15) and USC offensive analyst (2016-17).

“A lot of times,” Colbert said, “you might be breaking down opponents’ film. You may be making film edits for position coaches. Sometimes you’re watching film with the position coaches. . . . Everybody’s in the same building, generally in the football office and closely accessible. So if a coach needs you to do a study on something or a coach needs you to print out something or look at something, you’re always available.”

In the motley social mix of analysts, a team of them might include absurdly young football geeks who yearn to coach but haven’t yet and then less-young men with ample coaching scars who alight in places such as “Nick Saban’s witness-protection program,” as Locksley dubbed it in his speech while accepting the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant, given the same day he agreed to a deal with Maryland. That’s how a bustling Page 90 of the 2018 Alabama media guide can carry 41 photos of people with a numbing array of titles and, amid Row 3, there’s a beaming Butch Jones, whose five-season tenure at Tennessee ended with ouster in 2017.

Saban hired Jones as an analyst last winter for a $35,000 salary while he also culls a buyout from Tennessee of more than $8 million.

If there’s a former head coach such as Locksley or Jones in the midst, Colbert said, that guy gets queried for his insights in the great ­coach-analyst exchange of ideas.

Being an analyst, Colbert said, is being a “sponge” or a “fly on the wall.” He said, “I was able to learn a lot of different things from a lot of different coaches about a lot of different styles and a lot of different methods of coaches.” Analysts cannot coach players but are allowed to know them and often do.

Some people think you can’t have too many analysts, while some think you can. Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley said in 2017, “I know there’s some temptation to think the more people you bring in, the better — more people, more hours, more work gets done.” But, he also said, “The more people you bring in, the bigger chance there is of having somebody that’s not all-in, not as invested, and I think that can hurt a staff, hurt a team faster than anything.”

Oklahoma’s media guide lists one non-coach as “offensive specialist,” two as “defensive specialist” and one with the mind-boggling title of “special teams specialist” — all noted before the most important guy of all, the “laundry attendant.”

Some people think having too many analysts (in some places) spoils the competitive balance in a sport that has seen 20 playoff spots go to only 10 universities across five seasons — and 12 of those spots to only three.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby aired this concern when he chaired the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee in 2017. The chairman nowadays, West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons, said the committee will evaluate in January a policy it implemented for this past season: a limit on headsets (20 per team) on the sideline, designed to help keep the analysts out of the box upstairs and out of the coaching.

“Instead of coming up with legislation first,” he said of the committee’s thinking, “let’s look at this first step to see if this helps any.” Any future review of the topic would stem most probably from the Football Oversight Committee, Kris Richardson, the NCAA’s director of academic and membership affairs, relayed in an email.

Woody Eckard, economics professor at the University of Colorado Denver, eyed a sport that doesn’t pay its players a market share and said, “It’s not surprising that as revenues grow, there’s more elaborate and extensive coaching support that they go out and buy with those excess revenues.” While it’s “never clear where the line is in NCAA regulations,” he said, one thing is clear: “Schools like Alabama, Texas A&M, Texas, Ohio State, et cetera, et cetera, those schools, the fans, they always seem willing to pay, willing to forgive, as long as they win.”

In a soliloquy of 2017, Saban noted football has the “fewest number of coaches per player of any sports in college” and concluded: “I hate to go off on something, but I really don’t get it. I really don’t. And I guess it’s the paranoia that we all have that somebody else is doing something that I’m allowed to do; everybody else is allowed to do it. But you choose not to do it. Just like when I used to go on the road in the spring; everybody could have went on the road in the spring. Urban Meyer and I were the only two that went out every day like assistant coaches. So everybody else complained about it, but they could have done it! It wasn’t against the rules. So they just don’t want to work?”

Twenty months after saying that, he will coach in his fifth straight College Football Playoff, seeking his sixth national title at Alabama, with an offensive coordinator set to coach one or two more games before heading for Maryland — via the hidden hallways of the analyst, the specialist of whatever the word.

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