The outside world missed the real story.
When Nick Saban had to hire six assistant coaches this past offseason the talk outside of Tuscaloosa was about the turnover. With the NCAA allowing teams to have a 10thcoach on the sideline more than half of his staff, including both coordinators, is new.
However, the real story was how Saban looked outside of his own circles in making the hires.
Like the way National Football League teams do with players, the coach is always making contingency plans. He has prepared lists of possible replacements should something happen to anyone in the organization, about who he would target and who to keep an eye on. Consequently, he’s always on the lookout for up-and-coaches.
It explains a lot of how Saban ended up adding Jeff Banks, Dan Enos, Josh Gattis, Pete Golding, Karl Scott and Craig Kilgowski — although with Coach Kool not only did he churn out top defensive lineman at Missouri but played for Saban as an offensive lineman at Toledo.
Collectively, the moves were a significant departure for Saban, who with the 100 assistant coaches over his career developed a strong reputation for hiring people with whom he was already familiar.
“When you have staff changes, you like to have new ideas, new enthusiasm, new people,” he said. “But also there is always the question of how is the new assistant going to fit with the other people you have.
“When you have guys who have worked with you in the past, you know the fit, and the buy-in they have relative to how you do things, why you do things, how they work the players, that has a tremendous amount of currency you have to take into consideration, and it certainly does help the transition because the players know the guys and the guys know how to coach the players relative to how the players have always been coaches.”
Among coaches, Charlie Baggett, Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp,Dean Pees, Kirby Smart, Sal Sunseri, Lance Thompsonand Bobby Williams all worked for Saban not only more than once, but on more than one team.
Williams is the leader of that group as he worked at every Saban stop as a head coach minus the first one, Toledo.
But there’s also a large divide in the Saban coaching tree between Michigan State and LSU, as no one from the staff with the Spartans initially followed when given the opportunity. Williams replaced him as head coach and didn’t head to Baton Rouge until Saban’s final season with the Tigers (2004).
Coaching trees often overlap and are seldom linear, not even Saban’s.
He belongs to one of the most famous coaching tress in college football history, belonging to Earle Bruce, the successor to Woody Hayes at Ohio State who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002. Some of his former assistants who went on to become head coaches include Joe Bugel, Dom Capers, Pete Carroll, Skip Holtz, Glen Mason, Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, and his defensive backs coach in 1980-81, Saban.
Yet Saban considers himself in a couple of other trees first, including the one belonging to arguably his biggest mentor, Don James. The man who got him into coaching went 178–76–3 over his 22 years at Kent State and Washington, and won a split national championship in 1991.
“Don James did probably more than anyone in this profession to influence me,” Saban said. “First of all, I didn’t ever want to grow up to be a coach. He kind of recognized that and asked me to be a coach, to be a graduate assistant, and I didn’t have any intention … and the only reason why I did it was because my wife had another year of school.
“I really enjoyed it.”
After Kent State (1973-76), Saban bounced around as an assistant coach from Syracuse (1977) to West Virginia (1978-79), Ohio State, Navy (1982) and Michigan State (1983-87), not to mention the Houston Oilers (1988-89) and Cleveland Browns (1991-94) in the NFL.
The influences on him were numerous, like the legendary Jack Pardee, one of the Junction Boys along with Gene Stallings under Paul W. “Bear” Bryant at Texas A&M, who was Saban’s neighbor in Houston.
“Jack was a really good friend of mine,” Saban said. “You talk about old school, tough, a really good person. Some of the stories guys tell about him. Jim Stanley was on out staff and he was also one of the Junction Boys with Coach Bryant. While I was at the Oilers he talked about how they were playing Texas or some big game and Jack was hurt and Jack played fullback as well as linebacker in college. Well, they got the ball at the 7-yard line and it was right at the end of the game and time was running out and the score was like 6-0 or something and they hadn’t scored a touchdown. I’m not telling the story right, but Jack ran off the bench for one more play with a separated shoulder. He got in the huddle and said, ‘Just give it to me one more time.’ He ran over everybody and scored a touchdown and they won the game.
“The guy played 8 years, had melanoma that almost killed him, made the Pro Bowl, missed a year, came back and played for about 7 more years and made the Pro Bowl then. You’ll never find a better guy. You’ll never find a better person. He’s one of those guys you say you’d like to be like that guy.”
When it comes to Saban’s “process,” the organizational side of the football program, there are two influences who stand out, George Perles and Bill Belichick.
