Saban's growing coaching tree joins titles as part of legacy

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Nick Saban's coaching legacy extends well beyond the Southeastern Conference and national championships and NFL draft picks. It sometimes stretches all the way to the opposing sidelines, in fact.

No. 2 Alabama's 64-year-old coach now has former underlings leading three SEC East schools and, coincidentally, the Crimson Tide's semifinal opponent, No. 3 Michigan State. Another, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, won a national title in 2013.

Longtime Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart recently joined the club after taking over alma mater Georgia a day after the SEC championship game win over Florida and ex-Alabama offensive chief Jim McElwain.

''I think the growth you get from working at a place like Alabama and with a program under Nick Saban, it helps me immensely,'' said Smart, who's running Alabama's defense through the playoffs. ''A lot of people have said why not take a smaller school head job? I honestly feel my growth was better being in a large program, being around coach Saban and learning how to manage a lot of the tough situations you deal with in the media.''

Clearly there are benefits to working for the demanding Saban, beyond even the big salaries. Smart was making $1.5 million a year.

The same day he was introduced, South Carolina trotted out its new hire, former Saban assistant Will Muschamp. The two erstwhile defensive coordinators are each making more than $3 million annually.

Working for Saban clearly can pay off bigtime for his top assistants. McElwain was SEC coach of the year in his debut season at Florida, winning the East after returning to the league following a stint as Colorado State head coach. He was offensive coordinator of two Tide national championship teams.

Saban hired Muschamp away from Division II Valdosta State at LSU in 2001, and the ex-Florida coach is on his second stint as an SEC East head man. Muschamp was Auburn's defensive coordinator last season, facing his former boss in the regular season finale.

''I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for the opportunities he gave me a long time ago at LSU,'' Muschamp said before the Iron Bowl.

Saban also hired Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, where the Spartans head man worked as his secondary coach from 1995-99. Now, the two will face off with a national championship shot on the line.

Saban, who has lavished praise on Dantonio's performance leading that program, is careful not to take too much credit when asked if he takes pride when his assistants land head coaching jobs.

''I'm happy for them. I'm happy for their families,'' Saban said. ''I'm happy and have a tremendous amount of respect for the great job that they did for long time in helping our program be successful. One of the reasons they've worked is because of the goals and aspirations that they had, so you're very, very proud for them that they now have an opportunity that they worked so hard for.''

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett worked under Saban for two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Garrett likens working for a successful coach to learning under a top heart surgeon or a leader in any field.

''He'll be better for the experience when he goes to his opportunity,'' the Cowboys coach said.

Like Dantonio, Florida State's Fisher has thrived as a head coach since working under Saban at LSU. He said he absorbed some methods of organization and structure from Saban, but also emphasizes the importance of evolving with the game. Saban's had to do that with the growing popularity of hurry-up, spread offenses.

''It's important to try to see where the game's going,'' Fisher said. ''You've got to be willing to push that envelope.''

Other former Saban assistants have landed head coaching jobs, even if they've had more success as assistants. That includes Derek Dooley (Louisiana Tech, Tennessee) and in the NFL Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns) and Josh McDaniels (Denver Broncos). Dooley, now a Cowboys assistant, said Saban ''was as big an influence as anybody I've ever been around.'' Dooley said Saban was a relative unknown when he interviewed for a job.

''But I knew right away that he was going to win and win big,'' Dooley said. ''And I wanted to be a part of it. That's why I was with him for seven years. It was one of the greatest boot camps for young coaches that you could ever go through. And it is. It's a little bit of a boot camp system, especially at that time. I loved it, and I thrived in it.

''It was challenging, but it made you better. I knew this: I knew we were going to win, and I knew I was going to grow as a coach. I'll always be indebted for what he gave to me professionally.

Dooley said Saban confronted his assistants if they don't meet his lofty standard, and he meant it as a compliment.

''Let's be honest. A lot of it is we've all been fortunate because of his success,'' Dooley said, ''people are looking to hire guys on the staff.''

There's a long list of Saban staffers who have gone on to successful NFL or college coaching careers as assistants.

Former Browns general manager Phil Savage was hired in Cleveland as a coach under Bill Belichick when Saban was defensive coordinator. He moved to scouting and personnel.

Savage, now Alabama's radio analyst and executive director of the Senior Bowl, said nobody on Saban's coaching tree ''is going to coach exactly like Nick Saban.'' Working for Saban is undoubtedly a high-pressure environment.

''Someone said one time it's fourth and 1 every minute of every hour of the day when you work at Alabama,'' Savage said. ''Fourth and 1 at the goal line with the national championship at stake.''

Championships are among the potential rewards. So is upward mobility.

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AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon, Joseph Reedy, Charles Odum and Teresa Walker contributed to this report.

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AP College Football website: collegefootball.ap.org

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