Former Saban assistants feel his pain with replacing coaches


CW / Hannah Saad

James Ogletree, Sports Editor

As more former Nick Saban assistants are accepting head coaching jobs in the SEC, they are inheriting an issue Saban has dealt with for years: staff turnover.

Three of the four teams that were present at SEC Media Days on Tuesday are coached by former Saban assistants Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt. While Fisher returns both coordinators from last year, Smart, Pruitt and Ole Miss coach Matt Luke all have new coordinators on both sides of the ball. 

Tennessee hired former Alabama defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley as its new DC and turned heads by hiring Georgia OC Jim Chaney to the same position. Georgia replaced Chaney and former DC Mel Tucker, who is now the head coach at Colorado, by promoting from within, but Smart downplayed the impact of the changes.

“I think that the game of football boils down to football players making plays,” Smart said. “And there’s not going to be anything that Jim Chaney or myself can do out there on that field that our players aren’t going to control.”

Smart added that hiring from within the existing framework of a program helps alleviate any players’ anxiety about the changes. He has used a model similar to Saban’s, enlisting a primary play-caller on offense and defense as well as a “co-coordinator” to assist and learn. 

In Saban’s case, the co-coordinator has often become the primary coordinator in subsequent years. Last year, current defensive coordinator Pete Golding was the co-coordinator with DC Tosh Lupoi, who two years ago was the co-coordinator with Pruitt. 

Sometimes, though, coaches are required to look outside their current staff, as Saban did this offseason by hiring Steve Sarkisian to oversee the offense or in 2014 when hiring Lane Kiffin to do the same.

“If I didn’t have confidence in the men in the room in the building, I probably go outside and look and try to find the best guy that gives Georgia the best opportunity to win,” Smart said.

Despite Saban’s foresight in equipping future coordinators, he has faced considerable staff turnover in the last two offseasons. Six assistants left the program after 2017 and seven after 2018, including both coordinators in both instances. Preparing position coaches to become coordinators by giving them more responsibility has not led to increased continuity on his staff, which has also become a factor in recruiting.

Saban has swung to both ends of the spectrum in recent years, taking risks on less experienced assistants who excelled in recruiting before returning to established coaches and trustworthy play-callers for 2019.

When filling staff positions, head coaches must consider both the scheme and the intangibles of their candidates. Luke hired former Pac-12 head coaches Mike MacIntyre and Rich Rodriguez to coordinate his defense and offense, respectively.

He lauded the 3-4 defense MacIntyre is bringing to Oxford and how he’s gotten his players to buy in to a significant schematic change, and he said coaches with swagger and edge like Rodriguez help create a consistent contender.

“I think when you hire two former National Coaches of the Year, I think that obviously brings a wealth of knowledge to your staff, but I think it also makes a statement,” Luke said. “I think it makes a statement to our commitment to winning.”

Regardless of how many new faces are sitting in team meetings or the amount of experience they carry with them, Alabama’s identity has rarely changed while Saban has been at the helm.

“I think the new coordinator brings new energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas. Sometimes we make tweaks and adaptations to what we do,” Saban said during spring practice. “But we’re pretty successful … So why would we change it a lot?”