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Building the perfect coaching staff: Nick Saban is the leader ... and who else?

Nick Saban is the obvious choice for head coach, but who else comprises the perfect college football staff? More Punt, Pass & Pork.

College football’s assistant coaches will continue to play musical chairs from now until a few days after National Signing Day, and the action was especially heavy last week. Watching all those moves—including a defensive coordinator trade that we’ll discuss in the First and 10 section—got me wondering. If I were an athletic director with a blank check, who would I hire to create the perfect staff? 

The ground rules are that head coaches can’t be hired to be coordinators or position coaches and coaches who hold a coordinator title can’t be hired as position coaches unless they’re in a non-playcalling role. So I can’t hire Nick Saban as my head coach, Urban Meyer as my offensive coordinator and Dabo Swinney as my receivers coach. Also, since the schools haven’t approved the 10th assistant coach yet, I can only hire nine. That means I have to decide if I want a dedicated special teams coordinator or if I want to assign that role to one of the other assistants. So without further ado, here is the best staff my theoretical money can buy.

Head coach: Nick Saban, Alabama

When I shared this idea with former UCLA, Washington and Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel on Friday as we worked on a show on SiriusXM’s College Sports Nation channel, he agreed that Saban is the only choice. Even though Swinney bested Saban in the most recent national title game, Saban’s ability to stockpile talent and his willingness to adapt to changes in the game make him perfect to lead a staff that will blend various styles. But because you don’t have all day to read this and I don’t have all week to write it, we’ll stop with the nine on-field assistants instead of creating Saban’s perfect theoretical army of off-field analysts. (Though Chip Kelly would certainly be one of them.)

Offensive coordinator: Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

Neuheisel and I agreed on this choice as well. We felt an up-tempo offense best takes advantage of the current rules, but we also appreciated Riley’s ability to adapt beyond the basic tenets of the Air Raid. His use of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and the incorporation of flex tight end Mark Andrews as a red zone threat suggest Riley would make excellent use of the playmakers this staff would sign. Also, Riley may be the best of the quarterback teachers among the up-tempo coordinators. This group has traditionally done a poor job of developing quarterbacks, but Riley’s work with Baker Mayfield has been excellent.

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Offensive line: Sam Pittman, Georgia

Pittman’s first line at Georgia had a tough year, but his work at Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina suggests two things: He can recruit great linemen and he can develop them into future pros. Even though our theoretical program will run an offense from the Air Raid tree that uses a ton of run-pass option plays, we still want our offensive linemen to know how to pass block. This will be important on third-and-long, and it also will help our recruiting when our linemen get drafted before the ones who only know how to block the run portion of the RPO. As for Pittman’s current group, watch how much better it gets in year two. Neuheisel hired Minnesota’s Ed Warinner, which is another excellent choice. Don’t confuse the issues Warinner had as Ohio State’s co-offensive coordinator with his ability to teach linemen how to block. He’s great at the latter.

Receivers: Jeff Scott, Clemson

Scott is a co-offensive coordinator, and he suggested the play that produced the touchdown that won Clemson the national title, but since Tony Elliott is the primary playcaller, I’m allowed to take Scott here. That’s great, because this is the guy who recruited and coached a group that includes Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow. Scott would help our team own the state of Florida in recruiting, and he would give us a receiving corps with a diverse group of skill sets that would come in handy if, say, we needed to march down the field against one of the greatest defenses of all time to win the national title.

Neuheisel suggested USC’s Tee Martin, and he’d be an ideal choice as well for receiver development and recruiting reasons if not for my pesky ground rules. Martin is USC’s offensive coordinator, and he calls plays on first and second down in the Trojans’ unique playcalling arrangement.

Running backs: Jabbar Juluke, LSU

Juluke is a rising star and former New Orleans-area high school coach who helped Kenneth Dixon reach his potential at Louisiana Tech before moving on to Texas Tech (for a month) and then to LSU, where he has Derrius Guice ready to become the next great LSU back. Juluke will help us lock down one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas while also producing versatile backs.

Tight ends/Recruiting coordinator: Tim Brewster, Florida State

The man who runs Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting machine in Tallahassee will coordinate the efforts of this staff, which should be able to dominate in most regions of the country.


Defensive coordinator: Brent Venables, Clemson

This was by far the toughest choice. Alabama’s Jeremy Pruitt, Michigan's Don Brown, Washington’s Pete Kwiatkowski and Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster all would have been excellent hires. I went with Jimmy Greenbeans because he has proven that it’s possible to run a dominant defense opposite an up-tempo offense. This was a mystery that seemed unsolvable until Venables cracked the code in 2014. Since then, he has kept Clemson sharp despite massive losses to the NFL on the line following the ’14 and ’15 seasons. Venables will coach our linebackers, which will allow us to hire a dedicated special teams coordinator.

