If Saban’s the Best, Why Aren’t His Protégés?

By David Climer

In a recent article at CBSSports.com, Nick Saban was ranked the top coach in the so-called Power Five conferences.

Lane Kiffin left fans unhappy at UT and USC before accepting an offensive coordinator position at Alabama, where he thrived with head coach Nick Saban. He’s a head coach again at Florida Atlantic. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

No surprise there.

With all due respect to what Urban Meyer has accomplished at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and now Ohio State, he’s still playing catch-up to Saban. The same can be said for Dabo Swinney and his recent run at Clemson.

Sure, the story was internet click bait in a slow college football news cycle. And it worked. For one thing, Tennessee fans were buzzing about Butch Jones’ No. 52 spot out of 65 on the list, which was the work of five CBSSports.com panelists, only two of whom I would recognize in a police lineup.

But back to the point: With five national championships, including four in the last seven years at Alabama, Saban is the gold standard among college coaches. That’s why he’s scheduled to make a shade more than $11 million in 2017, thanks in part to a $4 million bonus that accompanied his signing of a contract extension through the 2024 season.

All that success is the reason so many other programs keep trying to find Saban 2.0. If you identify and hire the next Nick Saban, you’re setting yourself up for a remarkable run.

Accordingly, those hiring a new coach often look for Saban’s name on a resume. It makes sense. If you can survive and thrive as an assistant coach under Saban, you have a good chance to succeed on your own.

Over the years, 19 former Saban assistants – and that includes everything from coordinators like Kirby Smart to graduate assistants like Josh McDaniels – have moved on to head coaching positions, either in college or the NFL.

The latest is Lane Kiffin, who spent the last three seasons as Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. Kiffin is now at Florida Atlantic. At the ripe old age of 42, it’s Kiffin’s fourth head coaching job. Previously, he was with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL, Tennessee and Southern Cal.

It remains to be seen how this will work out for Kiffin. His stint in Tuscaloosa was a win-win. Coming off an abrupt and ugly exit at Southern Cal, he needed a version of coaching rehab. Saban provided that. Kiffin diversified and improved the Alabama offense. As head coach, Saban reaped the benefits.

As for Saban proteges, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to their performances as head coaches. Some have been quite successful. Others have fallen flat on their faces once they got out from under Saban’s shadow. Everybody is trying to hire Saban 2.0.

Sometimes, though, you wind up with Saban Light.

Over the last several years, the SEC East has been a landing strip for coaches that once worked for Saban.

Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have tried to fix their programs by hiring a former Saban assistant, with uneven results.

In 2010, Tennessee handed over the reins to Derek Dooley, who had coached under Saban at both LSU and with the Miami Dolphins.

It was an unmitigated disaster. It became clear to those around him that Dooley lacked Saban’s focus and attention to detail. Dooley was easily distracted. Likewise, he had trouble filling out a competent coaching staff.

His hiring of Sal Sunseri, another Saban assistant, as UT’s defensive coordinator in 2012 factored heavily into Dooley’s ouster after just three seasons.

Say this much for Dooley, though: He didn’t take Saban’s lead when it came to dealing with the media.

Few recent SEC coaches have provided as much entertainment at press conferences as Dooley. Take a YouTube spin through Dooley’s comparison to his Vols and the Germans on D-Day.

It might be the high point of his UT tenure. Dooley’s humor and delivery in such settings were in marked contrast to Saban, who always seems to have one eye on the nearest exit when he’s meeting with the media.

Given what happened at UT, I doubt Dooley will ever get another head coaching gig on any level. He’s currently wide receivers coach with the Dallas Cowboys.

In 2011, Florida hired Will Muschamp, who, like Dooley, had worked at both LSU and Miami under Saban. Muschamp lasted four years before getting fired. But that didn’t prevent South Carolina from giving him a second chance in 2016. The results have been lukewarm, at best.

In 2015, Florida again went to the Saban coaching tree, hiring Jim McElwain, who had been offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2008-11 before heading to Colorado State as head coach. McElwain has won back-to-back Eastern Division titles.

At Georgia, it’s fair to wonder if Bulldogs power brokers would have jettisoned Mark Richt after the 2015 season if they hadn’t had a strong belief they could hire Kirby Smart off Saban’s staff.

Smart, a Georgia grad, has a long history with Saban, having worked for him at LSU, with the Dolphins and at Alabama.

After a so-so 8-5 debut in Athens, Smart’s Dawgs are the consensus pick to win the SEC East in the upcoming season.

Saban’s influence stretches well outside the SEC. Jimbo Fisher, who was offensive coordinator for Saban at LSU, has won a national championship at Florida State. Mark Dantonio owns three Big Ten titles at Michigan State, where he once served as defensive backs coach under Saban.

Saban’s coaching tree stretches further. Titans coach Mike Mularkey was offensive coordinator at Miami in 2006, the second and final season of Saban’s fling with the NFL.

After taking over for Ken Whisenhunt midway through the 2015 season, Mularkey is 11-14 but the franchise is on an uptick. This season, the Titans have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Others have struggled. Bobby Williams was running backs coach at Michigan State in 1999 when Saban accepted the LSU job. Williams took over the Spartans and won the Citrus Bowl. He went just 6-15 in Big Ten play over the next three seasons, however, and was fired after a 49-3 loss to rival Michigan.

Williams is now in his second year as special assistant to the head coach at Alabama, where he previously coached tight ends and was special teams coordinator.

With Saban now under contract through 2024, at which time he’ll turn 73, he’s likely not done churning out future head coaches.

After all, everybody is always on the lookout for the next Nick Saban.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.