The Saban Way

Programs looking to replicate Nick Saban's process have been eager to turn his assistants into head coaches. Has it worked?

By Andy Staples

Georgia officials made a huge gamble two years ago. They pushed out a successful coach (Mark Richt) because they believed their program should compete for championships more often. The Bulldogs sought only a few more wins a year, but the distance between good and great is the most treacherous gulf to cross in college football. Plenty of programs have tried, but only a few have reached the desired destination.

So Georgia hired an alumnus whose recent work experience gave him insight into how to cross that divide. Kirby Smart didn’t get the job because he once wore silver britches; he got it because he once wore silver britches and understood how Nick Saban built Alabama into a juggernaut that has dominated a decade. When Smart was hired, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity didn’t issue orders. He asked questions. “He had to basically educate us on what it would take,” McGarity says.

In short, Georgia wanted to Sabanize.

Five years ago, SI examined the Sabanization of college football. Football programs trying to change their fortunes hired former Saban assistants with the hope that they could do what Saban had done in Tuscaloosa. One (Jimbo Fisher) has won a national title. Three (Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain) have been fired from SEC schools. But even though others such as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney have proven that programs can build a sustainable winner using a different style, athletic directors still seek to bring The Process to their campuses. The most recent example? Tennessee, which just hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as its head coach. Next year, the SEC will feature four head coaches who were Saban assistants.

As Saban’s Crimson Tide and Smart’s Bulldogs prepare to play in the College Football Playoff semifinals, we examine the various attempts at Sabanization and evaluate how closely the pupils have adhered to the master’s style using the four key components of Saban’s success.

Nick Saban Coaching Tree

Art by Stephen Goggi

Mark Dantonio

Michigan State

Worked under Saban at Michigan State from 1995-1999

Career highlights
• Cincinnati head coach, 2004-06
• Michigan State head coach, 2007-Present

Dantonio is one of the more interesting branches of the Saban tree, because he worked for Saban at Michigan State before Saban refined his formula at LSU. Dantonio also was heavily influenced by his next boss, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. The combination of traits gleaned from those two mentors has helped Dantonio build an excellent program in East Lansing.

Recruiting

For all of Dantonio’s tenure, the Spartans have excelled at unearthing gems such as future first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, a cornerback from tiny Dry Branch, Ga., who had no other Power Five offers. But with Big Ten titles came the opportunity to take higher-rated players. The 2016 class was the highest-rated group of the Dantonio era according to the 247Sports composite, but members of that class clashed with veterans and created bad locker room chemistry during a disastrous 3-9 season that year. Since then, Dantonio and his staff seem to be learning how to balance the highly-rated players with the less-heralded ones. The best staffs know how to mix both and win.

Management Style

Like Saban, Dantonio is excellent at crafting a message and ensuring that everyone in the program delivers that message to the players. He also clearly defines roles and expectations for staffers. The Tressel influence shows in Dantonio’s insistence on work-life balance for his staff. Dantonio does not want to grind assistants into submission.

Schematic Flexibility

The Spartans still run a pro-style offense, but like the offenses in the NFL, they have spread out over the years. The staff’s ability to recruit great cornerbacks has made adjusting to up-tempo spread offenses easier because corners who can lock down their receivers on the outside allow for more schematic flexibility inside. The Spartans have gotten faster at safety, which has helped them deal with opponents—read: Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan—who seek to exploit one-on-one coverage mismatches.

Staffing

In 2015, Dantonio noted that only five assistant coaches had left the staff—either because they got better jobs or were told to leave—since the group had arrived from Cincinnati in December 2006. That number is astounding. Some programs keep the same head coach and still have that kind of turnover in one season. In the same span, Michigan had four head coaches and 37 different assistants. While some coaches believe churn is necessary to keep fresh ideas flowing, Dantonio appreciates continuity (Dantonio finished 2017 with the same staff intact). He wants to make working for Michigan State so satisfying that a good assistant will only leave for a much better job.

Bobby Williams

Alabama

Worked under Saban at Michigan State from 1995-1999

Career highlights
• Michigan State head coach, 1999-2002
• Currently special assistant to Saban at Alabama

Williams was Saban’s running backs coach at Michigan State and took over the program when Saban left for LSU after the 1999 regular season. An overwhelmingly popular choice among the players when he was elevated, Williams was fired nine games into his third season with a 16-17 overall record and a 6-15 record in Big Ten play.