Here's how to get Sports Illustrated's Clemson national title covers

Defensive line: Sean Spencer, Penn State

This was a close decision between Spencer and the man who previously held his job, current Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson. The defensive line kept Penn State’s program afloat while NCAA sanctions were in effect and immediately after. The defensive line kept Penn State going this past season even when the linebackers were decimated by injuries. Spencer, who loves players who create chaos for the offense, is a fantastic recruiter who also has developed quality linemen at Vanderbilt and Penn State.

Defensive backs: Jimmy Lake, Washington

Even after the Huskies lost their best pass rusher (Joe Mathis) and top tackler (Azeem Victor) to injuries, they still fielded one of the nation’s best defenses because of Lake’s group. Lake’s teaching creates a secondary that makes everyone else on the defense’s job easier. His West Coast recruiting chops make him even more valuable on our staff, which leans heavy toward the South.

Special teams coordinator: John Baxter, USC

Sometimes you need to know how an opposing coach has handled onside kicks at every stop during his career. Baxter knows, because he’s watched them all and created a file. We all notice when a punt or kickoff gets returned for a touchdown, but those 25-40 yards we gain when a punter flips the field or a returner finds a seam are probably even more important. Baxter will help us earn those yards. Baxter also has spent considerable time studying how students learn. He even co-wrote a book about it. His expertise in that field can only help our theoretical coaching staff.

A Random Ranking

Once again, I’m doing the bidding of the people in this section.

Bear in mind that my rankings will be seriously skewed by the fact that I stopped watching wrestling as a teenager. (Which makes the first two entries even more odd but no less outstanding.)

1. Mark Henry, Some Bodies Gonna Get It — Three Six Mafia

That’s the Academy Award-winning Three Six Mafia, thank you very much.

2. C.M. Punk, Cult of Personality — Living Colour

I’ve never watched a single C.M. Punk match, but I watched the Cult of Personality video approximately 1,000 times as a kid. This is an all-time great song, and I’m glad Punk helped another generation hear it.

3. The Undertaker

Those bells.


4. Ric Flair, Also Sprake Zarathrusta

This song is also known as the theme from 2001:A Space Odyssey or the song that introduces the South Carolina football team at Williams-Brice Stadium. But it always goes best with WOOOOOOOOOOOO!


5. The Ultimate Warrior

You know you want to shake the ropes.

6. Shawn Michaels, Sexy Boy, Shawn Michaels

This particular heel turn was punctuated with an all-timer of a theme song.

7. The Road Warriors, Iron Man

It was the WCW, which might explain why they didn’t have the rights to Black Sabbath’s original version. 

8. Ted DiBiase

Everybody’s got a price.

9. The Big Boss Man, Hard Times

This song makes Georgia’s Cobb County sound like an unforgiving backwater instead of a giant Atlanta suburb.

10. Mr. Perfect

This would have been perfect for Triple H had the perfect wrestler himself not used it first.


1. Alabama announced Sunday night that athletic director Bill Battle, who has been fighting health issues, would retire. About an hour earlier, Greg Hansen of Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star had reported that Arizona AD Greg Byrne would leave to take over in Tuscaloosa. Byrne, 45, has SEC experience from his time as Mississippi State’s AD (2008–10) and six years as an associate AD at Mississippi State and Kentucky. 

Given the length of time ADs typically serve and Nick Saban’s age (65), this means chances are high that Byrne will be the AD tasked with replacing Saban after Saban chooses to retire. That might be the highest pressure hire at any program since Ray Perkins was hired to replace Bear Bryant following Bryant’s retirement after the 1982 Liberty Bowl.

2. Remember when those two Yankees pitchers traded wives? What happened last week between Mississippi State and Louisville wasn’t as strange as that, but it’s up there. The Bulldogs and Cardinals essentially traded defensive coordinators.

Mississippi State hired Todd Grantham away from Louisville, which then replaced Grantham with Peter Sirmon, the guy Grantham had been hired to replace at Mississippi State. Hopefully, all the parties get what they want out of the swap.