“George Perles, who was a great coach at Michigan State and also at the Pittsburgh Steelers with Chuck Noll, really taught me a lot about developing as a coach,” Saban said. “I’m talking about technique of being a good defensive coordinator and a secondary coach, and was great at how he handled people and treated people, was a great recruiter. I learned a lot from him.”
Belichick, his former boss with the Browns, has led the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls titles (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX, LI). He’s become a regular visitor to Tuscaloosa when the Crimson Tide holds its annual pro day for scouts. (What do they do for fun together? Saban says they watch film).
“When I worked for Bill Belichick we had one sign in the building; it said, ‘Do your job,’” Saban said.
They don’t have that sign in Tuscaloosa, at least not out in the open. But they also don’t need one.
“Detailed, organized, demanding, expect you to do it the right way,” former Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said about working for both Belechick and Saban. “There’s no excuses to be made. You have a job to do, you go do it. Our mantra is “Do your job,” and that’s what everyone in the organization has to do is do their job.
“I’ve got a lot respect for both of them. Learned a great deal, probably, from those two men more than anybody else in this profession.”
- Mike Collins, linebackers 2004: Collins had been coaching in the state of Louisiana since 1983 when Saban added him as a strength and conditioning intern in 2003 and promoted him for the following season. Collins was the defensive coordinator (1999-2002) and interim head coach at Louisiana-Monroe, and named the head coach only to resign after being arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He fought the charges and eventually won in court. Following LSU he was the defensive coordinator at Northwestern State, McNeese State and Sam Houston State. Since 2016 he’s been back at ULM as defensive coordinator.
- Derek Dooley, 2000-02 tight ends/recruiting coordinator, 2003-04 special teams/running backs:The son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley went from being a graduate assistant for the Bulldogs (1996), to wide receivers coach at SMU (1997-99) to LSU. He followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins before becoming a college head coach.
- Kirk Doll, linebackers 2002-03: With the NCAA allowing a 10thon-field assistant coach, Doll was recently brought back to his alma mater East Carolina for a fourth time to oversee special teams. After LSU he joined the Denver Broncos (2004-06), but has since been at places like Texas A&M, the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, San Jose State, Florida International and, of course, East Carolina.
- Phil Elmassian, defensive coordinator 2000: Few coaches were as travelled as Elmassian, who began coaching at his alma mater William & Mary in 1974, and retired from Division III Ferrum in 2014. In between he worked at, in order, Richmond, Ferrum, East Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia tech, Virginia, Syracuse, Virginia Tech again as defensive coordinator, Washington, Boston College (DC), Wisconsin, LSU, West Virginia (DC), Marshall, Purdue, Nebraska, Louisiana-Monroe (DC), Illinois State (DC), Purdue again and UMass (DC). He might be the football equivalent to six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
- Jimbo Fisher, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks 2000-06: Instead of following Saban to the Miami Dolphins, Fisher opted to stay at LSU under Les Miles. He interviewed for the head coaching position at UAB, only to have the board of trustees vote down the contract offer. Again declining a chance to work for Saban at Alabama, Fisher was named offensive coordinator at Florida State and eventually became the coach in waiting to succeed Bobby Bowden. He took over in 2010 and won the 2013 national championship. During the offseason was lured away by Texas A&M.
- Gary Gibbs, defensive coordinator 2001: The former Oklahoma head coach (1989-1994) has been in the NFL since his year at LSU, with the Dallas Cowboys (2002-05), New Orleans Saints (2006-08) and Kansas City Chiefs (2009-17).
- Charlie Harbison, defensive backs, 2001-02: Ironically had two previous stints at Alabama as wide receivers coach, before and after LSU (1998-2000, 2003-06). Was defensive coordinator at Mississippi State (2007-08) and was subsequently co-DC at Clemson, Auburn and Louisiana-Lafayette. Is currently an assistant defensive backs coach for the Arizona Cardinals.
- Michael Haywood, 1995-2002 running backs; 1997-2002 special teams: Went on to be the head coach at Miami of Ohio (2008-09) and was hired for the same role at Pittsburgh, but was arrested on felony domestic violence charges and subsequently fired. Two years later the charges were dismissed after he completed numerous pre-trial requirements. Hired by FCS Texas Southern in 2016.
