When he landed his first coaching job at Louisiana in December, Billy Napier was obviously thrilled, but there wasn’t much time for celebrating.
With the early signing period in recruiting less than a week away, he had to start putting together a coaching staff immediately. The first person he hired was someone from Alabama, dating to his first go-around with the Crimson Tide as an analyst in 2011, Rob Sale.
“He’s a loyal dude, and a guy who will take the shirt off his back for you,” the former Crimson Tide wide receivers coach (2013-16) said about his offensive coordinator.
While Napier is someone Alabama fans are more familiar with, and one of 100 assistant coaches Nick Saban has had over the years, there are actually more people — many more — associated with his coaching tree, such as Sale, who they know very little about.
Saban gave his former player his first taste of college coaching as a strength and conditioning assistant and offensive analyst in 2007, and Sale stayed with the Crimson Tide through the 2011 national championship season. He was subsequently the offensive line coach at McNeese State, Georgia and Louisiana-Monroe before being reunited with Napier at Arizona State last season.
“The household names are Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney,” Napier said about his biggest coaching mentors. “What I think gets overlooked is all the people you came in contact with while you were working for those guys.
“There was a group at Alabama in 2011, my first year there, we had all these young cats. We were all [about] the same age; we were all in second-tier roles in the organization and we just had a great group of guys. Those guys have spread all over the place.”
Among them was Derrick Ansley, a graduate assistant in 2011, who came back to be Alabama’s defensive backs coach for two seasons and is now with the Oakland Raiders. So was Jordy Wright, who has been the Crimson Tide’s director of player personnel since 2015.
Some are in the NFL, such as Joe Judge, special-teams coordinator of the New England Patriots, while others have followed coaches to other schools. Even though they may be on opposing sidelines every weekend, they still talk and bounce ideas off one another, much like their predecessors.
“What you learn pretty quick is have good structure but go hire some smart, talented people who can be productive for you,” Napier said about his first staff. “I think we’ve done that.”
In some ways, the coaching world hasn’t changed that much since Saban made his first hires at Toledo (1990) and Michigan State (1995-99). Strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie likes to tell the story about how he had been with the Rockets for nine years until he got a late-night phone call from his old boss asking him “You coming or what?” He’s been at Michigan State since.
“I think they’re important,” Greg Meyer, Saban’s offensive coordinator at Toledo, said about coaching trees in general. “You take lessons from every head coach, and Nick had an extreme influence on a lot of the things that I did later on.”
Meyer ended up coaching for more than two decades, and he was the offensive coordinator at Northwestern when the Wildcats under Gary Barnett made one of the most notable turnarounds in college football history, going from 3-7-1 in 1994 to their first Rose Bowl since 1948.
Yet he was actually Saban’s second hire for offensive coordinator at Toledo. Dana Bible initially got the job, but then had the opportunity to become the quarterbacks coach of the Cincinnati Bengals — a job Saban helped him land even though it wasn’t in his team’s best interest.
“I was kind of an afterthought,” said Meyer, who was at nearly Ball State. “I ended up having to interview with the entire staff, it was with everyone including Dana Bible. It was pretty intense.
“But they were great.”
One person who Meyer believes recommended him for the job was Kevin Steele, whom Saban was already familiar with and eventually hired at Alabama. When Meyer resigned from his last coaching position, offensive coordinator at Baylor in 2001, Steele was the coach.
— 247Sports (@247Sports) February 13, 2014
But for every high-profile story associated with the Saban coaching tree, such as Jeremy Pruitt going from defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High School to Alabama’s director of player development and working his way up to his current position of Tennessee’s coach, there are numerous other corresponding moves that go largely under the radar.
Everyone takes people with them.
For example, Alabama’s offensive coordinator last season, Brian Daboll, was a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State in 1998-99. It served as a springboard for a job with the New England Patriots and the start of his NFL career.
“He’s a pretty consistent individual,” Daboll said about Saban then and now. “He looks the same as 20-some years ago. I can’t say the same. I’ve got to get on his diet plan.”
When Daboll recently left to be the offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, he took Alabama analyst Shea Tierney and former Crimson Tide player and offensive analyst William Vlachos along as assistants.
Pruitt tabbed Alabama director of player development Kevin Sherrer for defensive coordinator, analyst Chris Weinke as his running backs coach and named assistant director of recruiting operations Brian Niedermeyer his tight ends coach. Former player Brandon Deaderick is the Vols’ quality control analyst.
I truly believe Pruitt can be the best coach to ever come out of the Saban coaching tree. He has all the tools, most importantly the DRIVE and the IT factor, just like Nick.
— Will Lowery (@jwlowery29) December 7, 2017
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s staff at Florida Atlantic looks like a Crimson Tide roster with former players Wilson Love, Wes Neighbors and Mike Nysewander. His offensive coordinator is former Alabama analyst Charlie Weis Jr.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who worked for Saban longer than anyone not named Bobby Williams, tried to take strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran with him (so did Pruitt). His first hire was Alabama director of player development Glenn Schumann, and secondary coach Mel Tucker signed on to be defensive coordinator. Former Crimson Tide tight end Brian Vogler is a football operations assistant.
“I think Nick has changed a lot as it’s gone along,” said Smart, who also worked for Saban at LSU and on the Miami Dolphins. “If you ask his original LSU staff, they’ll tell you that he’s gone soft because at LSU, there are stories that were much tougher as far as work experiences than what we went through. I always enjoyed it. I think the media portrayed it to be more than it was.
“He’s very competitive. He’s very passionate. He’s very driven. But he doesn’t ask you to do anything that he doesn’t do himself.”
All those things have remained the same, from Meyer through Napier, and even with the new coaching staff for the 2018 season. Alabama may be known for reloading in player talent every year, but the same holds true in just about every other aspect of the organization.
“In my opinion, that place is not slowing down any down soon, either,” said Napier, who initially left Alabama to follow Jim McElwain to Colorado State. “It’s going to be fun to see how long he can sustain it, but they’re going to be in contention as long as he’s running the show I promise you that.”
This is the final story in a five-part series about Nick Saban’s coaching tree.