Former LSU GM Austin Thomas hired at Texas A&M: reports

LSU general manager Austin Thomas speaks to a player before a football game in Tiger Stadium in 2017.

When you first start working in a given business, you might look around at how everything is structured and assume that's the way things are.

At least that's what Billy High thought about roster management in college football when he got his start as a student intern in Tennessee's recruiting department in the spring of 2009.

He and three other students were the lower-level employees who cut film clips of recruits all day. They'd pass those clips along to their boss, the coordinator of football operations, and, if the film was impressive enough, it'd find its way up to Tennessee's assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator at the time: Ed Orgeron.

Orgeron would identify the best prospects and the right fits, lead the assistant coaches in recruiting those players, then, eventually, Tennessee would sign its allotment of high school players on a singular signing day.

That's the way recruiting departments were structured. Entry-level defensive staff assistants in Knoxville at the time like Austin Thomas also understood this.

So it's all the more interesting that these same names are at the cutting edge of what is now the shifting business of roster management in college football. More and more college programs are starting to build out their recruiting and scouting departments in styles only previously seen in professional franchises.

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Thomas became the first person to hold the title general manager in the Southeastern Conference when Orgeron took over as LSU's head coach in 2016 and promoted Thomas to help manage the program's operations. Thomas was only one of two people in the NCAA to hold such a job at the time, and, after two seasons, he left to run similar operations at Texas A&M and Baylor.

Thomas returned to LSU in January, and now nine of the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision have an employee with the title general manager, according to the schools' official staff directories. High is now entering his third year as North Carolina's general manager, working for Mack Brown, another head coach who's built a reputation for his ability to recruit.

That Orgeron and Brown — coaches who are famous for their obsessions with recruiting — are creating these positions is as clear a signal as any for this growing trend for managing rosters in college football.

There's a need for more help, High says, because the advent of the NCAA transfer portal and the expectation of a forthcoming one-time transfer rule has created a volatile roster culture that's too much for a handful of employees to manage.

"It's no longer, 'Hey, we're writing hand-written letters and sending them to the kids,'" High said. "The need is somebody that's not directly involved in the recruitment that can kind of step back and, along with the head coach, come up with a consensus — somebody that's seeing the big picture and how it all fits together."

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It's an understatement of what the majority of roster management staffs have recently been doing; several programs have three to four staffers, plus student interns, who are led by someone with a title like director of player personnel. These types of what we'll call modern-traditional departments oversee the entirety of roster-building operations.

But the task has grown far too big for a small group of staffers, some experts say. The number of players in the NCAA transfer portal has grown exponentially since it debuted Oct. 15, 2018. College coaches assigned specific people to keep an eye on the portal, fostering an era that Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher wasn't alone in calling "free agency."

Meanwhile, the NCAA has been debating a "one-time transfer exception" that would allow players to transfer by May 1 and play immediately at their next school if it's their first time transferring. The Division I council tabled the issue in January, but it's likely to come up in the upcoming months, and Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Associations, says coaches expect it will pass.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin told this newspaper in December that coaches are preparing for a summer of free agency, and they're signing less high school players so they'll have spots available to pursue transfer players in the summer.

Kiffin coached the Oakland Raiders for two seasons and hired Orgeron at Tennessee in 2009. He's made Ole Miss one of the nine FBS programs that employs a general manager, hiring Matt Lindsey last March, a former scouting coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Notice the trend yet?

"We're going to a very strong NFL model," LSU's Thomas said during LSU's virtual coaches caravan on March 10.

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So what does that mean? What does a general manager in college football actually do?

Well, it's a hefty answer. It's an "all-encompassing" job, Thomas said, that involves overseeing all football staff and even facility operations. Back in his first tenure as LSU's GM, Thomas helped plan the renovation of the program's football operations building, a $28 million project that included sleeping pods, a nutrition center and a 50-by-12-foot "Walk Through Room" for semi-virtual film study.

But ultimately, the job is about roster management, and, unlike an NFL GM, the head coach is his direct boss. So there's no autonomy over deciding which players get to be on the team. He's really assisting Orgeron's vision for how the program should run.

That's how Clark Lea is approaching his first year as Vanderbilt's head coach. He hired Barton Simmons to be his general manager. Simmons, a Nashville native, spent almost 15 years building scouting departments at media sites Rivals.com and 247Sports before making the crossover to athletic administration.

Simmons is helping lead a data-driven roster rebuild at Vanderbilt, a struggling SEC program that didn't have a winning record in any of former head coach Derek Mason's seven seasons. Lea wants Simmons to help identify and bring in talent based on Vanderbilt's strengths: its membership in a strong conference, its small private-school culture, its renowned academic accreditation. 

"We're going to be learning from the successes and failures of previous staffs and recruiting classes," Simmons said. "We're going to be constantly re-evaluating what we do, learning from our own successes and failures. ... There are things that are going to differentiate us, that are going to allow us to find really unique human beings here."