Recruiting

A month after Williams was named head coach, Saginaw, Mich., wide receiver Charles Rogers announced he would join Michigan State’s 2000 class. (He didn’t play until 2001 because he was a partial qualifier.) In 2002, Williams signed Farmington Hills, Mich., quarterback Drew Stanton, who redshirted during Williams’s final season. Unfortunately for Williams, he didn’t sign many other impact players.

Management Style

Under Williams, the Spartans suffered from discipline issues and a leadership void. An expected turnaround season in 2002 fell apart. QB Jeff Smoker was suspended for substance abuse issues. After a 49-3 loss to Michigan that year, Williams was asked if he’d lost the team. “I don’t know,” he told reporters. That game—and that answer—probably sealed his fate.

Schematic Flexibility

Williams wasn’t a head coach long enough to get an accurate picture of how he would have handled major schematic shifts, but he struggled to adjust prior to his last season when the Spartans couldn’t rely on jumbo back T.J. Duckett to wear down defenses. Michigan State had Rogers at receiver, but quarterback issues made improving the passing game difficult.

Staffing

Williams had some good coaches on his staff. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland would later find success at Alabama—with Saban—and then in the NFL. Receivers coach Don Treadwell would eventually return to Michigan State as Mark Dantonio’s first offensive coordinator there. But Williams didn’t last long enough to get a read on how his hiring practices would have affected the program long-term.

Jimbo Fisher

TEXAS A&M

Worked under Saban at LSU from 2000-2004

Career highlights
• Florida State head coach, 2010-17
• Texas A&M head coach, new hire

Fisher is the only coach on the Saban tree with a national title, winning one at Florida State in 2013. His tenure in Tallahassee, which also included three ACC titles, was very successful. But his final season there was a disaster. Earlier this month, Fisher accepted a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed contract to lead the Aggies.

Recruiting

Fisher made waves in Texas immediately by visiting a seven-on-seven coach before kissing the rings of some of the state’s more powerful high school coaches. But after years in the recruiting stew of Florida, Fisher should be capable of competing with Texas, TCU and the SEC rivals that now routinely invade the Lone Star State.

Management Style

Fisher has tried to copy Saban’s program precisely, and he mostly has succeeded. His was the only voice at Florida State, and roles were clearly defined.

Schematic Flexibility

This is where Fisher splits from Saban. At Florida State, he believed running an offense that looks exactly like most NFL schemes gave him a significant recruiting advantage even though he probably could have scored more points and reduced the learning curve had he adopted some spread and up-tempo concepts the way Saban did. His hiring of Darrell Dickey as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M suggests that Fisher, who still calls the plays, may be more open to change—especially in a state where most high schools run an up-tempo spread.

Staffing

Fisher’s loyalty to his assistants may have contributed to Florida State’s struggles in 2017. Whereas Saban doesn’t seem sentimental about making staff changes, Fisher fought to keep most of his group together despite some recent dips in performance. Leaving for Texas A&M got some of those assistants paid (Fisher’s buyout was equal to the amount of the salaries on the contracts of the assistants Florida State did not retain) and allowed Fisher to retool his staff in College Station.

Will Muschamp

South Carolina

Worked under Saban at LSU from 2001-2004, with Miami Dolphins in 2005

Career highlights
• Florida head coach, 2011-14
• South Carolina head coach, 2016-present

Muschamp thought his first head coaching job would come at Texas. He was named the Longhorns’ coach-in-waiting in 2008. But when Urban Meyer left Florida following the 2010 season, Muschamp jumped at the chance to coach in the town where he’d spent much of his childhood.

Recruiting

Muschamp, who grew up on the defensive side of the ball, has long been regarded as one of the best evaluators and recruiters of defensive players in the country. His classes at Florida included future first-rounders Dante Fowler, Keanu Neal, Vernon Hargreaves and Jarrad Davis. His issues at Florida centered on the evaluation of offensive players—specifically quarterbacks. Muschamp’s Gators passed on future first-rounder Paxton Lynch (from Deltona, Fla.) to sign Skyler Mornhinweg, the son of former NFL head coach Marty Mornhinweg. Muschamp did sign current West Virginia QB Will Grier at Florida but was fired during Grier’s redshirt season. At South Carolina, Muschamp has worked quickly to build up a depleted roster. He also immediately found a capable quarterback in Jake Bentley, the son of assistant Bobby Bentley—a former South Carolina high school coach whom Muschamp hired away from an analyst role at Auburn.

