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.
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.”