Skip to main content

Among Former Nick Saban Assistants, Kirby Smart May Be the Closest Thing to the Original

As schools around the country try to replicate Nick Saban's Process, his former DC has Georgia on the verge of going toe-to-toe with the Tide for a title.

In the days after a 40–17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 11, Georgia players heard the same message whether they were eating dinner at their training table, bench-pressing in the weight room or doing homework in study hall. The season isn’t over. All of your goals remain in front of you. Beating Kentucky is all that matters.

Second-year coach Kirby Smart and strength coach Scott Sinclair had begun formulating that refrain the night of that loss, the Bulldogs’ first of 2017. Smart honed it after he met with his staff. To make sure every athletic department employee who interacted with the players knew what to say, the word went out to all department heads: No one was to dwell on the defeat in the presence of the players.

Why does Smart care what the person serving chicken breasts or the academic advisor says to his Bulldogs? “What’s really been important in the success of the places I’ve been is that the message came clear and direct and everybody understood that,” says Smart, whose team responded with three straight wins to close out the season, the last of which indeed kept their goal of a national title in front of them. With a 28–7 victory over Auburn in the SEC title game, Georgia secured its first conference title in 12 years and a Rose Bowl date with Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff.

The programs Smart has worked with where the message came through most clearly and directly? LSU, the Dolphins and Alabama. The common denominator in those jobs? Smart’s boss, Nick Saban—who has led Bama to four consecutive playoff berths and won five national titles as a head coach. Five years ago, Sports Illustrated examined the Sabanization of college football. Schools hired former Saban assistants with the hope that they would institute his Process on their campuses. The results have been mixed. Saban’s former LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher won three ACC titles and the 2013 national championship at Florida State before leaving this month for Texas A&M. In 2010, Florida hired Saban’s former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp—then fired him during his fourth season. (Muschamp was hired as South Carolina’s coach in late 2015.) The Gators then replaced Muschamp with Saban’s former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and canned him in October, midway through his third season.

Five years later, schools still strive to replicate Saban’s philosophy and results. A&M hired Fisher and gave him a guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract. Tennessee brought in the Tide’s defensive coordinator the last two seasons, Jeremy Pruitt, in its second attempt at Sabanization. Derek Dooley, an offensive assistant at LSU under Saban, got fired in 2012 after three seasons in Knoxville. (Dooley is now the wide receivers coach for the Cowboys.) When the 2018 season begins, four former Saban coordinators will be SEC coaches.

The Saban Way: Which branches of Nick Saban's coaching tree have produced the most fruit?

Smart, who played safety at Georgia from 1995 through ’98, might represent the purest distillation of the Process yet. He served as Saban’s DC from 2008 through ’15 and helped the Tide seamlessly adapt to some of the most dramatic tactical shifts the game has seen. Smart turned down other head jobs and waited for an opening at his alma mater, which has the recruiting base and the resources to build a program similar to his mentor’s. The hope is that when Saban, 66, does decide it’s time to retire and turn his full attention to his car dealerships, Georgia will be positioned to become the next SEC power.

But before that, the programs are two of the four remaining in the hunt for the national title. If Georgia wins on Jan. 1 and Alabama defeats Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Smart would face his former boss in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8 with college football’s biggest prize hanging in the balance.

Image placeholder title

After the 2015 season, Georgia officials took a big risk: They fired Mark Richt to create an opening for Smart. Richt had gone 145–51 in 15 seasons in Athens, winning two SEC titles. Richt had already lost much of his political capital after a strange choice to start third-string quarterback Faton Bauta against Florida even though neither of his first two quarterbacks were injured. The 27–3 loss to the Gators was bad enough, but Georgia officials decided the Richt era needed to end late in the 2015 season after watching the Bulldogs celebrate an overtime win against Georgia Southern as if they had won the Super Bowl. A few days earlier Saban had delivered a now-infamous rant in which he described an opposing offense as going “through us like s--- through a tin horn.” (The team Saban was referring to was, ironically, Georgia Southern). The Georgia brass wanted its program to have a similar attitude. With South Carolina sniffing around Smart while seeking a replacement for Steve Spurrier, Georgia fired Richt after a 13–7 win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 28. Athletic director Greg McGarity signed Smart to a six-year contract a week later.

When Smart accepted the job, McGarity didn’t issue marching orders. He asked questions. What did Smart now need from the administration to build a championship program? “He needed to educate us,” McGarity says, “about what it meant to go big-time.”

In other words, Georgia wanted to Sabanize.

SI Recommends

To build a program like Saban’s requires expertise in four key components.


In the SEC, the head coach must also be the program’s best recruiter. Smart and Pruitt were excellent recruiters at Alabama, but the best on campus was Saban. That’s why Alabama’s recruiting classes have ranked No. 1 in the team rankings of the composite every year since 2011. In that period, Alabama has a record of 87–9. There are already signs that Smart could someday be as good as Saban in this respect: Georgia’s 2017 class, the first that Smart assembled from start to finish, was No. 3, and its 2018 class tops the national rankings after the mid-December early signing period.