Management Style

Muschamp also embraces the top-down messaging that Saban endorses, but he also was heavily influenced by former boss Mack Brown. Though Muschamp is a screamer on the sidelines, he is regarded behind the scenes as one of the better coaches to work for. This is why Muschamp’s firing at Florida was so difficult for then-Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley. Muschamp was extremely well liked, but his results were not good enough.

Schematic Flexibility

Muschamp has admitted that his biggest mistake when taking the Florida job was forcing a pro-style offense on players who had been recruited to run Urban Meyer’s spread option. Had Muschamp’s staff developed a scheme around the players and then recruited to their preferred scheme, he might still be at Florida. He did not make that mistake at South Carolina, though how the Gamecocks’ offense will look next year is up in the air as Muschamp seeks a new offensive coordinator.

Staffing

Part of that original sin at Florida was the hiring of Charlie Weis as the offensive coordinator. Weis was ineffective in Gainesville and then left after a year to become the head coach at Kansas. Muschamp then hired Brent Pease from Boise State to run an offense that still didn’t fit the personnel. By the time Muschamp hired Duke’s Kurt Roper—who probably would have meshed well with the players Muschamp originally inherited—too much damage had been done. Muschamp did hire Roper first at South Carolina, but he fired him earlier this month. Now Muschamp will have to prove he has the vision to hire a coach who can improve the offense for a program that went 8-4 this season and could be better next year with the right hire.

Derek Dooley

Worked under Saban at LSU from 2001-2004, with Miami Dolphins in 2005-2006

Career highlights
• Louisiana Tech head coach, 2007-09
• Tennessee head coach, 2010-12
• Current Dallas Cowboys receivers coach

Dooley has since admitted that he was surprised when Tennessee hired him following a 4-8 season at Louisiana Tech. The Volunteers were a mess following Lane Kiffin’s one-year stay, and Tennessee officials hoped the son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley could stop the bleeding. Instead, he made it worse.

Recruiting

Dooley landed offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James in his first recruiting class and another tackle, Antonio Richardson, in his second, but his classes failed to produce any competitive depth. His recruiting set the program back years, and not signing a single offensive lineman in the class of 2012 was pure coaching malpractice.

Management Style

Dooley thought he was the smartest person in every room while coaching at Tennessee. Saban frequently is the smartest person in the room, but the difference is that Saban has been excellent at recognizing when he needs to learn more and apply it to his team. Dooley could have learned a lot at the time about maintaining recruiting relationships and letting staffers handle their areas of expertise.

Schematic Flexibility

Dooley wasn’t Tennessee’s head coach long enough to determine how he would handle major schematic changes.

Staffing

Dooley chose well when selecting coordinators, though both hit their stride after leaving his staff. Justin Wilcox was hired away from Boise State at age 32 to run the defense, while offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was retained from Lane Kiffin’s staff. Wilcox left the Tennessee staff after 2011 to join Steve Sarkisian at Washington. He moved with Sarkisian to USC and then wound up replacing Dave Aranda at Wisconsin. After one excellent season in Madison in 2016, Wilcox was hired as Cal’s head coach. Chaney, meanwhile, would run the offense for Bret Bielema’s first few years at Arkansas. After a good year at Pittsburgh in 2015, he joined Kirby Smart at Georgia.

Jim McElwain

Worked under Saban at Alabama from 2008-2011

Career highlights
• Colorado State head coach, 2012-14
• Florida head coach, 2015-17

McElwain had a fine first three seasons as a head coach at Colorado State, but his tenure at Florida is one of the strangest in recent memory. He won the SEC East in his first two seasons, but he was an offensive guru whose offense ranked in the 100s nationally in yards gained per play. He got forced out midway through his third season, and when it happened, it didn’t feel premature.

Recruiting

This may have been the biggest issue for McElwain’s Florida teams. Once Will Muschamp’s defensive recruits began to leave the program, the talent level simply wasn’t good enough for a school that expects to compete for SEC and national titles. McElwain’s staff did find some talented players. Wideout Antonio Callaway is an example, but Callaway missed his junior season after being suspended for his role in alleged credit card fraud. McElwain’s inability to land an elite quarterback—either from high school or via a transfer—severely hamstrung the offense. Even with those two East titles, the talent deficit was obvious in season-ending losses to Florida State and Alabama in 2015 and ‘16.

