Fans of the TV show Breaking Bad are familiar with: “Let’s just say I know a guy… who knows a guy… who knows another guy.”
The line could be used to describe how a lot of football coaches get hired, especially when it comes to Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Even going back to his first head coaching job at Toledo (1990), or Michigan State (1995-99), Saban did what a lot of coaches do: hire people he already knew, or knew about through someone he trusted.
For example, when Saban needed an offensive coordinator for the Spartans, he hired veteran Gary Tranquill. What’s the connection? They had already worked together twice, at West Virginia in 1979 and Navy in 1982.
Tranquill was the defensive coordinator of the Mountaineers (he switched to offensive coordinator the subsequent season) and head coach of the Midshipmen when Saban was a defensive backs coach.
So Saban knew exactly what he was getting at a crucial spot, especially since he had little experience on that side of the ball.
It was from Navy that Saban also found his first defensive coordinator at both Toledo and Michigan State.
Dean Pees had gone from being a high school coach to the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Division II Findlay in Ohio, which is located approximately 40 miles south of Toledo. From there he went to Miami University, where he had the same responsibilities, and Navy as the secondary coach (1987-89).
At Navy from 1956-89, primarily as a scout, was Steve Belichick, father of Bill, the Super Bowl-winning coach who hired Saban to be his defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns (1991-94).
Pees ended up leaving Michigan State to be the head coach at Kent State, Saban’s alma mater, and subsequently joined the New England Patriots, first as Bill Belichick’s linebackers coach (2004-05), and then as defensive coordinator (2006-09).
Yes, the football coaching world does work that way.
— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) February 25, 2018
It’s also not coincidence that when Saban left Toledo, his replacement was former Kent State teammate Gary Pinkel, who retained most of the coaching staff for at least one season.
When Saban had arrived, he had held on to three from the previous group, two of whom he already knew well. Defensive line coach Pat Perles was the son of one of his mentors, George Perles, the head coach at Michigan State for 12 years (1983-94).
Pat Perles actually began his career at Kent State before transferring to Michigan State and was a walk-on outside linebacker from 1983-85. Saban was his defensive coordinator.
Defensive backs coach Phil Parker was also on the Spartans from 1982-85.
Sometimes the connections are nothing short of ridiculous.
For example, Saban’s first offensive line coach with the Rockets was Ellis Rainsberger, a name that college football historians know well. From 1975-77, Rainsberger was the head coach at Kansas State, which played in the Big 8. His offensive coordinator was a former player with West Virginia roots, Joe Pendry — who recently wrapped up his football career at Alabama.
After he was fired by Kansas State, Rainsberger served as offensive coordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League (1978-82), and returned to the United States to be an assistant coach with the Denver Gold of the USFL (1983). A year later he was the interim head coach of the league’s Pittsburgh Maulers for eight games. The coach he replaced was Pendry.
Rainsberger was hired by Saban for his last job in football, as a scout for the Miami Dolphins (2005-07).
Here’s a look at the first of the 100 assistant coaches Saban has had over the years.
- Tom Amstutz, linebackers/kickers: Stayed with the Rockets, became the defensive coordinator in 1994 and took over as head coach in 2001. Led the program to two MAC championships, four division title and four bowl appearances.
- Lawrence Cole, running backs: Was the head coach at FCS Tennessee State (1996-99) and Division II Stillman College in Tuscaloosa (2008-2010). He’s been the head coach at Fairfield High School in Alabama since 2015.
- Ron Curtis, wide receivers/recruiting coordinator: One of the holdovers who Saban retained, Curtis stayed with Toledo for just one more season. He retired from Division II Findlay in 2005.
- Kirk Heidelberg, tight ends/special teams: Has spent so much time coaching in Germany that his Wikipedia page is actually in German. In addition to a CFL stint, he’s been the head coach and athletic director at Rockford (Ill.) Christian (2006-11) and Waite (Ohio) High School.
- Greg Meyer, offensive coordinator: After the 1991 season left Toledo to be Gary Barnett’s offensive coordinator at Northwestern, where the Wildcats won back-to-back Big Ten titles. Had the same role at Baylor (1999-2001). Since 2006 he’s been the Assistant Athletics Director for Development at Baylor.
- Phil Parker, defensive backs: Spent 11 seasons as Toledo’s defensive backs coach and was hired by Kirk Ferentz at Iowa in 1999. Parker was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012.
- Dean Pees, defensive coordinator: After six years as a high school coach, Pees found himself on the coaching hot track, going from Division II Findlay, to Miami (Ohio) and Navy before Toledo (1990-93), and spent the subsequent season at Notre Dame. He rejoined Sagan at Michigan State in 1995.
- Pat Perles, defensive line: After Toledo he spent five seasons coaching in the NFL, six in the CFL and nine between North Dakota State (2003-08) and Michigan State (2000-02). He was also the offensive line coach at Syracuse in 2013. He’s currently a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
- Ellis Rainsberger, offensive line: Saban always likes to have a veteran presence on the staff and with Toledo it was Rainsberger, who had been coaching since 1959 including as head coach NAIA Washburn University (1962-64) and Kansas State (1975-77). Toledo was his last coaching job.
Michigan State (1995-99)
- Charlie Baggett, wide receivers/running backs 1995-98: Baggett left the Spartans to return to the NFL, where he had stints with the Packers and Vikings before rejoining Saban with the Miami Dolphins.
- Jim Bollman, offensive line 1995-97: Bollman coached with the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears before serving as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator (2011-11). He’s had the same role back at Michigan State since 2013.