- Stan Hixon, wide receivers 2000-03:Left the college ranks after LSU and was the wide receivers coach of the Washington Redskins (2004-09), Buffalo Bills (2010-11) and Houston Texans (2014-15). Also spent two seasons at Penn State. Is currently the receivers coach at Temple, working for head coach Geoff Collins, Saban’s first director of player personnelat Alabama.
- Pete Jenkins, defensive line, 2000-01: Jenkins was Saban’s established veteran on the LSU staff as he had been coaching since 1964. From 1980-90 was LSU’s defensive line coach and defensive coordinator. He’s since had brief stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and USC, but the longtime mentor of Ed Orgeron came out of retirement to lead LSU defensive line again in 2016-17.
- Travis Jones, defensive line 2003-04: The former Georgia player was hired from Kansas, where he had been a defensive line coach for the first time (2001-02). He followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins, where he was a defensive line assistant (2006) and promoted to defensive ends coach (2007). He’s since coached with the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, and is currently a defensive line assistant for Dan Quinn and the Atlanta Falcons.
- Will Muschamp, 2001 linebackers; 2002-04 defensive coordinator: Was the defensive coordinator at Division II Valdosta State in 2000 when Saban hired him. It was Muschamp who brought Kirby Smart to Saban’s attention. After being promoted to defensive coordinator followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins.
- Leroy Ryals, tight ends 2004: Served as the head coach of his high school alma mater in Florida, Sarasota Booker (1997-2000), and led the running backs at South Florida (2000-03). Since LSU has been a fixture in Georgia high school athletics, having been as the head coach at Clarke Central, Thomasville and Cedar Shoals.
- Stacy Searels, offensive line 2003-06: Became a fixture on the coaching staffs of Mark Richt, both at Georgia (2007-10) and Miami (since 2016). In between he was the offensive line coach at Texas and Virginia Tech.
- Kirby Smart, defensive backs 2004: Getting annoyed with continually having to replace coaches being hired away, Saban opted for someone he could groom. At the time, Smart’s coaching experience was limited to a year as defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator at Division II Valdosta State, and two seasons as a graduate assistant at Florida State. He followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins.
- Sal Sunseri, linebackers/special teams 2000: Another coach who worked more than once for Saban, he spent 2001 with Bobby Williams at Michigan State and subsequently was the defensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers (2002-08) before heading to Alabama in 2009.
- Lance Thompson, 2002 defensive line; 2003 tight ends/recruiting coordinator: The first of numerous stints with Saban began after Thompson spent the 1995-98 and 2001 seasons as Georgia Tech’s defensive line coach, and 1999-2000 at Alabama. After LSU he was the defensive coordinator at Central Florida (2004-06) before heading back to Alabama.
- Rick Trickett, offensive line 2000: Older SEC fans are very familiar with Trickett as he also had stints at Mississippi State (1989-92) and Auburn (1993-98). The Vietnam veteran followed Rich Rodriguez to West Virginia in 2001. Most recently he was on the Florida State staff (2007-17) after being initially hired by Bobby Bowden.
- Mel Tucker, defensive backs, 2000: Began his career as a Michigan State graduate assistant (1997-98) under Saban. Got his first taste at being a defensive coordinator as co-DC at Ohio State in 2004. After three seasons as the Cleveland Browns’ secondary coach became defensive coordinator in 2008, and had the same role with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2009-12), while also serving as interim head coach in 2011, and Chicago Bears (2015). Re-joined Saban at Alabama in 2015.
- Tim Walton, defensive backs 2003: A year before Saban left for the Miami Dolphins, Walton departed for the Miami Hurricanes and was their defensive coordinator in 2007. Also had the same role at Memphis (2008) and with the St. Louis Rams (2013). Most recently was the secondary coach of the New York Giants (2015-17).
- Bobby Williams, wide receivers 2004: The former Michigan State head coach joined Saban for a second time after spending a year with the Detroit Lions, where he was reunited with former Spartans wide receiver Charles Rogers.
- George Yarno, offensive line, 2001-02: The 10-year player in the NFL moved on to the league as a coach after a short stint at Washington State, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2015 and died a year later at the age of 58.
Miami Dolphins (2005-06)
- Keith Armstrong, special teams 2001-07: One of the coaches Saban retained from the previous staff, Armstrong has been the special teams coach for the Atlanta Falcons since 2008. His name has been mentioned for some NFL head coach jobs.
