All careers have to start somewhere. Before seizing control of college football programs, most coaches often start as graduate assistants.
But what do GAs do?
The roles of graduate assistants—who are working toward a postgraduate degree while on staff—vary from school to school based on the makeup of the staff, size of the budget and what needs to be done.
Those needs often mirror roles served by entry-level employees at large companies.
"In spring ball, I'm helping out with practice preparation—mainly getting tape ready so that, when we come in after practice, we can watch that film as a staff," said Christian Robinson, current safeties graduate assistant and former linebacker at Georgia. "During practice we work with the 'three group,' while the rest of the coaches work with the ones and twos. During the season, I work with the scout team during the week and signal plays in during games."
At smaller schools with budgets that aren't quite as big, that role can change quite a bit.
Gerald Alexander, now a defensive graduate assistant for the secondary at Washington, found that out over the last two seasons after spending last year in the same role at Arkansas State.
"It's a lot different because we have a lot more manpower here at Washington," he said. "Our weekly game week preparation at Arkansas State was to get the scouting reports ready and break down four or five games depending on what the coordinator wanted. We'd print it out, put it together and give it to the players. I was in charge of studying routes for the game plan, and making sure the coaches had that information."
For former players who have enjoyed success at the highest levels of competitive football, doing the dirty work to break into the coaching ranks may seem like quite a culture shock.
"You have to respect the profession and be able to humble yourself and be able to be the low man on the totem pole and do the necessary things like an entry-level employee does in order to work your way to the top," said Alexander.
Alexander played safety at Boise State and enjoyed a five-year NFL career from 2007-2011. He joined Bronco coach Bryan Harsin at Arkansas State as a defensive graduate assistant in 2013. Instead of accompanying Harsin to Boise when Harsin got the job as head coach this offseason, Alexander joined Chris Petersen's staff at Washington, where he's working his way up the coaching ladder.
For someone who has gone from the peak of the football mountain as an NFL player and enjoying all of the luxuries that come with that job, hitting the reset button isn't an easy thing to do.
"A lot of it has to do with humility," Alexander said. "You have a lot of guys who play in the NFL who've been coached by some of the best in the business, and then they think that they can just coach. This is a totally different business and a totally different profession. It's not about what you know, it's about what you can teach."
Robinson's career took a slightly different trajectory than Alexander's, but he echoes his sentiments on humility.
"I was a starter my junior year (in 2011) and cracked my foot," he said. "I worked my way into having a role as a third-down guy coming in to the game in cover situations. I thought I was the man, I was riding high and they trusted me to make all the calls, and then I had to learn to adjust. I really found myself and knew I had to play a role. That has really helped me now."
Like they were during their playing careers, graduate assistants have to be flexible. They have to be willing to do dirty work, because that leads to bigger roles, more responsibilities and in a perfect world, a full-time role as a position coach.
But to get to that point, a GA has to know and accept his role and be willing to do whatever is needed for the good of the program.
"My friend and former long-snapper Ty Frix's dad is an orthopedic surgeon and I told him my hours," Robinson said. "And he said 'I think you might be working more hours than I do.' You're on call. Anytime the coaches need us, you're there. Luckily I live right down the street and walk here every morning. If I need to, I can run."
Running toward a coaching future, maybe.
Graduate assistants already have taken a major step towards a career as a football coach. They choose to go in on the ground floor, cut their teeth in a new industry and chase a dream. That dream changed from their playing days, but the effort and desire needed to reach the top doesn't change.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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