Nick Saban paused. He had been asked if compassion ever entered into his hiring philosophy. It is now to the point that a significant foundation of his crimson empire has been built by those on the rebound. You know their names: Kiffin, Sark, Locksley.
There’s many others you know and even more you may not. Sure, they were all talented coaches at one point, but they each also had issues before coming to Alabama.
Saban hired them despite those issues, often at times when few others would.
So, in the college football‘s cold and cutthroat world, did one man’s empathy shine through?
Saban chose his words carefully. Perhaps even “The Process” has its limitations.
“We’re always looking for a better way,” Alabama’s coach said. “Those guys, all good coaches, all did a really good job somewhere along the line before. I’m sure they had their own ambitions of what they wanted to accomplish and what they wanted to do here, whether it was to overcome previous failings or learn from people here.”
CBS Sports introduces a three-part series that explores Saban’s unprecedented success at reviving coaching careers during his 14 years (and counting) at Alabama. That success doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon as Saban recently signed a three-year extension with the Crimson Tide to lead the program through the 2028 season. If he fulfills that contract, he will leave after 22 seasons at age 77.
Five former college head coaches have cycled through Alabama’s system over the last eight years, coming out on the other side second chances they were unlikely to have otherwise received. In the case of Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin, it was third chances at being a head coach on this level.
It’s part of his coaching tree that extends back to his head coach beginnings at Toledo three decades ago. In January, Sarkisian became the 13th staffer from Saban’s Alabama tree alone to become a head coach elsewhere.
“It was perfect,” said Kiffin of his three seasons as Alabama offensive coordinator (2014-16). “There wouldn’t have been a better job in the NFL. I say [it’s] the ‘rehab’ stamp. You go there, spend some time, all the sudden you can coach again.”
Pick your own label, though “Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehab” certainly fits.
Most in the coaching profession watch amazed, just like the rest of us. Taking a step down to a lesser position at Alabama has often resulted in a career “car wash”. Stains wiped clean. Sins forgiven.
Nick Saban waves is wand, and suddenly, everything is OK.
“Wart removal” is how one former SEC staffer referred to it.
Kiffin was a bit toxic after being fired at USC in 2013. Sarkisian had flamed out spectacularly and publicly with the Trojans only two years later. Certainly, former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has benefitted from the wand being waved over him. “Locks” enters his third season at Maryland despite only having won eight games in his six-year head-coaching career.
Bill O’Brien replaces Sark this season as offensive coordinator, possibly becoming the coach in history to transition from NFL head coach and general manager to college assistant the next season.
Obviously, there’s complications and situations to consider. There was a time when O’Brien would have immediately bounced back from his Houston Texans firing to another job in the NFL, likely as an offensive coordinator. College would have been an afterthought.
The same is true for new Alabama offensive line coach Doug Marrone, who joins the staff off a 1-15 season leading the Jacksonville Jaguars. Marrone has spent 16 seasons in the NFL, including eight straight after leaving Syracuse in 2012.
“‘The Process’ is changeable if there is a better way,” said Kevin Steele, Saban’s first defensive coordinator at Alabama in 2007.
That’s part of the “why” — why fallen coaches, some of whom could have secured higher-profile, higher-paying jobs, went to T-Town for lesser positions. It’s why Saban’s brought them all in and why that that issue is hardly a discussion point anymore.
Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehab is so real, those who make it to graduation see their careers remade.
“You replace the best play caller in college football [Sarkisian] with a former NFL head coach and general manager,” said Craig Young, the father of current Tide quarterback Bryce Young. “Only at Alabama could they do something like that.”
Could O’Brien and Marrone still be in the NFL, coaching seasoned professionals and avoiding the added tasks and added hours that come with college coaching, such as recruiting? Absolutely. The league is full of recycled coaches. In that sense, so is Alabama, which might as well be the pros at this point.
“The organization is structured like an NFL team,” former Alabama assistant Mike Groh said. “You’re coaching a lot of NFL players. You’re just coaching them on Saturdays.”
