Alabama Crimson Tide

Nick Saban’s shadow loomed large in SEC coaching carousel

Nov 11, 2017; Starkville, MS, USA;Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban walks the field before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Alabama Crimson Tide did not win the SEC championship this year. It didn’t even win the SEC West, as Auburn took the division title by winning the Iron Bowl comfortably.

Those points did nothing to diminish Nick Saban‘s stature within the league. The fact that his team still went 11-1 and made the College Football Playoff has a little something to do with that, of course.

The fact remains that Saban is the inescapable figure dominating the SEC, and it was very evident in the conference’s big number of coaching changes this cycle.

Hiring former Saban assistants has been tried a few times within the league with little to show for it. Tennessee’s Derek Dooley hire was a disaster, as he had three sub-.500 records before getting the hook.

Florida fired both of its pulls from the Saban coaching tree in Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain. Both delivered four-win, bowl-less seasons for a program that hadn’t missed the postseason since Steve Spurrier’s first team was on probation from the previous coaching regime in 1990. Florida hadn’t finished under .500 since going 0-10-1 in 1979.

South Carolina went and picked up Muschamp off the retread pile. Despite going 6-7 and 8-4 in consecutive years, Muschamp just fired his offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. It’s a continuation of the pattern of offensive coordinator instability — and bad offense — that doesn’t portend well for the future of his tenure there.

Some SEC schools tried to move in directions this year to differentiate themselves from the league’s behemoth. A couple harvested from the coaching trees of others who have defeated Saban in recent years. Florida went back to the Urban Meyer well by bringing back Dan Mullen after his superlative run at Mississippi State. Arkansas picked up SMU’s Chad Morris, an ace Texas recruiter who rose to prominence running offenses for Dabo Swinney.

Mississippi State went in an even more interesting direction by getting Joe Moorhead, the former Fordham head coach who’s been Penn State’s offensive coordinator the last two years. He’s considered one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game today in coaching circles. Only Ole Miss’s promotion of Matt Luke seems uninspired, but the impending heavy NCAA sanctions probably forced the school’s hand.

Even with some new blood and ideas coming into the league, it looks like two of the six (a full third) of the job openings went to Saban guys.

Texas A&M threw $75 million in guaranteed money to get Jimbo Fisher to leave a souring situation at Florida State. While it’s true that Fisher has established himself independently of his former boss — most notably by winning the 2013 national championship — he runs a program very much in the Saban mold. From a communications to recruiting to organizational standpoint, hiring Fisher is an attempt at getting Saban-like success from a Saban-like system.

As of writing, several credible media reports have Tennessee on the precipice of hiring Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. It was Saban who brought Pruitt up from the ranks of high school football to college as a non-coaching assistant in 2007, and Pruitt then became a defensive backs coach for the Tide in 2010-12. After a one-year stop working for Fisher and two seasons as defensive coordinator for Georgia, Pruitt came back to be DC for Saban these past two years.

The Tennessee coaching search being what it’s been, Pruitt may not get the job for any number of amazing and improbable reasons. However after Phillip Fulmer took over as AD, the names that Tennessee zeroed in on all came from the Saban orbit: Pruitt, Kevin Steele and Mel Tucker.

Saban’s level of success is unique in the history of college football once one adjusts for changes in scholarship rules and other factors. It’s incredibly unlikely that any of his assistants will pull off what he’s done because no one else has pulled off what he’s done. Not Meyer, who is in the discussion with Saban for best coach in the game today but who hasn’t won conference or national titles at the same rate Saban has. Not Fisher, who, despite being the clear best former Saban assistant as a head coach, left Tallahassee with a 5-6 record and only lost fewer than three games once without Jameis Winston.

Yet, Georgia’s success this year under Kirby Smart probably only encouraged teams to take runs at Saban assistants some more. Georgia won the SEC and made the playoff with more ease than Alabama did. So far, he’s pulled off the incredible feat of making his bosses look justified for firing someone who averaged almost 10 wins per season for 15 years to hire him.

There is a very real possibility that this year’s national championship game will be Saban versus Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator. Despite how many times former Saban assistants as head coaches have flamed out quickly or ended badly after some success, two more SEC programs couldn’t help themselves but to go down that road again.

Saban’s place as the undisputed hegemon of his conference still remains.

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