There are many words that define Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama, but the one that comes most immediately to mind is transformative. Transformative for the SEC, for the University of Alabama, for college football as a whole. Whenever Saban's tenure ends, each of those three institutions will be utterly unrecognizable from when they began the day Saban landed on the Tuscaloosa National Airport's tarmac on Jan. 3, 2007.
And though Saban's crimson reign is not near its end, the 2021 campaign marks Saban's 15th at Alabama. It's been a remarkable run for a coach labeled a nomad and a mercenary the day he took the job. This week, we're marking the occasion by recounting Saban's 15 most impactful assistant coaches, players, wins and quotes during his time as Alabama's head coach.
Location is everything in real estate, and the most valuable piece of real estate for aspiring head coaches is on Nick Saban's sideline. Seventeen Alabama assistants have taken head coaching jobs, including at one time nearly half the SEC.
So potent is the potential of standing in Saban's shadow that I joke that coaches get head jobs with the plan of getting fired, working for Nick, then getting another head job knowing that's when their career will really begin. But is it even really a joke?
Nick Saban by the numbers:
6 national championships
7 SEC championships
13 national/SEC coach of the year awards
3 Heisman Trophy winners (Alabama had zero prior to his arrival)
57 consensus All-America selections
33 first-round draft picks
44 national award winners
58 5-star recruits signed
9 No. 1 recruiting classes signed
28 Sports Illustrated covers
38 College GameDay appearances (30 wins)
14 consecutive seasons with at least one AP No. 1 ranking (AP poll record)
213 consecutive weeks in AP Top 25 (second longest ever)
13 consecutive AP Top 10 finishes (second longest ever)
27 wins vs. AP Top 5 opponents (AP poll record)
.628 win percentage vs. AP Top 5 opponents (AP poll record)
98 consecutive wins vs. unranked opponents (FBS record)
80 consecutive games as a Vegas favorite, 2015-present (FBS record)
72 consecutive games as a Vegas favorite, 2009-15 (previous FBS record)
14 Crimson Tide assistants that became head coaches
23-0 lifetime record vs. former assistants
43-17 average margin of victory
36 full-time SEC head coaches hired since Saban returned to the conference
14-0 vs. Tennessee
9-5 vs. Auburn
6-1 vs. Georgia
7-1 vs. Florida
11-4 vs. LSU
8-1 vs. Texas A&M
8-1 vs. SEC East champion
To date, 39 full-time, on-the-field assistant coaches have come and gone from Saban's staffs. Twelve later became head coaches (a number that doesn't include off-the-field guys like Geoff Collins and Butch Jones), and that number will only keep growing.
To kick off our weeklong series, we're remembering the 15 assistants who had the greatest impact on Saban's Crimson Reign.
15. Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator -- 2017
Daboll spent all of one season in Tuscaloosa -- in fact, it's the only season to date he's worked in college ball since landing his first NFL job in 2000 -- and what a year it was. Taking over for Lane Kiffin, Daboll rode Jalen Hurts most of the season but kept Tua Tagovailoa ready just in case. "Just in case" happened to be the second half of the national title game and we all know how that ended. Daboll called that deep shot on 2nd-and-26 and effectively threw off his headset, immediately left Mercedes-Benz Stadium and immediately returned to the NFL.
14. Kevin Steele, defensive coordinator -- 2007-08; director of player personnel -- 2013; linebackers coach -- 2014
Kirby Smart will forever be the prototype Saban defensive coordinator, but Saban picked Steele over Smart to run his first Tide defense.
13. Jeff Banks/Karl Scott, tight ends coach/special teams coordinator; defensive backs coach -- 2018-20
The assistants primarily responsible for the paradigm shift of Alabama's recruiting in Texas. The Tide's 2021 class was just silly, signing the top quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle (and top overall player), center and inside linebacker in the Lone Star State, and Banks and Scott were the assistants who did most of the work in Texas during their time in crimson. Banks also signed the top kicker in the 2019 class, who connected on all 14 field goal tries en route to the 2020 title.
12. Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach -- 2008-11
To date, five separate offensive coordinators have led Bama to national titles. McElwain was the first, and the only one of the bunch to win two.
11. Bo Davis, defensive line coach -- 2007-10, 2014-15
Not every assistant Saban hired has been a grand slam to the upper deck. But there is no greater endorsement of a coach's ability than the phrase, "Nick Saban hired me twice."
10. Holmon Wiggins, wide receivers coach -- 2019-present
Name another wide receivers coach with a Heisman Trophy in his meeting room. And had Jaylen Waddle not gotten hurt, DeVonta Smith might not have even been the best player at his own position.
9. Mike Locksley, offensive analyst/wide receivers coach/offensive coordinator -- 2016-18
So much talk about what it's like to work for Saban, but Locksley is a perfect example of making your time working for Saban work for you. One year as an analyst, one as a position coach (Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith were among Bama's wideouts that year) and one as a coordinator before moving up and out to a Big Ten job in his home state.
8. David Ballou/Matt Rhea, director of sports performance/sports science -- 2020-present
Just as Lane Kiffin updated Alabama's offensive approach at a time when Alabama needed it, Ballou and Rhea have done the same in the weight room. “When they came in, their individual training programs, how they train elite athletes, the injury prevention success that they’ve had in the past with these methods, all these things really were exactly what the doctor ordered for us,” Saban said last year. “And when they came in, the players immediately responded in a very positive way to some of the things that they implemented. So, it’s been a real positive for us.”