Management Style

The coach must clearly define everyone’s role in the organization and then hold employees accountable when they don’t deliver. According to people who have worked with Smart and Richt, this was a major issue at the tail end of the Richt era. “Nobody wants to hold people to the fire,” Smart says. “They just want wins.” And just as Smart did after that Auburn loss, the coach has to ensure the players hear the same thing from everyone. Before Fisher’s Florida State team faced Saban’s Tide in September, Fisher recalled how selective Saban was about everyone from support staff positions to guest speakers.

Fisher adopted that same attitude when he took over in Tallahassee in 2010, hiring mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad because Saban trusted him. Moawad and management consultant Kevin Elko had helped tailor the themes players Alabama players got bombarded with from week to week. (Elko still works with the Tide.) Moawad no longer works with Alabama, but he does work with another SEC team. Smart’s Bulldogs, of course.

Schematic Flexibility

Saban’s defenses struggled with new up-tempo attacks a few years ago. So he consulted then-Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who faced Chip Kelly’s warp-speed offenses every day at practice. Saban then looked to recruit lighter linebackers and faster safeties who matched up better. After Alabama lost to Ohio State in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, Saban invited former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Tom Herman, who had just become the coach at Houston, to Tuscaloosa to pick his brain about concepts OSU had implemented. “I grilled his a-- good,” Saban says.

The next season, those concepts showed up in Alabama’s offense and the Tide won the national title. “I didn’t invent any of this stuff,” Saban says. “I learned it from somebody. So I’m always looking for the next guy I’m going to learn something from.” Muschamp learned this lesson the hard way after he insisted on a pro-style offense when he arrived at Florida. That scheme didn’t fit the players he inherited, and the Gators struggled to score. After getting fired, Muschamp resolved that if he ever became a head coach again, he’d tailor his system to his personnel. He is now overachieving at South Carolina and has the 8–4 Gamecocks in the Outback Bowl against Michigan.

Inspired Hiring and Deft Management of Staff Churn

Saban tells the story about the time his wife, Terry, answered the phone at home shortly after Saban, then an Oilers assistant, was hired as Toledo’s coach in 1989. Terry spoke to a nice young man from Ohio who was an assistant at Illinois State and looking for a job. Saban hadn’t heard of him at the time, and he still regrets that he didn’t return a young Urban Meyer’s call. He has made it his mission not to miss out on the next Meyer. For those hoping to move their resume to the top of Saban’s pile, work ethic matters more than experience. And don’t say you’d be happy sweeping the floor at Alabama. Saban wants people who want his job someday.

To manage staff churn, Saban has developed a farm team of sorts. Pruitt, for example, was Hoover (Ala.) High’s defensive coordinator when Saban hired him in 2007 as director of player development. Pruitt then worked his way up to defensive backs coach. Stuck behind Smart, he eventually left to be the coordinator at Florida State and then Georgia. When Smart left for Georgia after the 2015 season, Saban immediately hired Pruitt, who needed no on-the-job-training. Before he leaves for Knoxville, Pruitt will coach Alabama’s defense in the playoff. Smart did the same thing before leaving for Georgia, and he helped Alabama to a national title.

Smart will be tested soon in this area. Pruitt is targeting Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer as his defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Smart will have to show he can identify coaching talent as well as his former boss. Even though he’s only been a boss for two years, Smart can feel himself becoming disconnected from the network that forms every May when assistants hit the road to evaluate high schoolers, and thus has a harder time of keeping track of assistants from other schools who might be excellent replacements. Head coaches have been banned from the practice by the NCAA since 2008, when other coaches tried (and ultimately failed) to keep themselves from being outworked by Saban and Meyer.

Image placeholder title

Time will tell whether Smart can match his former boss at these skills. Recruiting will evolve. Schemes will change. Successful assistants will leave. How Smart responds to those challenges will determine how many branches his coaching tree ultimately sprouts. Perhaps in 10 years we won’t call it Sabanizing. Maybe we’ll call it Smartening.

Two weeks after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs began preparing to face the Tigers again in the SEC championship game with a conference title and a trip to the playoff on the line. The message that week? Remember how they embarrassed you? Pay them back when it counts the most. Screens in Georgia’s weight room looped the Tigers, up 30 late in the fourth quarter, dancing to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” during a replay review. (It was the same song Georgia players had danced to during a rout of Auburn 10 years earlier; no one forgets anything in the SEC.) The message, untainted by any competing ideas, sank in completely.

That Saturday the Bulldogs routed the Tigers. The program claimed the SEC title Smart was hired to bring and clinched a berth in the playoff Smart was hired to win.