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Alabama Football: Why Nick Saban is the Best Coach in College Football History

Saban is the one constant in a culture of excellence that is unmatched in college football history and shows no signs of abating
Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide football

Nick Saban's seven total national titles are the most won by any college football coach

Maybe January of 2019 shouldn’t have ended the Alabama run under Nick Saban, but there should’ve been a pause. A hiccup. Maybe a dent in the dynasty? There should’ve been some signifier in the win/loss column to reflect what the rest of the college football world assumed to be tumult behind the scenes in Tuscaloosa.

The Tide had just lost the national title to ACC doppelganger Clemson in embarrassing and uncharacteristic fashion, 44–16. The postseason rivalry between the programs stood at 2–2, but the Tigers had beaten the Tide in the national championship for the second time. In the days that followed, the Tide coaching staff seemingly disintegrated: Former New Mexico head coach-turned-Bama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley took the Maryland job. Then, former Central Michigan head coach-turned-Bama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos left for an assistant job at Miami. Offensive line coach Brent Key went to Georgia Tech, while receivers coach Josh Gattis left to become Michigan’s offensive coordinator.

At the time, only two assistants who remained on Saban’s 2018-19 staff had been around merely two seasons prior. And after Clemson’s dominant win, industry pundits pointed directly at relentless assistant coaching turnover as the culprit for what many thought would be the beginning of the end of the Saban run in Tuscaloosa. Bama was simply too successful for too long; its assistants were in too much demand for the Tide to create any kind of consistency for players.

“The word coming out of that program at the time was that the distractions finally made their way into the building. Everyone on that staff seemed to be getting a job somewhere else, and the idea of playing in a national title game wasn’t holding their attention the way it would at literally any other program,” a rival SEC assistant coach says.

And yet: Two years later Bama won yet another national championship, destroying Ohio State 52–24 to cap a perfect run despite the countless distractions of the pandemic season of 2020. Since its loss to Clemson in January 2019, Alabama is 24–2, and those two losses (to LSU and Auburn, both in ’19) were by a combined eight points. Saban is now a six-time national champion in Tuscaloosa, matching legendary predecessor Bear Bryant (and exceeding him when you count the title Saban won at LSU), and Bama hasn’t lost more than two games in a season since 2010.

So much for the end of anything. So much for an impossible rebuild. So much for a damaged culture. Clemson gets to keep that national title for the ’18 season, but it’s impossible to see any lasting effects that either that loss or the exodus of coaches had on college football’s best program, which is helmed by its best-ever head coach.

“Everyone was wrong,” a former Alabama assistant coach says. “Well, not anyone who has been there. Because they’d tell you that the personnel changes but the process doesn’t. The one constant is Nick Saban. That doesn’t change. It never will. And until it does, you’re an idiot to think they’ll fall off.”

Nick Saban may have turned a revolving door of assistant coaches — something that damages any other program — into an advantage. As a result, the Alabama dynasty is not slowing down at all.

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Bama made seven hires prior to the ’18 season, six for ’19 and just one in ’20.

Flash forward to 2021, and Bama’s perfect ’20 team has lost offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and offensive line coach Kyle Flood to Texas. Compounding matters is the exodus of yet another flood of skill-position talent to the NFL, including quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, receiver Jaylen Waddle and, oh yeah, Heisman winner DeVonta Smith.

Sounds like the Tide should have a thin year on offense, right?

“Yeah, we don’t even make that joke anymore,” a rival SEC defensive assistant says.

The Tide will pivot from Sarkisian to former Houston Texans head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien and former Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone. O’Brien will call plays as OC, while Marrone will replace Flood as offensive line coach. Dig through every coaching depth chart you can, and you won’t find any other school whose staff replaces two former college head coaches (Sarkisian at USC and Washington, Flood at Rutgers) with two former NFL head coaches for assistant roles.

“Making a move like bringing in Lane Kiffin [hired by Bama as OC in 2014], maybe that’s about overhauling your offense. But doing this year after year, bringing in fired head coaches, it shows you the confidence this man has,” a former Alabama assistant says. “Most head coaches are very uncomfortable surrounding themselves with people who have had success without them. It shows you how confident Nick is in himself.”

Most college football fans are curious what an O’Brien offense will look like compared to Sarkisian’s or Kiffin’s, whereas most coaches in the industry are curious how O’Brien, a head coach since 2012 at Penn State and then with the Texans, will adjust to life in “The Process.”