- Charlie, Baggett, assistant head coach/offense, wide receivers, 2005-06: After his second stint with Saban, coached wide receivers at Washington (2007-08), and with the St. Louis Rams (2009). Joined Derek Dooley’s coaching staff at Tennessee in 2010. He retired in 2011.
- Dom Capers, defensive coordinator 2007:Saban brought him in as “Special Assistant to the Head Coach” in 2006, and promoted him for the subsequent season. Capers was the head coach of the Carolina Panthers (1995-98) and Houston Texans (2002-05). He was also the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers, and retired from the latter after the 2017 season.
- Derek Dooley, tight ends 2005-06: Left the Miami Dolphins before Nick Saban departed, to be the head coach at Louisiana Tech. In 2008, he was also named the athletic director. He left in 2010 to replace Lane Kiffin as head coach at Tennessee. Dooley was Jason Garrett’s wide receivers coach with the Dallas Cowboys (2013-17) and is the new offensive coordinator at Missouri.
- George Edwards, linebackers, 2005-09: Edwards was one of two coaches to be retained after Saban left for Alabama in 2007. He eventually left to be Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Florida (2010). He’s since been the defensive coordinator
- Jason Garrett, quarterbacks 2005-06:Garrett’s first coaching job was with the same team he finished his playing career with, the Miami Dolphins under Saban. He subsequently joined the Dallas Cowboys and worked his way up from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator to head coach in 2011.
- Hudson Houck, offensive line 2005-07: Houck had been an offensive line coach since 1972, and at the NFL level since 1983 when Saban hired him. During his nine years with the Dallas Cowboys from 1993-2001 sixoffensive linemen earned 22 trips to the Pro Bowl. After his second stint with the franchise (2008-11) Houck retired.
- Scott Linehan, offensive coordinator 2005: His college coaching career began in 1989 as the wide receivers coach at his alma mater Idaho under John L. Smith. He had already been the offensive coordinator at Washington (1996-98) and Louisville (1999-2001) before making the jump to the NFL. He had the same role with the Minnesota Vikings (2002-04) before the Dolphins, and left to be the head coach of the St. Louis Rams (2006-08). He was subsequently hired by the Detroit Lions (2009-13), but has been with the Dallas Cowboys since.
- Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator 2006: Was coming off a stint as the head coach of the Buffalo Bills (2004-05) when he joined the Dolphins. He subsequently became the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons (2008-11), and the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars (2012) and Tennessee Titans (2015-17).
- Will Muschamp, assistant head coach/defense 2005:Only spent a year with the Miami Dolphins and started to forge his own path as defensive coordinator at Auburn (2006-07) and Texas (2008-10), and head coach at Florida (2011-14). He went back to Auburn in 2015 and has been the head coach at South Carolina since 2016.
- Mel Phillips, defensive backs 1985-2007: Phillips coached the defensive backs for the Detroit Lions from 1980-1984. He was an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins from 1985 to 2007. Originally hired by Don Shula, Phillips was retained by, in order, Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Saban and Cam Cameron.
- Dan Quinn, defensive line 2005-06: After Quinn made the jump Hofstra to the San Francisco 49ers, Saban brought him to Miami. He subsequently coached the defensive line with the New York Jets (2007-08) and Seattle Seahawks (2009-10) before becoming Will Muschamp’s defensive coordinator at Florida (2011-12). He went back to the Seahawks in the same role and became the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015.
- Richard Smith, defensive coordinator 2005:Although Smith had been coaching in the NFL since 1988, where he and Saban were on the Houston Oilers staff together, Miami was his first defensive coordinator job. He had the same role with the Houston Texans (2006-08) and Atlanta Falcons (2015-16), and has been the linebackers for the Los Angeles Chargers since 2017.
- Kirby Smart, safeties 2006:After LSU, Smart spent a year at his alma mater, Georgia, coaching the running backs. Subsequent to his only year in the NFL, Smart followed Saban to Alabama.
- Bobby Williams, Running Backs 2005-06: After rejoining Saban at LSU, Williams followed him to Miami. When Saban left for Alabama, Williams initially stuck around, but three months later was fired by the Dolphins with no reason disclosed. Saban hired him for the 2008 season.
The last coach to shut out New England was Nick Saban with the 2006 Dolphins. That was Nick Saban's last win as Miami's head coach. pic.twitter.com/VKvoE2ouph
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) October 3, 2016
This is the third in a five-part series about Nick Saban’s coaching tree. Thursday’s story will take a look at his coaching staffs at Alabama.