A bevy of former Saban assistants, including Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, are playing for conference titles this week
One word comes up repeatedly among some of the head coaches involved in championship games the first week of December 2019: "blueprint."
The architect behind the blueprint is Nick Saban. But in an unusual twist — it's happened just four times since the 2008 season — he is not coaching on championship weekend. That doesn't mean his presence is absent from the slate, however.
Six head coaches around Div. I, three apiece from two different eras of the Alabama dynasty, are overseeing teams playing in championship games. Five are playing for league titles:
*Mario Cristobal (Alabama associate head coach and offensive line coach from 2013-16) leads Oregon against Utah in Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game.
*Billy Napier (Alabama wide receivers coach from 2013-16) is coaching Louisiana in a second consecutive Sun Belt Conference Championship Game.
*Lane Kiffin (Alabama offensive coordinator from 2014-16) coaches FAU in the Conference USA Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.
*Jim McElwain (Alabama offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2008-11) has Central Michigan in the MAC Championship Game in his first season at the helm.
*Kirby Smart (Alabama defensive coordinator from 2008-15) is in a third consecutive SEC Championship Game at Georgia, one year after coaching the Bulldogs in an instant classic against his longtime colleague and the Crimson Tide.
The sixth, Curt Cignetti, leads James Madison in its first game of the 2019 FCS playoffs against Monmouth. The Dukes (11-1, only loss to West Virginia) steamrolled through the regular season en route the No. 2 overall seed and home-field advantage all the way to the title game. Cignetti was wide receivers coach at Alabama from 2007-10, on the ground floor of the rebuild from a first season that included a loss to ULM, to the first of five national titles won in Saban's tenure.
"We all learned and came from the same tree, so to speak. I'm sure we all run our programs fairly similarly," Cignetti said of his former colleagues.
Each program takes on its own identity, adopting details specific to the strengths of and resources available to each. But all begin with a blueprint.
Said Cristobal: "Everybody really respected and worked hard for coach Saban, and he taught everybody a lot. Everyone took something. I'm sure if you stop at every place, you'll see some form of a blueprint from our time over there."
Said Napier: "That's great to have conversations with a number of people [who coached at Alabama], how they tweaked that blueprint."
The blueprint includes ideas and approaches that apply to a championship situation, like those ahead of the six former Alabama assistants coaching teams this weekend. For some, they have had the opportunity to lean on those experiences before and apply them in other high-stakes settings. For Cignetti, this is his fifth consecutive season coaching in a playoff situation, taking Indiana University of Pennsylvania to the Div. II postseason in 2015 and '16 before the first-ever back-to-back FCS playoff appearances in Elon program history during the 2017 and '18 campaigns.
Likewise, Napier has Louisiana in the Sun Belt Championship Game for a second consecutive season. He said he applied lessons from his time at Alabama into preparing for championship week a season ago, and emphasizes the same principles after a historic 10-win regular season for the Ragin' Cajuns.
"Being very specific about the task and specific points of emphasis with your team, with each position group, creating a sense of urgency and intensity but not get caught up in the emotion of the game," he said.
Not getting caught up in the emotion is a critical point, but these head coaches have also seen the value of weighing positive emotion with the stress of the moment. McElwain may be in his first year at Central Michigan, but the former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is involved in his third conference title game in just five seasons, having faced his former peer Saban twice at Florida in 2015 and '16.
"You're able to reach back a little bit and look at the things that worked, some of the things that didn't," McElwain said of applying the past into this week's preparation. "It really comes down to the guys' focus on the routine."
"I want to make sure they enjoy it, because how many times do you get this opportunity?" he added.
That's a good point indeed. Between the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences, 20 programs have the opportunity to play in conference championship games. That's just 15 percent of the entirety of the subdivision. Add the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoffs into the equation, where only 24 programs earn invitations, and just 17 percent of all Div. I programs participate in these postseason contests.
That six programs with coaches from the same tree are involved is remarkable — and it's not a one-time thing. This season is the widest it has branched out in the Div. I ranks, but every season over the last five has featured multiple former Saban assistants, or Saban's own Alabama team, in championship contests.
2018: Louisiana (Napier); Elon (Cignetti); Georgia (Smart); Alabama (Saban)
2017: FAU (Kiffin); Elon (Cignetti); Georgia (Smart)
2016: Florida (McElwain); Alabama (Saban)
2015: Michigan State (Mark Dantonio); Florida (McElwain); Alabama (Saban)
From that foundation comes a network for continued feedback and idea-sharing.
"People ask me about working with coach Saban at Alabama, and certainly it was a tremendous experience," Napier said. "I learned a lot from him specifically. But what gets overlooked is all the talented people you get to be around while you're there: Great position coaches, great coordinators, great people in the weight room, in recruiting."
How each coach leverages it varies. Cignetti said he's closer with McElwain among his era than Smart, from the perspective both worked with the offense in their time in Tuscaloosa. Then there's Cristobal, who joked:
"Everybody's a little leery of getting together, because you don't know when you’re going to play each other again," he said with a laugh. "You don't want to share too much."
"Everyone has their own process," he added. "But certainly influenced from their days in Tuscaloosa."
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.