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How Nick Saban Solves Alabama's Toughest Problem

The Crimson Tide went through some pretty unprecedented staff turnover this winter, but the man at the top of the org chart knows how to avoid an on-field drop-off.

Reader Tucker asked a great question for this week’s #DearAndy mailbag, but the answer was a little more complex than my usual mailbag content. I wrote an entire column responding to Tucker’s query because he touched on a truly fascinating topic:

Have you ever seen staff turnover like Alabama has had this offseason? Especially the past three seasons combined.

We actually saw a more drastic one-season example just last year. Alabama has lost defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now Tennessee’s head coach), offensive coordinator Brian Daboll (now the OC of the Buffalo Bills), defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley (first as Colorado State’s DC, but he quickly pivoted to DBs coach for the Oakland Raiders) and defensive line coach (Karl Dunbar is headed to the Pittsburgh Steelers). Last offseason, Notre Dame replaced five assistants, including DC Brian VanGorder (fired) and OC Mike Sanford (became Western Kentucky’s head coach). Irish coach Brian Kelly also replaced the entire strength staff. It was the biggest staff overhaul I can remember that didn’t involve the head coach getting fired.

But Notre Dame’s change came after a 4–8 season. Aside from the departure of Sanford (who was doing a good job), the Irish needed some fresh ideas. And the changes worked. Notre Dame’s record improved by six wins. Unfortunately for Kelly, the defensive improvement in South Bend did not go unnoticed, and Jimbo Fisher nabbed coordinator Mike Elko to run Texas A&M’s defense.

At Alabama, the churn is almost exclusively related to success. And while no one-year total has been as drastic as what happened at Notre Dame last year, the three-year total is astounding—especially considering the fact that the Tide have won two national titles and gone 41–3 in that span. Other schools want a few drops of Nick Saban’s Secret Sauce, so they hire Saban assistants with the hope that those assistants can bring a piece of The Process to their programs. NFL teams may not necessarily want to Sabanize, but they also recognize good coaches when they see them. (Case in point: Dunbar, who came to Tuscaloosa from the NFL and now is headed back to the league.) If we include Steve Sarkisian’s one-game tenure as offensive coordinator, Mike Locksley will be Alabama’s fourth coordinator on that side of the ball in three seasons. Linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi is expected to be named defensive coordinator, but no matter who it is, that person will be the third person to hold the job since 2015.

I asked Saban about dealing with churn in November, and he was pretty frank. “That’s the most difficult thing to do,” he said, “and it’s more difficult now than it used to be.” His biggest complaint is that the 2008 NCAA rule banning head coaches from the recruiting trail in May robbed him of chances to meet and get to know up-and-coming assistants. While Saban likes hiring people he doesn’t have to train, he also realizes hiring from the same pool can produce a stale product. “You can get comfortable hiring people who have worked for you before. Sometimes that’s not always the best thing,” he said. “Maybe there’s a younger, more aggressive person out there who is going to be the next really good coach.” Doing that now requires trusting the judgment of his assistants who get a closer look at how a coach outside the family works as a recruiter. Such recommendations helped Pete Golding go from being the defensive coordinator at UT-San Antonio to an Alabama assistant this offseason. Former Alabama defensive line coach Bo Davis was one of the people who put in a good word for Golding.

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There are a few reasons why Alabama hasn’t dropped off despite all this churn. The first is obviously Saban. He sets the tone for the organization from the top down, and he also is so hands-on with the defense that losing a coordinator on that side of the ball won’t result in drastic changes. Another reason is that Saban has created a farm team of sorts by creating analyst positions. These coaches—either youngsters new to the profession or veterans living that buyout life—allow the full-time assistants to work more efficiently, but they also can soak up the way Alabama works and plug in when a job opens. Locksley became an offensive analyst in 2016 after the Maryland staff he was on was fired. He moved to receivers coach for 2017 after Billy Napier left to become Arizona State’s offensive coordinator. Now, he’ll run the offense.

The third major reason the turnover hasn’t toppled Alabama is that while schools have managed to hire away coordinators, no one has been able to swipe the second-most important person in Alabama’s organization.

Why is strength coach Scott Cochran so vital? Because Saban’s management style is predicated on consistent tone and messaging, and Cochran has proven a master at setting the tone and delivering the message Saban desires. In today’s college football, the strength coach spends more time around the players than anyone on the staff. So Cochran’s ability to translate Saban-to-player makes him critical to the operation. That’s why the single greatest threat to Alabama’s dominance might have been former Tide offensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s attempt to hire Cochran at Georgia. Cochran got a raise to $535,000 a year (with $117,000 more in potential bonuses), but given what some schools pay coordinators who don’t influence their team’s success nearly as much as Cochran influences Alabama’s, he’s probably still a bargain.

At some point, the churn could wear on the Tide—but probably not for the obvious reason. As you’ve read, Saban has put a lot of safeguards in place to keep him from misfiring on a hire. So don’t expect a rash of bad hires to end Alabama’s dynasty. The way the churn could damage the Tide is if Saban, 66, simply gets tired of finding replacements for the talented coaches who leave. He loves the schematic elements of the game. He loves working with players at practice. Managing a constantly shifting organizational chart doesn’t bring as much joy.

But for now, Saban has proven more than capable of handling the churn—even if the level is unprecedented.