Nick Saban had to overcome another offseason full of coaching changes
Alabama hadn’t even landed back in Tuscaloosa when the staff exodus began.
Following a stunning 44–16 national championship game loss to Clemson, the worst defeat of the Nick Saban era at Alabama, a steady stream of assistant coaches opted for employment elsewhere, whether by choice or encouragement from Saban.
Significant staff turnover has become the norm at Alabama as opposing schools raid the school annually looking to capture a piece of Saban’s famous “Process.” But what happened after the title game debacle in Santa Clara was unprecedented even for Alabama. In total, seven assistant coaches from Alabama’s 2018 coaching staff won’t be back this season, including offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi and co-offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.
Most interestingly, multiple Alabama assistants made what could be considered lateral moves, at best. Quarterbacks coach Dan Enos was in line to be the Crimson Tide’s next offensive coordinator but gave up a chance to lead Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa and a stacked collection of receivers to go to what’s been an offensive wasteland at Miami (Fla.). That he reportedly left without giving proper notice to Saban added to the curiousness of the decision. Lupoi lasted only one year as defensive coordinator before he bounced to the NFL as the Cleveland Browns’ defensive line coach in what will likely include a sizable pay cut from the $1.1 million he made last year.
The massive turnover at Alabama prompted a string of stories assigning blame to the difficulty of working for Saban as the primary catalyst for the departures. Gattis spent all of five days at Michigan after leaving Alabama before publicly declaring Jim Harbaugh’s staff as “by far the most hospitable” he’d been around. There’s no question that Saban is a demanding leader and that working at Alabama, as Lupoi put it before leaving, “isn’t for everyone.” Saban expects his coaches to mirror his unrelenting drive for success and doesn’t allow anyone to revel in the good times at risk of complacency. A perfect example: After winning the 2018 national championship on a Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith overtime touchdown, Saban was back in the office days later admonishing his staff for poor recruiting.
Thad Turnipseed knows all about that side of Saban. He spent six years working for him before joining Dabo Swinney, his former Alabama teammate, at Clemson in 2013. After winning three national titles with Saban and now two with Swinney, he has noticed a fundamental difference between the two.
“As soon as Nick wins something it’s over instantly,” Turnipseed says, “while Dabo might enjoy it for a month.”
Those differing perspectives might explain why hot coaching candidates Brent Venables, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have all stayed with Swinney while Alabama has been a revolving door of coordinators. In just the last three years, Alabama has had four offensive coordinators (Locksley, Lane Kiffin, Brian Daboll and Steve Sarkisian) and three defensive coordinators (Lupoi, Jeremy Pruitt and now Pete Golding). With each coordinator departure comes the loss of assistants, analysts and graduate assistants who follow the former Alabama staffer to the next school.
Those departures rarely get media attention, but they’ve impacted the talent pool Saban has to choose from when he has openings. Kiffin, now the head coach at Florida Atlantic, noticed that Saban “went out of his loop” last offseason when he had six assistant openings from four departures, the move of running backs coach Burton Burns to an off-field role and the creation of the 10th assistant spot. With fewer internal candidates to promote and other known options already on Power 5 staffs with former assistants, Saban was forced to hire coaches with few — if any — previous ties to his system.
“He didn’t know these guys, they came in, and it was different for them,” Kiffin says. “Their goal was probably to get to the next place.”
Saban mostly opted for younger assistants to bolster the program’s recruiting efforts. Those hiring decisions proved costly in Alabama’s title game blowout loss against Clemson. Saban’s band of mercenary misfits was no match for Swinney’s veteran group, and it showed in a startling way throughout the game. Never has a Saban-coached Alabama team looked more unprepared in a big game, and it wasn’t for lack of talent.
Saban has kept the program humming for years despite heavy staff losses, especially during the title-winning 2015 and 2017 seasons, but there’s always a toll. Hiring a horde of new faces slows down the transition process and creates challenges when the new staffer doesn’t know Saban’s preferred verbiage and style of doing things.
The 2018 experience prompted a return to basics for Saban. On his first three title teams at Alabama (2009, ’11 and ’12), Saban had experienced staffs that mainly stayed with him for multiple seasons. He had talented lieutenants in coordinators Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart, and when Alabama had to introduce three new assistants in 2012, two (Mike Groh and Jeff Stoutland) already had ties to his system. That’s a marked difference from a program that has zero assistants remaining from its 2016 staff.
Saban realized he needed more assistants who knew what he wanted and could deliver it. There was a feeling around the Alabama program last season that there wasn’t full buy-in amongst the coaching staff, that too many of the new faces were more interested in bolstering their careers than helping Saban achieve his goals. “A lot of coaches go there to further their career,” former Alabama offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher says. “It’s expected, and as a recruit you have to take it into consideration.” That mentality hurt player development and left some players unprepared for what to expect on game days.
It’s why Saban went back to familiar names this offseason and hired two former Alabama assistants — Steve Sarkisian (offensive coordinator) and Sal Sunseri (outside linebackers). He hired veteran defensive coaches Charles Kelly, who spent years working for Saban protÃ©gÃ© Jeremy Pruitt, and defensive line coach Brian Baker to help out young defensive coordinator Golding. Major Applewhite, the first offensive coordinator of the Saban era, returns as an offensive analyst after Houston fired him.
“I would guess there was so much turnover — none of us like turnover as head coaches especially that much — that [Nick] said to himself, ‘I’m going back into the loop again and going back to people I know who’ve been here before,’” Kiffin says. “They know what it’s like and know what they are signing up for.”
Experience doesn’t come cheap, as the total cost of Saban’s 10 assistants is $7.5 million, $1.5 million more than the 2018 staff cost. That money will be well spent, though, if it gets Alabama back on top as college football champions. It also showed there are still plenty of talented coaches willing to come to Alabama to learn under Saban if the money is right.
Saban is at his best when anyone discounts his program — it doesn’t happen often — and a blowout title game loss plus a narrative that he’s too hard to work for have given him plenty of bulletin board material to mine all offseason. He has settled on a message that his program needs to reestablish the “Alabama Factor” that it was missing at times last season.
“That’s having a team that plays with a lot of discipline, a team that everybody is sort of responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level and standard, and everybody puts the team first,” Saban says. “I don’t think we played in that [championship] game with the Alabama factor. So everybody needs to understand that and respond to it.”
Saban may be an unrelenting boss, but he knows what it will take to get to the mountaintop. After an offseason that generated more negative headlines than he’s accustomed to, Saban shifted course and assembled a strong enough staff that fans will have to find a new scapegoat if the Tide don’t win another title this season.