Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Meet Tennessee's Mitch Browning, the best graduate assistant coach in the nation. He also happens to be the oldest graduate assistant in the nation.
Browning, 52, has more than 30 years of coaching experience, but he isn't one of the Volunteers' nine full-time assistants.
"This is a 'have' program," says Browning, who has been an offensive coordinator at Minnesota and Syracuse and helped develop myriad NFL players during his tenure. "It is an opportunity to come in with a new staff and a new system to put in a pro-style attack with a bunch of guys who have been coaching a long time.
"I also think it's great to have the chance to work with Lane Kiffin. He is a fine coach who has good ideas and a bright future."
It was a coup for Kiffin to get Browning on his staff. Much of the credit for landing Browning must go to Kiffin's father, Monte, who is the Vols' defensive coordinator. Browning has had a long relationship with Monte, including serving as an assistant to Kiffin at N.C. State from 1980-81.
Historically, the graduate assistant position is reserved for 20-something coaches who are looking to break into the business. No more. Now, several schools have hired veteran assistants in what could become a trend.
Other prominent veteran graduate assistants hired this offseason include Oregon State's Robin Ross (former Western Washington head coach), USF's Steve Bird (Bowling Green assistant and West Virginia offensive coordinator) and Alabama's Mike Groh (Virginia offensive coordinator).
"He didn't have a job," Alabama coach Nick Saban says of Groh. "He should have an opportunity to work. We're not violating any rules. His dad [Virginia coach Al Groh] is a good friend of mine. We coached together before. I'm sure he would do the same for my son.
"[Mike] is going to graduate school, and he's not making any more money than a graduate assistant."
Some former players who have been out of college for a decade have been hired. Notre Dame has hired former NFL star Bryant Young, an Irish alum who is 37 and has a wife and four children. Former Florida State star cornerback Terrell Buckley, 38, is a G.A. at his alma mater.
Texas Tech has two former players as grad assistants. The defensive G.A. is Duane Price, who played at Tech from 1994-97; former Red Raiders quarterback Sonny Cumbie (2001-04) is the offensive grad assistant.
Former USC defensive back Kris Richard is a G.A. for the Trojans, and former NFL cornerback Ashley Ambrose is a defensive intern with Colorado, which is grooming him to be receivers coach next season.
"I'm ecstatic, just ecstatic," says Richard, a Trojans cornerback from 1998-2001 who played for six years in the NFL. "I always envisioned myself coaching here when I was done with my playing days, so this is truly a blessing."
There are detractors who feel this trend is breaking the spirit and intent of what the G.A. posts are for - developing young coaches. Regardless, hiring seasoned coaches for grad assistant spots is a good way to augment a staff that is limited by NCAA rules to nine full-time assistants.
"If you can afford it, it gives you a way to stay in coaching and hopefully broaden your contacts and experiences," Browning says. "That's what it is about."
'Hey, I know of you!'
Most grad assistants toil in anonymity. But there are a few this season who should be well-known to even casual fans.
Alabama: Mike Groh
Colorado: Ashley Ambrose
Florida State: Terrell Buckley
Notre Dame: Bryant Young
Tennessee: Mitch Browning
Under NCAA rules, graduate assistants are paid an amount equal to a school's full grant-in-aid. Texas Tech, for instance, will pay its grad assistants $17,300. And the G.A.s must be full-time students in grad school.
As for coaching duties, grad assistants can be like full-time coaches, but they aren't permitted to contact or evaluate recruits off campus. G.A.s can phone prospects, though.
"I think it's a humbling experience," says Browning, who financially is able to do this because he also will receive the last year of his salary from Syracuse, worth reportedly more than $300,000. "All of a sudden, you go from calling the shots and being one of the nine full-time coaches. ? Even though you still are coaching and recruiting, you still don't get looked at the same. But at the end of the day, you still are what you are."
Browning worked for 19 seasons with Glen Mason, beginning in 1986 at Kent State and stretching to the end of Mason's run as Minnesota coach after the 2006 season. Browning is considered an excellent offensive line coach, which will be his area of focus for the Vols. At Syracuse, he coached guards and centers in addition to being offensive coordinator.
Browning helped craft some prolific offenses during his run as offensive coordinator at Minnesota, which ranked among the country's top 35 attacks in each of the seven seasons Browning was coordinator.
From 2003-05, Minnesota became the first school in NCAA history to produce two 1,000-yard rushers in three consecutive seasons. In 2003, Browning helped Minnesota rack up a Big Ten-record 6,430 yards with a dynamite 1-2 running back punch of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III. Browning was a finalist that season for the Frank Broyles Award, which annually is given to the nation's top assistant.
"This is going to be a great learning experience," Browning said. "I explored my opportunities [after last season], and I liked the potential here to help make this a great program."