Along the way, a mentoring trend was developing that maybe even Saban didn’t realize.
“Take the competitive piece out,” said former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain (2008-11). “He’s really good for a lot of people.”
Meet Patient Zero
It’s now to the point that just being in Saban’s orbit is enough for the coaches trading their egos to live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There is a mutual benefit. But it had to start somewhere.
The rehabilitation trend goes back to 2009 when Saban hired Groh as a graduate assistant. Never mind Groh had just been dismissed as his father’s offensive coordinator at Virginia. Never mind Groh was becoming a graduate assistant a mere 14 years after getting his undergraduate degree. (Current rules state GAs can be no more than seven years removed from their undergraduate degree.)
Groh qualifies as Patient Zero in this discussion — the first coach to pass through Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehab.
Loosely defined, these are coaches who either come to their positions at Alabama overqualified and underpaid or receive opportunities they simply would not be given elsewhere. Either way, they’re absolutely thrilled to get the opportunity.
Groh bounced from that GA spot to Louisville as a quarterbacks coach, returning to Alabama two years later as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Following his final season with the Tide in 2012, he was named National Recruiter of the Year by 247Sports. Groh then became an established NFL assistant. He’s entering his ninth year in the league over five franchises.
“Yeah, I was the first guy,” said Groh, now the Indianapolis Colts’ WR coach. “It took vision by two people — me and Coach Saban. At that time, I don’t think Coach was thinking about it like this, but then he saw it as a way to get an advantage. He’s parlayed that as a way to be able to hire a lot of different kinds of guys since 2009 in that same kind of seat.”
Friends in low places
Eleven years ago, Billy Napier had been fired as Dabo Swinney’s first offensive coordinator at Clemson. His next move? Becoming an offensive analyst at Alabama in 2011. A low-paid fly on the wall with no coaching or recruiting privileges saw his career change.
“It certainly was probably the most valuable year of my career from a realigning, recentering yourself [standpoint],” he said. “I was 32. I remember telling my wife Ali, ‘If this was our first job in college football, we’d be ecstatic.’ It was priceless.
“There was no question it was the right move.”
After a couple stops, including four year as Bama WR coach (2013-16), Napier enters his fourth season as Louisiana’s head coach. He’s now one of the hottest names in the profession who many thought would be coaching a Power Five team this season.
The only common thread to these success stories is Saban himself.
Defensive coordinator Pete Golding is the only member of the 2018 coaching staff still around. In fact, there have been 47 assistant coaches pass through Alabama since Saban took over in 2007, an average of more than three coaching changes per year. The 2018 and 2019 staffs had the most turnover with five new assistants in each season.
Fifth-year Alabama players in 2021 will be experiencing their third offensive coordinator in O’Brien. Of course, those players have already won two national championships.
“I’d love to have continuity because it makes my job a lot easier,” Saban said. “One of the hardest things to do is hire people. That’s not an easy task. I really try to do a good job of getting good people. At the end of the day, the people make the organization what it is.”
The benevolence is there for Saban in resurrecting fallen coaches. You just have to dig.
“I get fired at Clemson [in 2011], the first phone call I got was from Coach Saban,” Steele said. “It wasn’t from my brother. It wasn’t from my mom. It was from Coach Saban. My father passed away in 2008. I get out of the car at the church, and he’s walking in the building.”
Staying for the first two seasons of Saban’s remarkable at Alabama, Steele helped set the table for the 2009 national championship. He returned as a director of player personnel in 2013 and linebackers coach in 2014.
“He’s a very, very, very driven man, but he is not a person that takes advantage of people at all,” Steele said. “A lot of people that are driven will leave roadkill everywhere. He has done as much for me in times of need that anybody I’ve worked for.”
Sarkisian’s disgrace in 2015 looked permanent. At that point, he was as untouchable as any coach in recent years.
Yet, when no one else would take him, Saban did … because of Sark’s football mind. Saban correctly surmised that Sark’s substance abuse problem could be…