- Bob Casullo, tight ends/special teams 1999: After Michigan State, he spent the next 11 seasons primarily as a special teams coach with the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Syracuse. He hasn’t coached since being fired by Doug Marrone with one game remaining in the 2010 season. Told ESPN in 2015 he was retired.
- Greg Colby, linebackers/special teams 1995-97: Colby first crossed paths with Saban as a Michigan State graduate assistant under head coach George Perles in 1987. After serving on Saban’s staff he was the defensive coordinator at Kent State and Northwestern, and now has the same role at Central Michigan. Was the head coach at Division II Millersville (2008-12). Of note, was also an assistant baseball coach at Illinois (1978-80).
- Chris Cosh, defensive coordinator 1998: The current defensive coordinator at Delaware, Cost has moved around a lot since he was a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech and Minnesota in 1983-84. He’s also been the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin-Oshkosh (1985-88), SE Missouri State (1989), Illinois (1996), South Carolina (2003), Maryland (2006-08), Kansas State (2009-11), South Florida (2012), North Texas (2015) and Richmond (2016).
- Mike Cummings, tight ends/special teams 1998: Has the rare distinction of having been on the coaching staffs at Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan in addition to Michigan State. Was the offensive coordinator during his third stint at Central Michigan (2010-13), and has been offensive coordinator or co-OC at UConn since 2014.
- Mark Dantonio, defensive backs 1995-99: Was Jim Tressel’s defensive coordinator (2001-03) en route to becoming a head coach at Cincinnati (2004-06). Has led the Spartans since 2007.
- Todd Grantham, defensive line 1996-98: Grantham made the jump to the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts followed by the Houston Texans before serving as the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator (2005-07). Following two years with the Dallas Cowboys he returned to the college ranks as defensive coordinator at Georgia (2010-13), Louisville (2014-16) and Mississippi State (2017). This past offseason he followed Dan Mullen to Florida.
- Brad Lawing, linebackers 1999: Also the recruiting coordinator, Lawing stayed at Michigan State through 2002, and has since been at North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Florida State primarily as a defensive line coach. He told the Tallahassee Democrat that every day with Saban was a learning experience. “I wanted to learn more ball. Nick, he was considered one of the finest defensive minds in the country.” Lawing has been on the Seminoles’ staff since 2015.
- Bill Miller, defensive coordinator 1999: Stayed on the Spartans’ staff until 2002 and subsequently landed at Florida for two seasons coaching linebackers. Was defensive coordinator at Arizona (2005-06) and Western Michigan (2007), and co-DC at Kansas (2009). Was with Jimbo Fisher at Florida State (2014-17), but is back with the Jayhawks coaching linebackers.
- Reggie Mitchell, wide receivers 1999: Was the Spartans recruiting coordinator and running backs coach through 2004. From there he went to Illinois (2005-09) and Kansas (2010-15) before joining Bret Bielema’s staff at Arkansas in 2016. Is currently the running back coach at UTEP.
- Dean Pees, defensive coordinator 1995-97: After three season as Saban’s defensive coordinator, he landed the head coaching job at Kent State, Saban’s alma mater (1998-2003). He subsequently joined Bill Belichick’s staff in New England and eventually replaced Eric Mangini as defensive coordinator (2006-09). He had the same role with the Baltimore Ravens until retiring in January, only to be hired by the Tennessee Titans four weeks later.
- Glenn Pires, linebackers/recruiting coordinator 1995: Pires has been an NFL coach since his time at Michigan State, with the Arizona Cardinals (1996-200), Detroit Lions (2001-02), Miami Dolphins (2003-07) and Atlanta Falcons (2008-14), and is currently the linebacker coach of the Chicago Bears. He was the defensive quality control coach for Saban in Miami.
- Golden Pat Ruel, offensive line 1998-99: Since his time at East Lansing was the offensive line coach for the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants in the NFL. He joined Pete Carroll’s staff at USC in 2005, and followed him to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010.
- Bill Sheridan, linebackers 1998-99: Was a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1985-86 when Saban was defensive coordinator and returned to East Lansing after stints at Maine, Cincinnati and Army. Subsequently worked at Michigan and Notre Dame before joining the New York Giants in 2005. Was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2009. He had the same role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012-13). Is currently the defensive line coach at Boston College.
- Pat Shurmur, tight ends/offensive line/special teams 1995-97: Shurmur has been an NFL fixture since coaching the Stanford offensive line for the season (1998), including stints as offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams (2009-10), Philadelphia Eagles (2013-15) and Minnesota Vikings (2017). He was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns (2011-12) and is set to begin his first season with the New York Giants.
- Gary Tranquill, offensive coordinator 1995-98: After Michigan State was the offensive coordinator at Virginia (1999-2000), North Carolina (2001-05) and Boston College (2009-10), plus spent a season as the quarterbacks coach of the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe (2007).
- Morris Watts, offensive coordinator 1999: Saban hired him for his third stint with the Spartans, as George Perles twice employed the former quarterbacks coach of the Birmingham Stallings of the USFL as offensive coordinator (1986-90, 1992-94). Was the interim head coach when Bobby Williams was fired in 2002, and spent the next season as Mississippi State’s OC. Has since had the same role with Miami (Ohio) and Central Michigan. Is the new offensive coordinator at FCS Texas Southern.
- Bobby Williams, running backs 1995-99: Succeeded Saban as the Spartans’ head coach (1999-2002). He would work for him three more times beginning at LSU.
This is the second in a five-part series about Nick Saban’s coaching tree. Wednesday’s story will take a look at his coaching staffs at LSU and the Miami Dolphins.