Many men and women, especially successful ones, come to a crossroads one day and have to make a choice. In one direction is the smooth, steady path of continuing straight ahead on their journey. The other way is less certain, frightening to some, alluring to others. Even if that path has a name, can the road sign be trusted. Some people read the sign as “Pursuing A Dream Avenue,” while others look at the same sign and see “Mid-Life Crisis Road.”
No one questions that Scott Cochran has earned the right to make that choice. In his mind, and in the mind of many others, he has achieved just about all there was to achieve as a college strength and conditioning coach, an integral part in the most powerful and successful college football machine of the past decade at Alabama. But that’s different than driving the machine.
Cochran has had an eye on an on-the-field coaching position for some time now. It wasn’t a new shiny object that Kirby Smart dangled in front of him to lure him to Georgia, where Cochran was formally announced as the new special teams coordinator on Monday. It’s a path that Cochran has been considering for a couple of years, one that almost led him to join Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss for a similar on-the-field opportunity. Former Crimson Tide safety and current NFL Star Ha Ha Clinton-Dix confirmed via Twitter on Monday that Cochran had wanted to get on the field “for a couple of years.”
There was a chorus of immediate reaction to Cochran’s move, much of it hailing Kirby Smart for a grand move that will hurt Alabama and, possibly, help Georgia, too. There’s no question about the PR value of hiring Cochran away from Nick Saban. If Cochran was a relentless self-promoter, which he was, one has to note that Alabama used that image for its own benefit, which they did. It may have been Cochran’s decision to host a 5K or appear in a bank commercial, but it wasn’t his call to put himself and his trademark “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” on the Bryant-Denny Stadium Jumbotron before the fourth quarter of home games.
But awarding Georgia a PR point doesn’t answer every question. Some still linger.
First, if Cochran has been longing to break into on-field coaching for a couple of years, did that affect his performance in his full-time off-the-field job? Did Saban the Ever-Demanding pick up on hints here and clues there? Was the strategically-placed reference to Alabama’s “new sports science facility” at the end of Saban’s prepared statement on Monday there for a reason? That’s not to suggest that Saban shoved Cochran out the door. It merely raises the question of whether the door was locked.
Second, and perhaps related, is the question of why Saban didn’t simply move Cochran onto the field, if that’s what would have kept him happy in Tuscaloosa? The point was raised in some circles on Monday that Saban, who hires an army of analysts, could have found a similar spot for Cochran. But if you think about it, such a move runs counter to the established pattern. The men that Saban usually places in such roles aren’t novices. If anything, they tend to be ultra-qualified. His staff includes not one, not two, but five former college head coaches, two on the field (Kyle Flood and Steve Sarkisian) and four more somewhere in the football building (Butch Jones, Major Applewhite, the newly-hired Charlie Strong and, for all we know, the ghost of Amos Alonzo Stagg in a broom closet.) Perhaps Saban could have made room for Cochran to spend a couple of years in meetings, learning the ropes, but it probably wouldn’t have been at Cochran’s S-and-C salary and it certainly wouldn’t have scratched his immediate itch. Cochran’s value as a recruiter may be high, as speculation insists, but he’s never actually been on the road and done it. So Saban didn’t make that move.
That’s why, in the midst of all the talk about Smart trying to “make a new Alabama” or model himself after Saban, the questions really should be “why would Smart do something that Saban wouldn’t?” and “will it work out in the long run?”
For now, there will be speculation that this move will be the first peal of the church bells on Saban’s career. That speculation has been going for 12 years now and is never going to stop because some day, given that time is undefeated, the speculators will be able to say “I told you so.” Careers end, but I’m not sure one move is how they end.
In the meantime, Scott Cochran deserves a tip of the cap for a job well-done, one that made him the most recognized strength coach in the country. He’s not a strength coach now, but perhaps he will succeed in his new path and ultimately be a head coach. If that happens, he will have tough decisions to make, and the perfect role model for making them: Nick Saban.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter, @cecilhurt
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