It’s nothing against Nick Saban, but Jeremy Pruitt hopes he never works for him again.
If so, it means that he’s no longer a head coach.
“He’s a leader of men,” said Pruitt, who worked twice for Saban and went from being Alabama’s defensive coordinator to the head coach at rival Tennessee during the offseason. “I’ve worked for him for eight years. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have come back. I enjoy working for him. I’ve learned a lot, and I will always be thankful for the opportunity that he gave me.”
When it comes to coaching trees, the one Nick Saban has developed is obviously reaching new heights, and for good reason.
Of the three other active coaches who have won a national championship, one is straight out of Saban’s professional lineage, Jimbo Fisher.
More telling is this statistic: Of the 12 games played in the brief history of the College Football Playoff, eight semifinals and four championships over four years, nine have included Saban or a head coach from his coaching tree.
If you include Dabo Swinney being a former Crimson Tide player and 11 of the 12 games have included some sort of head coaching connection, the exception being first CFB National Championship Game between Ohio State and Oregon.
“He’s doing one hell of a job,” Fisher said shortly after Saban defeated former protégé Kirby Smart in the latest title game. “He’s getting it done. He gets it and his adaptability is great.”
“He’s definitely dominated his era.”
Nevertheless, the more success Saban’s former assistant coaches have elsewhere the more they’ll be in vogue overall.
Just consider the SEC East Division alone.
Smart’s at his alma mater, Georgia, and off to a great start after working for Saban for 11 years. Will Muschamp is making noise at South Carolina. Jim McElwain was at Florida. Even former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is back in the division, albeit as Missouri’s offensive coordinator.
What does it say about the Volunteers that Phillip Fulmer hired someone from Alabama? Or that Saban then turned around and hired UT’s former head coach Butch Jones as an analyst?
If you can’t beat them, join them, is becoming the norm in college football, and with Saban having had 100 assistant coaches the options are only growing.
Fisher won a title at Florida State, but has moved on to Texas A&M where he’ll go up against his mentor on a regular basis. Mark Dantonio keeps surprising people at Michigan State. Mario Cristobal is at Oregon …
Yet Saban keeps plugging away. Every year his coaching staff gets raided and the Crimson Tide have been ranked No. 1 at some point of every season since 2008. One has to go back to 2010 to find an Alabama regular season game in which it wasn’t in contention for the national title.
“I don’t think it’s like Alabama has come down to anybody’s level,” Smart said. “I think the league is trying to catch up with them. It’s certainly been that way for how many years, I don’t know, seven, eight years, everybody is trying to catch up to them. And when everybody is coming in and taking your coaches and taking your quality-control guys and taking every assistant you have, you think about there’s almost somebody from Alabama on every single staff in our conference.
“So that gap, Coach Saban, and I’m learning that now, you’ve got to find people to replace the people, and you’re always trying to get better when you lose somebody. Well, sometimes you lose good people, and it’s hard to catch up that gap. I mean, you look at Auburn, they’ve got guys from Alabama on their staff. South Carolina has got guys. Tennessee has got guys. Georgia has got guys. Now Missouri has got a guy coming in that’s been with Nick all over. So his effect is great.”
In addition to the results on the field, they’re also changing the dynamics in recruiting. Smart may have lost the national title game, 26-23 in overtime, but he ended Saban’s seven-year run as consensus recruiting champion. Alabama appears to be coming back with monster class in 2019, while a distant second in the 247Sports Composite rankings is Texas A&M. Oregon is seventh, with South Carolina and Tennessee in the top 20.
“I know this, it doesn’t matter how good a football coach you are, if you don’t have good players you don’t have much of a chance,” Pruitt said. “In college ball you’ve got to be a good recruiter. You’ve got to be a good evaluator.”
Jeremy Pruitt asked which is a more difficult position, Nick Saban's defensive coordinator or DB coach. "I would say offensive coordinator."
— Charlie Potter (@Charlie_Potter) December 27, 2016
One that has set Saban apart is Alabama does layered evaluations of every prospect and sets minimum standards that need to be met for it to offer a scholarship. If a player doesn’t measure up in one respect, he had better in another.