For a time, Saban's machine had an Achilles heel. Get them into a field goal kicking battle, and eventually Bama would blink. Not anymore. Will Reichard, the No. 1-ranked kicker in the class of 2019, connected on all 14 of his field goals en route to the 2020 title.
7. Mario Cristobal, assistant head coach/offensive line coach/recruiting coordinator -- 2013-16
Cristobal pulled the strings behind the first of two Joe Moore Award winners in the Saban era, given to the nation's best offensive line, in 2015. He's also credited with opening Alabama's South Florida recruiting pipeline, resulting in Calvin Ridley and Biletnikoff winner Jerry Jeudy, among others.
6. Jeremy Pruitt, director of player development/defensive backs coach -- 2007-12; defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach -- 2016-17
They may not think all that highly of him in Athens and Knoxville, but that feeling is not shared in Tuscaloosa. Plucked from powerhouse Hoover High School, Pruitt helped Saban get Alabama's off-the-field operation off the ground, then ran a defensive backfield that ranked sixth, first and seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense. He returned as defensive coordinator, helping Alabama come one play shy of winning the 2016 national title, then cashed in with the 2017 crown.
5. Steve Sarkisian, offensive assistant/interim offensive coordinator -- 2016; offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach -- 2019-20
Lane walked so Sark could run.
While it was the first of the SoCal blood brothers who revolutionized Saban's offense, it was the second who optimized it. Sarkisian's 2020 attack was arguably the most accomplished in college football history: 48.5 points per game, 7.81 yards per play, a season-long 198.99 passer rating. Furthermore, Alabama's offense won the Heisman, Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O'Brien, Doak Walker, Biletnikoff, Outland, Rimington, Joe Moore and Broyles awards. Save for the Mackey award for best tight end, Alabama's 2020 offense won every national award there was to win.
Beyond that, it says all you need to know about Saban's confidence in Sarkisian that he felt comfortable enough to hand Lane his walking papers in between the 2016 semifinal and final, then brought him back after the Falcons fired him. (And never forget, Alabama lost that 2016-17 title game to Clemson because Deshaun Watson and co. ran 99 plays, not because of Sark's offense.)
4. Burton Burns, running backs coach -- 2007-17
It's important to employ assistants who want to be head coaches. Attrition is good, because it brings in new ideas and serves as a natural defense against complacency. It's also important to employ assistants who know exactly what they are.
Burns was Saban's perfect example of the second kind. He was the living example that, difficult as it is to live a tolerable life as one of General Saban's foot soldiers, it was also possible. The Alabama staff room often closed with a revolving door each December and January, but Burns was always there to show the new hires how things were done.
He was also a damn good coach. Burns recruited and developed two Heisman winners and three Doak Walker winners, and coached 11 draft picks.
3. Scott Cochran, head strength and conditioning coach -- 2007-19
Name another strength coach that shot a TV commercial or one that got his own 60 Minutes segment. If Saban was the CEO of Process, Inc., Cochran was the COO. Saban was the architect, and Cochran the general contractor. You get the point.
Cochran was there, day after day, to install and enforce Saban's culture, while also building the most physically imposing football teams college football has ever known. “I think the players respond to him. And he’s just so positive that I think it’s uplifting to everybody," Saban said.
Hard to imagine how a Nick Saban-led operation could benefit from positive energy, he said sarcastically.
2. Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach/inside linebackers coach -- 2007-15
Kirby Smart was notSaban's first defensive coordinator; that honor belongs to Kevin Steele. But Smart quickly became, and remains to this day, the prototype for a Saban D-coordinator. It takes a lot to last eight seasons as Saban's defensive coordinator -- competence, for one, to not get fired; patience, to hold out for the right job; oh, and guts of steel. "None of you guys have been privy to a Nick Saban staff meeting, but when you are, you have to hold hands sometimes," Smart said in 2016.
Calling the shots for the 2011 defense would be enough to get here, but Smart also called plays for three other national champions. To date he's the most successful Saban disciple-turned-head coach (he's also come the agonizingly closest to beating him), and that's because of the work he did in Tuscaloosa. Never forget, Georgia dumped a coach, a universally acknowledged good man, who won 75 percent of his games over 15 seasons to hire Smart.
1. Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach -- 2014-16
Hear it from the man himself. “The way the spread is, and the way that the rules are, to run RPOs, the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, those rules have changed college football. No-huddle, fast ball has changed college football," Saban said last month. "So I changed my philosophy five or six years ago, well it was more than that, so when Lane came here, and we said ‘We have to out score them.'”
The Alabama of 2013 and before would not still be winning titles in 2020 and beyond. And while Saban assuredly would have changed his philosophy at some point, Kiffin was the perfect catalyst. Alabama won one national title with Kiffin calling plays and played for another, without Lane (hold that thought). As if changing the trajectory of college football's preeminent dynasty wasn't enough, consider this trifecta Lane pulled off: in three seasons with the program, three different players were the SEC's offensive player of the year, at three different positions (WR Amari Cooper, 2014; RB Derrick Henry, 2015; QB Jalen Hurts, 2016).
Lane's time in Tuscaloosa reverberated well beyond his exit. Who else was hiring him at that time, when there was still asphalt splashed all over his reputation? Lane's time in T-Town founded Nick Saban's Finishing School for Once and Future Head Coaches. Look at it this way: if Lane hadn't worked at Alabama, is Steve Sarkisian the head coach at Texas today?
And if all that isn't enough, consider the content. This man got fired in between Playoff games. Not only did Lane take Saban to places he never imagined philosophically, he also pushed Saban's buttons like none before and no one after. Who else is drawing college football's Most Serious Man into absurd hypotheticals four years after he left town? That, my friends, is a legacy.