3. Example No. 3,467 that coaching can be a cruel business: Mark Banker, who has worked with Nebraska coach Mike Riley on various staffs for 19 of the past 20 years, was fired over the phone last week as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. The dead period was about to end, and Nebraska coaches were scattered—hence the lack of a face-to-face conversation. Banker told Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald that he understood the reasons for the firing. His defense simply didn’t perform in lopsided losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee.

Clemsoning isn't just dead—it's been completely redefined

4. Nebraska will replace Banker with Bob Diaco, who was fired at Connecticut last month. Diaco was an excellent defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and Notre Dame before becoming a head coach, and he’ll bring some always-welcome recruiting chops to a program that needs to work harder than most of its peers on that front because of its location. Diaco’s tenure didn’t work out at UConn, but that was largely because the Huskies had one of the nation’s worst offenses in 2016. He won’t have to concern himself with offense—or making up rivalry trophies— at Nebraska. 

5. The Huskers also got some welcome recruiting news last week when Las Vegas Bishop Gorman receiver Tyjon Lindsey flipped his commitment from Ohio State to Nebraska. Shockingly, this move didn’t seem to fan the flames of the social media rivalry between Nebraska receivers coach Keith Williams and Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith.

Lindsey’s choice definitely excited a former NFL great with a keen interest in Nebraska recruiting. Keyshawn Johnson, whose son Keyshawn Jr. is also committed to Nebraska along with Calabasas High teammate Tristan Gebbia, posted this on Sunday.

6. Two coordinators left more prestigious schools for less prestigious ones last week, but the steps back might have been their only chances to get head-coaching jobs in the future. Rhett Lashlee, who played in high school for Gus Malzahn and who has worked with Malzahn for all but one year of his coaching career, left Auburn’s offensive coordinator job to take a pay cut and the same job on Randy Edsall’s staff at UConn. Also last week, Doug Meacham left TCU, where he shared offensive coordinator responsibilities with Sonnie Cumbie, to take the offensive coordinator job at Kansas.

The Lashlee move is especially interesting because Malzahn acknowledged during the 2016 season that turning over playcalling duties to Lashlee helped dramatically improve Auburn’s offense. But that arrangement apparently wasn’t going to continue as it was at season’s end, so Lashlee struck out on his own. Remember how we mentioned a few sections ago that UConn had one of the nation’s worst offenses last year? The Huskies ranked No. 122 in the nation in yards per play (4.81). Up is basically the only direction they can go. Lashlee, who was in the hunt to get the Louisiana-Monroe head coaching job that ultimately went to Matt Viator last year, needs to show that he can run an offense independent of Malzahn if he wants to become a head coach. That’s the last lingering question for a guy whose résumé and demeanor scream “future head coach.” He’ll get his chance to prove that working for the defensive-minded Edsall. 

By separating from Cumbie, Meacham will have a chance to prove how important he was to TCU’s offensive growth when the Horned Frogs switched offenses prior to the 2014 season. Last year’s results with quarterback Kenny Hill suggest former TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin had as much to do with the improvement as Meacham or Cumbie. Now, Meacham heads to a program with two Power Five wins since 2014. But the Jayhawks have a decent young group on offense, and significant improvement in Lawrence would be appreciated as a monumental achievement for whatever coaches help make it happen.

7. Justin Wilcox will take over at Cal following the firing of Sonny Dykes, which means the Air Raid is done in Berkeley. While we won’t know exactly what offense Wilcox plans to run until he hires an offensive coordinator, we do know that former Cal coordinator Jake Spavital will come full circle. Spavital left West Virginia after the 2012 season to go to Texas A&M and coach/manage Johnny Manziel. After three seasons in College Station and one season in Berkeley, Spavital will head back to Morgantown to work once again with Dana Holgorsen. 

8. Monday is the deadline for players with college eligibility remaining to declare for the NFL draft.As of Monday morning, 94 players had announced their intention to enter the draft. That includes a trio of Alabama players (offensive tackle Cam Robinson, receiver ArDarius Stewart and cornerback Marlon Humphrey) who announced on Friday that they’d leave early.

9. Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, who seemed an intriguing prospect in a thin draft year at his position, is not on that list.He’s returning to Laramie for another season.

10. The leaders of a Piedmont, S.C., church know their flock quite well.

What's Eating Andy

It’s probably Benedict Cumberbatch’s fault for being too good in a variety of roles, but it’s likely the episode of Sherlock that aired Sunday is the series finale. That finale, titled The Final Problem, was better than 95 percent of the movies you’ll pay 11 bucks to see this year.

What's Andy Eating

While in Tampa for the national title game, I judged a head-to-head showdown between two of the city’s best Cuban sandwiches.