“I think Bill won’t be any different than the other head coaches who have come through,” another former Bama assistant says. “It’s directly up to that individual to adjust because one thing isn’t changing, and that’s Nick. You know it every day, it’s the consistency of approach and expectations. It’s on you to accommodate that, not the other way around.”

The coaches we spoke to were quick to mention that in the post-Kiffin Bama era, there’s a misperception about what it is exactly that Saban is willing to “change” in Tuscaloosa. For years, the head coach railed against the type of offense that the Tide just used to win a national title — up-tempo, aggressive downfield passing attacks instead of the more methodical, big-back personnel formerly called “pro-style” (except that now NFL offenses look more and more like Air Raids).

“He’s going to let Bill call the offense. People get the ‘micromanaging’ thing all wrong,” a former Tide staffer says. “When we talk about [Saban’s] ability to adapt and adjust, where he’s changed or adapted, it’s in the trends you see in football, like on the actual field. Everyone wants to credit Kiffin for changing Alabama, but that was really about Nick as a defensive guru watching the overall trends and knowing what gives Alabama, one of the best defenses in the game year in and year out, problems on defense. Every Bama offense is just a conglomeration of things that, at the time, [Nick] hates to see on defense.”

What doesn’t change, and what helps explain Saban’s ability to seemingly absorb staff-wide turnover without a collapse in the win column, is that nothing changes but the personnel.

“You fit in there, not the other way around,” the former staffer says. “Every process and procedure is predetermined, down to the daily and hourly routines at player meetings and in practice and certainly the coaches’ daily schedules. Every tiny detail of the day, that’s where he’s managing the process, and that won’t change. To him, those details create the standard and the expectation.”

Another secret to Alabama’s success is the brutal standard of equality applied to coaches. O’Brien arrives in Tuscaloosa as not only a former Power 5 head coach and former NFL head coach, but also as a former NFL general manager. Still, sources we spoke to say that he’ll be treated no differently than any prior coordinator, nor will he be given any special treatment or preference over a coach like defensive coordinator Pete Golding, a younger coach and a college lifer who arrived in Tuscaloosa from UTSA.

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“That’s not common at a lot of power programs,” a rival SEC staffer says. “Normally you’re courting big names by making exceptions and trying to sell them on your school. [Bama] doesn’t have to do that. They don’t need to chase O’Brien just like they didn’t need to chase Sark. It’s a machine now.”

“The expectations and treatment are the same, I don’t care if you’re a coordinator or the janitor,” a former Alabama assistant says. “You’re expected to do your job at a very high level. When you walk in those doors, it doesn’t matter what your role is, what your title is or how much money you make. You have to earn your value. And you have to do it on a daily basis. That last part can kill a lot of careers.”

So why would a guy like O’Brien go to work inside “the machine?” He’s got the money and the résumé to sit for as long as he wants or go chase another head-coaching gig. And for that matter, why did Kiffin choose to labor under Saban, a man arguably his total opposite? The list goes on: Butch Jones, Mario Cristobal, Mike Locksley — all former head coaches, all head coaches again. Arguably, all of them could’ve found success in their careers without submitting to the demands of “The Process.”

“Most guys who have been head coaches already have a certain kind of internal drive, and that place isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s an opportunity to learn from the best,” a former Alabama assistant says. “You have the best of the best around you, so that daily demand of excellence and the level of competition, it’s unmatched. It’s not just the athletes, it’s everything … the trainers, the analysts, the nutrition staff … it’s everyone.”

Multiple coaches, both former Alabama staffers, and rivals point to the “machine” in Tuscaloosa as an emerging football think tank unlike any other in the sport. Imagine a program with no restrictions, where if a head coach deems something necessary, it appears. The result is a wealth of football knowledge, a laboratory of ideas on everything from schematics to conditioning to psychology. And if the man in charge deems you vital enough to work inside the system, you have access to its knowledge.

“I would assume that if you’re willing to hit pause on yourself and work for Nick, it’s quite the experience. They don’t want for anything. If it’s a building, it gets built. If they want seven analysts for a project, they hire seven analysts,” a rival SEC head coach says.

As much as Saban is the author of modern college football’s blueprint for success, he’s underwritten and supported by a community of deep-pocketed boosters, politicians, administrators and yes-men.

