TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A former head coach is working on third downs. Another is tinkering with what to do in the red zone. And somewhere is a third former head coach in the process of pulling together the entire offensive game plan for that week.
It’s 2016, and Alabama is at peak coaching-staff strength. It’s as if coach Nick Saban has built his own version of “The Expendables.” Familiar, formerly high-profile faces are around every corner. There are even fireworks from time to time — or, as they’re dubbed by Saban, “ass-chewings.”
Lane Kiffin, the one-time wunderkind who flamed out after three-plus seasons at USC and up until recently had been viewed as a radioactive coaching prospect, is the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator on the other end of those so-called chewings from Saban. But he’s just one former USC head coach at the program’s disposal. Steve Sarkisian, who succeeded Kiffin in Los Angeles and lasted less than two full seasons before he was fired amid allegations of alcohol abuse, is Kiffin’s right-hand man as an offensive analyst. He’s the one working on third downs.
Another offensive analyst, former New Mexico head coach Mike Locksley, is in charge of the red zone. His familiarity with mobile quarterbacks is also key in the use of Jalen Hurts, who would go on to become the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker rumbled between the hedges at Georgia in 1980.
Before Kiffin even gets to sit down and go over the film of an upcoming opponent early in the week, Locksley and Sarkisian have already studied it all. Their ability to provide him detailed scouting reports lightens his load as coordinator. What’s more, Kiffin said, “It’s a lot better than having some graduate assistant doing it.”
“It’s the biggest staff in the world,” he said. “So that helps. But I think a lot of it is [Saban] enjoys giving people opportunities. And he’s smart; it helps him win.”
Alabama’s been doing a lot of winning this season with another high-profile former head coach on board. Saban’s predilection for adding outside-the-box coaches to his staff has so engrained itself in the minds of college football fans and media that the decision to bring on Butch Jones this offseason barely caused a stir. Jones, the former Tennessee coach whose brick-by-brick rebuild of the Vols crumbled after a 4-6 season in 2017, was first labeled an “intern” by Saban and then later an analyst.
It’s odd to see Jones in Alabama crimson rather than Tennessee orange. But his close-crop haircut is unmistakable whether he’s sitting in the back of a meeting room scribbling notes or in practice chatting up running back Damien Harris. One imagines him repeating his infamous “Champions of Life” or “Five-Star Hearts” mantras, but alas, Jones is not made available to speak to the media.
“[Saban] takes people who can help in certain areas,” said Kiffin, himself a former Tennessee head coach. “And I think Butch is more, ‘Here’s a guy who is one of our archrival’s head coaches and knows the conference.’ I know that goes into it, too. He’s not just hiring anybody.”
Said Saban: “Butch is a very bright guy and he’s done a really good job. … Basically, what he does is assist Mike [Locksley] as much as possible. He always gives me a little summary of things he thinks we need to work on on offense just from an overall view from a thousand feet, which has been very helpful.”
He didn’t generate quite the same interest as Jones, but Jake Peetz was another noteworthy addition this offseason. Originally, Peetz, who has spent a decade in the NFL, was supposed to join the Indianapolis Colts as offensive coordinator under Josh McDaniels. But then McDaniels got cold feet and returned to the New England Patriots‘ staff under Bill Belichick. Saban, who is friends with Belichick, then hired Peetz as an analyst.
Peetz and Jones are practically tied at the hip during games. When the offense huddled on the sideline between series against Missouri last Saturday, the two offensive analysts stood in the middle of the pack of skill players, behind quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, feeding him bits of information they had gathered.
How much of that helped the top-ranked Crimson Tide beat the Missouri Tigers 39-10 is unknowable. But as the staff prepares to go on the road to rival Tennessee this coming weekend, Jones’ knowledge of his former roster could certainly come in handy.
Who knows? Looking further down the road, maybe Jones becomes an offensive coordinator in waiting. Remember, Saban stayed in house and promoted Locksley from analyst to assistant coach to offensive coordinator. Former Washington assistant Tosh Lupoi, who was hired by Saban in 2014 shortly after an NCAA investigation cleared him of allegations of providing improper benefits to a recruit, took the same path from analyst to assistant coach to defensive coordinator.
But rest assured, former Alabama offensive-line coach Mario Cristobal said, “it’s a two-way street.” Saban isn’t the only one getting something out of this arrangement.
Just look at Cristobal’s career path. After six years as head coach at Florida International, he was fired and took a step down to go to Alabama as an offensive-line coach. Four years later, he was hired as Oregon’s offensive coordinator. And when Willie Taggart left for Florida State after one season, Cristobal was elevated to head coach.
Saban, for his part, gets someone who understands a “broader perspective of all the details running a program” and someone who “can multitask and think big picture,” Cristobal said. Meanwhile, someone like Cristobal gets a chance to peek behind the curtain of arguably the greatest dynasty in modern college football history.
“You got a chance to go there and learn a new system,” Cristobal said. “Maybe [you] get a chance to apply some of the things you like or not apply things you don’t like. … I got a lot from it and certainly our program is benefitting from it.”
Kiffin referred to his time under Saban as a sort of master’s degree in coaching.
“That’s how I looked at it: I was a student again,” he said. “I was learning from the best, me getting my master’s, which makes me better when I go back out in the real world.”
The beauty is that unlike a lot of head coaches, Saban is an open book, Kiffin said. You aren’t mystified by his coaching decisions. Nothing is off the cuff, no idea half-baked. Maybe he’ll discuss the topic in question, sleep on it, call on experts for their opinions. In what can be tediously long staff meetings — “longer than anywhere in the world,” Kiffin joked — Saban talks through the how and why of every move he makes.
“Maybe you’ve been fired. Maybe there’s an issue or someone has a certain opinion of you. … [But] if Nick Saban would hire him, everything is OK.”
It might be painful at times, sitting through those marathon meetings and enduring a Saban rant or two. It’s no secret that Kiffin’s tenure certainly had its ups and downs. But the payoff is there in the end as you leave with what has been fondly come to be known as, “The Stamp.”
“You know, the Nick Saban stamp,” Kiffin said. “Maybe you’ve been fired. Maybe there’s an issue or someone has a certain opinion of you. It’s been referred to around there as the Nick Saban seal of approval. If Nick Saban would hire him, everything is OK, don’t worry about this issue they may have had at this school before because Nick Saban hired him. So, hey, let’s wipe the slate clean.”
But, again, this isn’t charity. Saban is going to get something out of his coaches, too. Instead of having graduate assistants provide scouting reports and notes, Alabama has upgraded to proven former coaches.
“I think that the No. 1 thing is they create value in our program,” Saban said. “But the No. 2 thing is I have a tremendous amount of respect for what those guys did wherever they were in playing against them. … And if it helps them get back on track, then that’s a real bonus for them, and we appreciate what they did for us in helping our program.”