Management Style

McElwain talked about having a similar organizational structure to Saban’s, but he didn’t inherent Saban’s attention to detail. During McElwain’s final year at Florida, some Gators were paying their own way to be trained elsewhere in Gainesville by former Olympian Tim Montgomery. That should have been a glaring red flag with regard to the Gators’ strength program, but nothing was done to correct the issues that caused the players to seek help outside the program.

Schematic Flexibility

Though McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s playcalling frequently got ripped by fans, the pair actually did a decent job. While Muschamp left behind an excellent defense, the offensive line was in shambles when McElwain arrived. He and Nussmeier did well those first two seasons to mask the major deficiencies. Had QB Will Grier not been suspended for a year midway through the 2015 season for testing positive on an NCAA substance abuse screen, the offense might have come around. But when the staff's handpicked quarterback (Feleipe Franks) struggled as a redshirt freshman in 2017, the Xs and Os could only help so much.

Staffing

McElwain’s staff wasn’t prepared for the rigors of recruiting in the SEC. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins—who left after the 2016 season to become Temple’s head coach—and defensive line coach Chris Rumph were quality skill teachers and capable recruiters. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who replaced Collins as defensive coordinator in 2017, gave the Gators a presence in South Florida. But the rest of the group struggled against their counterparts from Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and the other powers that routinely invade the Sunshine State for players.

Lane Kiffin

Florida Atlantic

Worked under Saban at Alabama from 2014-2016

Career highlights
• Oakland Raiders head coach, 2008
• Tennessee head coach, 2009
• USC head coach, 2010-13
• Florida Atlantic head coach, 2017-present

Kiffin had already held three major head coaching jobs before he ever worked for Saban. When Saban called prior to the 2014 season about running Alabama’s offense, the 38-year-old Kiffin admits his phone wasn’t ringing much. But after a coordinator stint that included three SEC titles and a national title, Kiffin was hired to run another program. This time, he could Sabanize it.

Recruiting

This never was an issue for Kiffin. At USC, he and ace assistant Ed Orgeron (now LSU’s head coach) excelled at landing top players. Even while facing NCAA sanctions at USC that limited the Trojans’ available scholarships, Kiffin landed some of the best. He signed wide receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. He signed defensive tackle Leonard Williams. He signed quarterback Cody Kessler. Given the limited scholarships, evaluation mistakes could have crippled the program for years. Kiffin’s staff didn’t make many.

Management Style

This remains a work in progress. When Kiffin was fired at USC, Orgeron (the interim coach) famously brought cookies back to the training table. This was an example of poor micromanagement on Kiffin’s part. Saban will get granular about certain topics, but he knows how to choose the correct ones and not waste time on issues that don’t matter in the grand scheme. Kiffin’s work ethic also got criticized as an Alabama assistant, and his inability to juggle the FAU job and his coordinator responsibilities got him canned by Saban before last year’s national title game. By all accounts, Kiffin has improved on this front at FAU.

Schematic Flexibility

Kiffin came to Alabama with a lot of experience in the kind of offense the Crimson Tide had been running and was promptly told by Saban that he would be required to run an offense that married those concepts with the ones that teams such as Ole Miss and Texas A&M had used to drive Alabama’s defense crazy. So Kiffin called old friend Steve Sarkisian, who had moved to a high-tempo scheme as Washington’s head coach (before ultimately replacing Kiffin at USC). Kiffin learned how to run a faster offense, and he wed that with a savant-like gift for playcalling. After Alabama lost to Ohio State in the semifinals following the 2014 season, Saban asked Kiffin to incorporate pieces of the Buckeyes’ offense. That worked, too. When Kiffin was hired at FAU, he hired Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator. The offense Briles had run at Baylor was the most extreme version of the up-tempo schemes that have taken over the game, and Kiffin blended those concepts with his own.