For example, Saban prefers cornerbacks who at least 6-foot tall, otherwise they won’t measure up against the taller receivers in the league. Offensive tackles need to have a certain arm length. Pass-rushers need to have a quick first step in addition to size. The list of requirements go on.
There’s also a sort of checks and balances system as well, with multiple people evaluating each player. A primary recruiter is assigned to every prospect, but there’s more than one coach involved based on numerous factors.
Those are the kinds of things that schools are buying when they hire a Saban assistant, someone who can bring what he calls “the process” to their program, like Fisher at Texas A&M.
“We’ve always had a great relationship with Jimbo,” Saban said about the offensive coach his defense used to face every day in practice at LSU. “He’s always been a really good friend and had a lot of professional respect for him. I like him.
“It’s good to see those guys have opportunities.”
While the natural assumption is that going against so many former assistants has led to friction, and yes there has been some at times, they all know it comes with the job.
For example, when Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith wanted to transfer to Georgia in 2016, and Saban initially wouldn’t let him because it was against SEC rules, things escalated a bit. But no one knows ruthless Smart can be better than Saban, who helped make him that way.
Consequently, when Smart’s body language was rigid before the National Championship Game, it wasn’t because there was suddenly something personal between them. Smart recently asked his former boss for advice about how to deal with the looming quarterback competition between sophomore Jake Fromm and freshman Justin Fields, a situation that is similar to what’s going on between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa in Tuscaloosa.
“I’m just trying to be me,” Smart said. “I’m not trying to be Nick Saban, I’ll be honest with you. Our personalities for the people that know us are not the same. Nick is incredible at what he does. I’m a different person than Nick. I’m different than Nick in recruiting. But that’s okay. I’m okay with who I am. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not trying to be him or emulate him. He’s got his own mannerisms, and I’ve got mine.”
But he does want to beat him, as do the other former assistants.
Saban is 1-0 against Smart, and 12-0 against them overall. Three on the schedule this season with potentially more in the postseason.
- Derrick Ansley, secondary, 2016-17: Hired to be the defensive backs coach of the Oakland Raiders.
- Major Applewhite, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks, 2007: After spending one season at Alabama, where he was the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I-A, Applewhite went back to his alma mater Texas in 2008, where he became co-offensive coordinator in 2011. He left in 2015 to become the offensive coordinator at Houston and his now the head coach.
- Jeff Banks, special teams coordinator/tight ends, 2018
- Greg Brown, secondary, 2013: Has been the definition of a coaching journeyman as he had worked for 15 NFL and Division I programs before spending a year at Alabama. He’s since been at Louisville (2014-15) and Missouri (2016), and is now at Auburn.
- Burton Burns, running backs 2007-17:Moved into an off-field role during the offseason as Alabama’s assistant athletics director for football.
- Curt Cignetti, wide receivers/recruiting coordinator, 2007-10:Left to be the head coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where over six seasons his teams went 53-17. In 2016 he accepted the head coaching job at FCS Elon, which was coming off six straight losing seasons. The Phoenix made the playoffs and Cignetti was afinalist for the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year.
- Mario Cristobal, offensive line, 2013-16: The former FIU head coach (2007-12) left to be Willie Taggart’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Oregon in 2017. When Taggart left after the regular season, Cristobal became the head coach.
- Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks, 2017: Hired as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.
- Bo Davis, defensive line, 2007-10; 2014-15:Davis left the first time for Texas and was re-hired. In 2016, he resigned after the NCAA ruled he had committed a recruiting violation. He spent the 2017 season as the defensive-line coach for Texas-San Antonio and this past offseason landed the same job with the Detroit Lions.
- Karl Dunbar, defensive line, 2016-17: Returned to the NFL where he had worked for the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, to be the defensive line coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Dan Enos, quarterbacks, 2018
- Josh Gattis, wide receivers, 2018
- Pete Golding, linebackers, 2018
- Mike Groh, wide receivers, 2011-12: Went to Chicago for the same role with the Bears and signed on with the Los Angeles Rams in 2016 to be the passing game coordinator. He spent last season winning the Super Bowl as the wide receivers coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and has since been promoted to offensive coordinator.
