TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The turnover has been steady.
Some leave the University of Alabama football team for the National Football League, others crave other opportunities. On average, Nick Saban has had to replace roughly one-third of everyone on the Crimson Tide roster every single year.
Although that statement could apply to the players, as Saban regularly signs the maximum number of players allowed with each recruiting class, 25, in this case we’re talking about the coaches. This spring is pretty typical as three members of the nine-person coaching staff (not including the head coach) are new.
Yet the transition appears seamless, again.
It’s an aspect of the program that’s largely been overlooked, and is a key reason for the Crimson Tide’s continued success.
That’s not to suggest that the assistant coaches don’t get noticed or can’t make a big difference. Former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and Alabama parting ways before the national championship, and Steve Sarkisian getting promoted and then hired away by the Atlanta Falcons, still are considered talk show fodder.
But now that practices have resumed this spring, it’s all business as usual — which is the point.
If an onlooker wasn’t specifically watching Brian Daboll working with the quarterbacks in the middle of the practice fields, he wouldn’t particularly stand out. He’s already acting like he’s been with the Crimson Tide for years.
That’s one of Saban’s secrets when making most of his hires nowadays.
“All of them have worked for us before,” Saban said. “They know what to expect.”
Daboll spent two seasons (1998-99) as a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State. He also had another qualification that the coach covets in his coordinators, experience in the NFL.
New tight ends and special teams coordinator Joe Pannunzio was the Crimson Tide’s director of football operations for four seasons from 2011-14. He spent the last two years as the Philadelphia Eagles’ director of personnel operations, where he also helped out with special teams.
“[He’s] going to help some of our young players that probably need to be core special team guys for us,” Saban said. “One of the things that hurt us last year —we had six guys transfer last year and then we lost six guys to injury — and I think those things affected us toward the end of the year, and probably more on special teams than anywhere else.”
Meanwhile, like Sarkisian, co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Michael Locksley was an analyst last season before being promoted. So he’s already familiar with the players.
Having head coaching experience doesn’t hurt either as he had that role at New Mexico (2009-11) and on an interim level at Maryland (2015). Pannunzio was Murray State’s head coach from 2000-05. A couple of years ago Alabama had four former head coaches on the formal staff (Kiffin, Mario Cristobal, Kevin Steele and Bobby Williams), of which two previously had worked for Saban (Steele and Williams).
Although they hadn’t been head coaches yet, the 2016 hires had similar traits.
Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had been developed by Saban. An assistant coach at a nearby high school, he initially joined the Alabama staff as Director of Player Development in 2007, and three years later was promoted to defensive backs coach. Jimbo Fisher, himself a former Saban assistant coach, hired him to be the defensive coordinator at Florida State. After one season in Tallahassee and two seasons at Georgia, Pruitt returned to Tuscaloosa when Kirby Smart took over the Bulldogs.
Defensive coach Derrick Ansley has been on a similar path. After a two-year stint as an Alabama graduate assistant (2010-11), he spent four seasons as a secondary coach at Tennessee (2012) and Kentucky (2013-15), and had been promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Saban called.
“It’s always difficult to find someone who knows our system and our scheme,” Saban said when Pruitt was hired. “So to be able to bring somebody back like that helps. New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas, but somebody who really understands what we do.”
It also points to another quality that’s very important to Saban — loyalty — and he knows exactly what he’s getting with each coach.
Go back to his initial staff at Alabama and it was filled with people he already had a connection with like Smart. Saban had worked for the father of wide receivers coach Curt Cignetti, Frank. Offensive line coach Joe Pendry also was from West Virginia and they had plenty of common links. Williams had been on Saban’s staff at Michigan State, and when he took over as head coach hired Jeff Stoutland as his offensive line coach.
You get the idea.
Of course, Saban also has made some key hires of coaches he hadn’t worked with before, like running backs coach Burton Burns, who is the only assistant coach remaining from that 2007 staff.
Linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi served as an analyst for the Crimson Tide during the 2014 season after spending the previous six years at California and Washington. He’s now also a key recruiter for the Crimson Tide.
Brent Key came in last year as a co-offensive line coach and now has the line all to himself.
“He’s very straight-up,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “He’s going to tell it exactly like he is. He’s not going to sugar-coat anything or anything like that. He’s one of those guys you know you can count on and you can take what he says for what it is.
“He pushes the younger guys and the older guys know what to expect, so it’s good for us. It’s a good fit.”
It makes for consistency out of potential chaos, although this year all eyes will be on Daboll when the season starts. A question about how the play-calling might change in the fall is what sparked Saban’s mini-rant during his first spring press conference last week, and the new offensive coordinator won’t meet with reporters until just before training camp opens in the fall.
“He worked really hard with the coaches that we have to make some changes in the offense but also try to keep the things that we do well, things that Jalen [Hurts] can do well and maybe that our young quarterbacks can do well, which is going to be important for us,” Saban said.
For now, though, don’t expect too much to change during the spring, as the offensive coordinator gets familiar with his players and vice-versa. Priority one for Daboll is to work to develop Hurts during his first spring as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, and get the two early enrollees prepared to be backups as true freshmen.
All that other stuff will develop over the next few months
“I don’t think it’s going to be too difficult or different,” wide receiver Calvin Ridley said. “I just think we have some new plays we have to learn. We’ll get it. It’s going to be good for us.”
Alabama’s coaching turnover
- Offensive coordinator: Major Applewhite (2007); Jim McElwain (2008-11); Doug Nussmeier (2012-13); Kiffin (2014-16), Daboll (2017)
- Running backs: Burns (2007-17)
- Wide receivers: Cignetti (2007-2010); Mike Groh (2011-12); Billy Napier (2013-16); Locksley (2017)
- Offensive line: Pendry (2007-10); Stoutland (2011-12); Mario Cristobal 2013-16; Key (2016-17)
- Tight ends/Special Teams: Ron Middleton (2007); Williams (2008-15); Cristobal/Burns (2016); Pannunzio (2017)
- Defensive coordinator: Kevin Steele (2007); Kirby Smart (2008-2015); Jeremy Pruitt (2016-17)
- Defensive line: Bo Davis (2007-10); Chris Rumph (2012-13); Davis (2014-15); Dunbar (2016-17)
- Interior linebackers: Steele (2007-08); James Willis (2009); Smart (2010-13); Steele (2014); Smart (2015); Pruitt (2016-17)
- Outside linebackers: Lance Thompson (2007-08); Sal Sunseri (2009-11); Thompson (2012-14); Lupoi (2015-17)
- Defensive backs: Smart (2007-09); Pruitt (2010-12); Greg Brown (2013); Smart (2014); Mel Tucker (2015); Ansley (2016-17)