Simmons is leading a staff of three full-time employees in a scouting department which is keeping Vanderbilt's 10-year vision in mind. 

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Of course, that takes some investment.

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Since LSU hired Thomas at $300,000 a year, according to a public records request of his salary, Orgeron said he's supported Thomas in hiring more staffers. The school announced the hires of Jon Randall Belton, LSU's director of scouting, and Will Redmond, LSU's director of personnel research and strategy. Both employees are paid $60,000 a year.

Thomas said they're still looking to add a research branch in football ops to the point where LSU is "really set up like a pro scouting department." 

Orgeron has received funding support from LSU's athletic department before, which signed off on his request to build a substantial team of off-the-field analysts, whose film crunching and game-plan preparations helped fuel LSU's record-breaking, 15-0 run to the program's fourth national championship in 2019.

General managers and scouting departments are seemingly the next step in the constant college football arms race. They are jobs that Thomas said are "at the forefront of college football," which constantly evaluate players.

Not just high school recruits. Players who are already in college. Players who are in junior college. Others who are in the transfer portal. If any player can transfer at any time, a staff wants to be prepared to make a swift and educated decision on available players before other schools get a jump on the recruitment process.

"Those are the ways and things we can find to get an edge to get ahead of people in that process," Thomas said.

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And it's no longer as difficult to evaluate film on players anymore, High says. Databases like Pro Football Focus allow scouting departments to access crucial film on a player in 30 seconds as opposed to what used to take a team of student interns several hours. 

That frees time to make deeper evaluations and quicker decisions: Is there a tight end who has size a team is currently lacking? A budding linebacker is suddenly an NFL prospect after a huge sophomore year. Is there someone out there who can fill depth when that player leaves for the draft earlier than a team expected? A starting safety suddenly transfers. Who can replace him?

That last example played out at LSU last week, when starting safety Maurice Hampton Jr. entered the NCAA transfer portal. Sources said Hampton, who also plays baseball at LSU, still had an interest in playing football.

Former running back Chris Curry, who wore LSU's coveted No. 18 jersey, also transferred to Utah during the offseason, followed by linebacker Ray Thornton's transfer to Texas.

"You can do everything right and still be at a deficiency," Thomas said. "You can have a couple transfers. You can have a guy that gets injured. You have family emergencies. Guys transfer for different reasons and go to different places, and, all of the sudden, you're sitting in a situation like we managed this very well and we're still at a deficit."

The ongoing debate over the NCAA's one-time transfer proposal involves several coaches who are advocating for the ability to replenish the scholarship spots they lose to transfers. Teams are still limited to signing only 25 scholarship players per year, and coaches have faced alarming roster shortfalls without the ability to replace the players who leave.

In 2020, LSU lost 12 players to the transfer portal and three more to suspensions, which left the Tigers with 69 of 85 possible scholarship players in its season finale against Ole Miss.

Orgeron avoided an unfavorable roster situation by re-recruiting LSU's entire starting offensive and defensive lines, which both were filled with players who could've left for the NFL draft.

LSU added 24 new recruits in a recruiting class that ranked third nationally, according to 247 Sports, and, with one scholarship spot still available to fill, the Tigers had 84 scholarship players entering the first week of spring football.

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It was a close call, one that college football programs are trying to avoid in the era of the transfer portal.

Yes, Thomas said, it's been proven that programs can certainly supplement its roster with transfers. Few teams have executed this with the success LSU has during Orgeron's tenure.

Kicker Cole Tracy, an unknown Division II transfer from Assumption College, set or tied seven school records in 2018. Joe Burrow, a backup quarterback at Ohio State, won LSU's second Heisman Trophy and was the NFL's No. 1 overall pick. North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox was a Butkus Award semifinalist last season, and Harvard transfer Liam Shanahan remains LSU's starting center.

But it's understood that the volatility can also work the other way.

Vanderbilt's Simmons says he's completely embracing the transfer era, and, by understanding players can leave at any time, he emphasizes the need for the program to create a culture where players want to stay.

"It incentivizes great coaches, great people to build meaningful relationships, because otherwise you're not gonna be able to keep your roster intact," Simmons said. "You've got to give guys a reason to stay, and they're going to stay if they feel like they're getting better. They're going to stay if they feel like they're getting developed as a player and as a human."

Last offseason, Simmons read "The Cubs Way," a book about how the culture of Chicago's MLB franchise helped end its 109-year World Series championship drought. By identifying "character guys" that fit with the team, Simmons said, you "set the foundation for everything else to be built on."

The book is partially about the Cubs' president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, the general manager who also helped the Boston Red Sox end its 86-year World Series drought with championships in 2004 and 2007.

Yes, in baseball there's managers and general managers.

Now, there's general managers in college football, too.

"It's really a new day," Thomas said.

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.