- Brent Key, offensive line, 2016-18
- Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator, 2014-16:Named head coach at Florida Atlantic in 2017, his fourth head coaching job.
- Craig Kuligowski, defensive line, 2018
- Michael Locksley, wide receivers 2017; offensive coordinator 2018
- Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks, 2008-11: Was named head coach at Colorado State (2012-14) followed by Florida (2015-17), but was fired despite leading the Gators to back-to-back SEC East titles. Is the wide receivers coach at Michigan and Jim Harbaugh has yet to name an offensive coordinator on his staff.
- Ron Middleton, tight ends/special teams, 2007: Middleton left after one year for Duke, where he was the tight ends and special teams coach through 2012. He’s since been the tight ends coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- Billy Napier, wide receivers, 2013-16:Was named offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Arizona State in 2017. After one season landed his first head coaching job at Louisiana at Lafayette.
- Doug Nussmeier, offensive coordinator, 2012-13: Another Michigan State connection, although was the Spartans quarterbacks coach well after Saban left, and followed Jim McElwain as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator in 2008 (Bulldogs coach Pat Hill had coached with Saban with the Cleveland Browns). Was Michigan’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and had the same role at Florida (2015-17). Has joined Jason Garrett’s staff as the tight end coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
- Joe Pannunzio, special teams coordinator/tight ends 2017; running backs 2018
- Joe Pendry, offensive line, 2007-10: Retired from coaching in 2010, but stayed with Alabama as a special adviser and NFL liaison through the 2018 NFL Draft.
- Jeremy Pruitt, secondary, 2010-12; defensive coordinator/linebackers 2016-17: Pruitt’s first coaching job was at Alabama under Saban. Was hired away by Jimbo Fisher to be Florida State’s defensive coordinator, but left after a year for Georgia. When Kirby Smart took over in Athens, Pruitt became the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator. He was hired as Tennessee’s new head coach in December.
- Chris Rumph, defensive line, 2011-13: Left Alabama for Texas, where he also had the title “Assistant Head Coach for Defense. A year later was named the defensive line coach at Florida. He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2017 and defensive coordinator during the past offseason.
- Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator, 2016 (one game): Had one of the most unusual stays in Tuscaloosa, was hired as an analyst in 2016 after alcohol issues contributed to his dismissal from USC. When Alabama and Lane Kiffin parted ways before the National Championship Game, Sarkisian stepped in as offensive coordinator. He left a month later to be the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.
- Karl Scott, defensive backs, 2018
- Kirby Smart, secondary, 2007-10, 2014-15; defensive coordinator 2008-15 ; linebackers 2011-2013: Left to be the head coach of his alma mater, Georgia. Came up on the losing side of last season’s National Championship Game, 26-23 in overtime.
- Kevin Steele, defensive coordinator/linebackers, 2007; linebackers 2008, 2014: The former Baylor head coach has come and gone a couple of times, leaving Alabama to be the defensive coordinator at Clemson (2009-11) and LSU (2015). He’s had the same role at Auburn since 2016.
- Jeff Stoutland, offensive line, 2011-12: Has been the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line coach since 2013, and just won his first Super Bowl ring.
- Sal Sunseri, linebackers, 2009-11: Left to be Derek Dooley’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Spent two years as Florida State’s defensive ends coach and three as linebackers coach of the Oakland Raiders. Has joined the Florida staff as defensive line coach.
- Lance Thompson, linebackers, 2007-08; 2012-14: Worked for Lane Kiffin at Tennessee following the first departure and stuck around with Derek Dooley through 2011. He’s been with Will Muschamp at South Carolina since 2015.
- Tosh Lupoi, linebackers, 2016-17; defensive coordinator 2018
- Bobby Williams, special teams/tight ends, 2008-15; special assistant 2016-17: Joined Mario Cristobal’s staff at Oregon as tight ends and special teams coach.
- James Willis, linebackers, 2009: Left to be Tommy Tuberville’s defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, but left the program in 2011 after a domestic incident and later pled guilty to In 2013, he became Louisiana’s defensive coordinator, and from 2014-16 served as a defensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints. He spent last season as an analyst for Louisiana.
This is the fourth story in a five-part series about Nick Saban’s coaching tree.