Staffing

The Briles hire was controversial because everyone affiliated with the program run by Kendal’s father Art—who was fired by Baylor following an investigation into multiple incidences of sexual misconduct and violence by Baylor players—was considered toxic even if they hadn't been directly accused. Kiffin also hired his brother Chris away from Ole Miss just before the NCAA hit Chris Kiffin with a two-year show cause penalty related to an improper benefits case in Oxford. That penalty will limit Chris Kiffin’s ability to recruit for FAU.

Kirby Smart

GEORGIA

Worked under Saban at LSU in 2004, with Miami Dolphins in 2006, at Alabama from 2007-2015

Career highlights
• Georgia head coach, 2016-present

Smart worked as Saban’s defensive coordinator from 2008-15 before returning to his alma mater as the head coach. After going 8-5 in his first season, he won the SEC title and reached the College Football Playoff in 2017. After signing 23 players during last week’s early signing period, Smart’s third recruiting class stood at No. 1 in the 247Sports.com composite.

Recruiting

Smart was always one of Alabama’s best recruiters, and he moved quickly when he became a head coach to take advantage of a good year in Georgia in his first full recruiting cycle as the Bulldogs’ head coach. He flipped QB Jake Fromm from Alabama, and Fromm wound up taking over the starting job after former five-star recruit Jacob Eason was injured in the season opener. Smart’s 2017 class ranked No. 3 in the nation. His 2018 class includes top dual-threat QB recruit Justin Fields; Laurinburg, N.C., RB Zamir White; Atlanta OG Jamaree Salyer; and Knoxville, Tenn., OT Cade Mays. If the No. 1 rating holds through the traditional National Signing Day in February, it would break Alabama’s seven-year stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking.

Management Style

Only Jimbo Fisher has mimicked Saban’s style as closely as Smart. Smart embraces the same top-down messaging to players and the same one-voice philosophy for public-facing statements. Smart also tries to clearly define the role of every employee in the organization.

Schematic Flexibility

Smart’s recruitment of Fields suggests he intends to run a more dynamic offense than we saw in his first two seasons in Athens. Even now, Georgia will tinker with a higher offensive tempo. This was quite effective in the SEC title game against Auburn. Smart helped Saban make many of the changes to Alabama’s defense to counter up-tempo offense, and he brought those same strategies to Georgia.

Staffing

Smart’s best hire so far might be Scott Sinclair, the strength coach he found at Marshall. He needed his version of Alabama’s Scott Cochran, who more than any other staffer imparts Saban’s vision to the players. The trick for Smart will be keeping his staff sharp if the Bulldogs keep winning. Assistants will leave for coordinator jobs. Coordinators will leave for head coaching jobs. How Smart handles that churn will determine his long-term success at Georgia.

Jeremy Pruitt

Tennessee

Worked under Saban at Alabama from 2007-2017

Career highlights
• Tennessee head coach, new hire

Pruitt replaced Smart as Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2016, and it didn’t take long for another program to poach him. After a disastrous head coaching search that featured a fan veto of the hire of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and the firing of athletic director John Currie, Tennessee hired Pruitt earlier this month to replace Butch Jones.

Recruiting

Pruitt was originally hired by Saban in 2007 to work exclusively in the recruiting office, and the former Hoover (Ala.) High defensive coordinator with an extensive list of in-state contacts proved a valuable resource. Once Pruitt was promoted to defensive backs coach, he showed he could land players as an on-the-road recruiter. Former Alabama running back Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, recently credited Pruitt with convincing him to play for the Tide. Pruitt was an equally valuable recruiter as the defensive coordinator at Florida State and Georgia. Through his job-hopping, he hasn’t had to alter his recruiting area much. At Tennessee, he’ll still be trying to land basically the same players he recruited at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia.

Management Style

Pruitt was known as a blunt instrument in his two-year stint at Georgia. He clashed repeatedly with entrenched staffers under head coach Mark Richt. That could be because he was trying to install some of the same management tactics he learned under Saban and Fisher, whose styles are dramatically different from Richt’s.

Schematic Flexibility

Pruitt has hired Tyson Helton, the brother of USC head coach Clay Helton, as his offensive coordinator. That suggests an offense resembling an NFL scheme with the capability of going up-tempo when necessary. His defense should look very similar to the ones run by Alabama and Georgia.

Staffing

Pruitt is the first head coach to work his way through all parts of the Saban machine—from support staffer to assistant coach to coordinator. It will be interesting to see how he uses that knowledge to stock his staff.