“There’s only one Alabama,” a rival SEC administrator says. “When we say that, we’re not talking about wins and losses. We’re talking about willingness. If you win there, you get whatever you want, whenever you need it.”

As an athletic department, the Tide operates at a budget of around $160 million annually, but that number is deceptive. For one, that includes all Alabama sports, not just football, with a significant chunk of that overall figure going to projects that will never involve Saban or the football program. It also trails several programs in revenue — Georgia, Texas, Michigan, Texas A&M, Ohio State and Penn State, programs that Bama routinely outperforms on Saturdays in the fall.

“Where Bama is different is their efficiency,” a rival administrator says. “Saban doesn’t have to wait on a committee meeting or a review process. Money is spent wisely, but quickly. So you’ll never see Alabama football waiting on something they deem as necessary, even if it’s very, very small or very, very big.”

Thus, the marriage has flourished. In Bama, Saban has found a program willing to acquiesce to every minor adjustment he wants to make. In Saban, a culture hell-bent on winning college football games has found its ideal CEO and given him control of its considerable financial and political resources. You might find one or the other across college football, but neither can work effectively — to the tune of eight national title game appearances in the last 12 seasons — without the other.

• • •

All this would be moot had another storied Power 5 program been able to pry Saban away from Tuscaloosa.

“Saban turning down Texas will go down as the most important thing that ever happened in this sport,” an SEC assistant coach says, referencing the Longhorns’ failed courtship of Saban in 2012 following the Tide’s third title under its current head coach.

Among the many, many ripples caused by Saban’s rebuke of college football’s literal richest program is the arrival of Sarkisian to Austin this fall. Since Mack Brown won a national title for UT in 2006, the program has floundered, cycling through outsider candidates (Charlie Strong) and in-state favorites (Tom Herman), all while looking to establish itself as an Alabama, or even Ohio State.

Sark will be the first Bama assistant in the Saban era to become Texas’ head coach, a move that seems to make sense considering his explosive offenses in Tuscaloosa in recent years. But Sarkisian’s record as an actual head coach — 46–35 at Washington and USC, where he had a brief stint before resigning due to a battle with alcoholism — is cause for scrutiny. As more and more (and more) former Saban assistants have taken high-profile jobs, a consensus has emerged in the coaching community: Maybe it’s better to be a former head coach who goes through the “Bama carwash” instead of a lifelong Saban assistant.

There’s some merit to this. Former FIU head coach-turned-Bama assistant Mario Cristobal has thrived at Oregon. Kiffin, fired by USC, rebuilt his reputation at Bama and successfully parlayed a run at FAU to the Ole Miss job in 2020. It’s too early to tell in Oxford, but Kiffin joins Locksley and Jones as head coaches who are hoping that their time in Tuscaloosa is more beneficial than it was for the long line of Saban assistants who left Bama for their first head-coaching gigs and ultimately flamed out — Jeremy Pruitt, Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley and the rest of a crew that’s gone winless against their old boss.

“It’s not exactly a 1-to-1 thing, because you have [Texas A&M head coach] Jimbo Fisher and [Georgia head coach] Kirby Smart,” a former Alabama assistant says. “But by and large, you look at the career assistants who come out of that program and you see guys who don’t know better. They’re doing things at their new schools because that’s the way it’s done at Alabama. The problem is, no one stops to ask why Bama does a particular thing, or if it would even apply somewhere else.”

According to former Alabama assistants, there are two ways to instantly tell if an existing Tide assistant will be successful as a head coach: Can they ignore the immense and inescapable presence of Saban as a personality and develop their own? And how fast can they adjust to life outside Alabama? The latter is often trickier than coaches realize.

“There’s a crop of coaches who just act like Saban, which never, ever works,” a current FBS head coach says. “Kirby comes close, but Kirby is naturally like Nick in some ways. Where they fail is not understanding that your new place? It’s not Alabama! They needed a head coach for a reason.”

Of course, if a guy can’t make it as a head coach, maybe he can try to turn things around as an assistant or analyst. And what better place to do that than at Alabama?

“That’s the genius,” a rival SEC head coach says. “At this point, Nick’s capable of creating an entire orbit of coaching minds coming in and out of his program. And the party that benefits most is Alabama.”

— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38godfrey) for Athlon Sports' 2021 SEC Football Magazine.

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