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The University of Alabama coaching staff has some NFL flavor. It includes some longtime lieutenants for head coach Nick Saban. There are up-and-comers and coaching lifers. Its recruiting reach in recent years has extended to Maryland and New Jersey, down the eastern seaboard into south Florida, and as far west as California and Hawaii.
No two editions of Saban’s coaching staffs at Alabama have been exactly the same. Still, wins keep rolling in and NFL players continue to march out of the program.
“There’s so much attention to detail, so much accountability,” outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi said. “You don’t really understand that or see that as how things are until you come here. There’s a reason that the success that he has been able to sustain, that doesn’t happen by coincidence or luck.
“That happens because of the process that he’s put in place here.”
That starts at the top. Saban’s voice isn’t alone
“He will outwork everyone in the room,” strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran said. “Hands down. No one will outwork him.”
Saban has long sought to build one of the deepest coaching staffs in the nation, his capacity to do so has increased in recent years. His 2008 staff included six “interns” working in off-field positions. By 2012, the off-field staff had grown to eight “analysts.” During the 2016 season, Alabama carried nine analysts. That included Steve Sarkisian and Mike Locksley, who had both been FBS head coaches earlier in their careers.
It’s normal for football coaches to hire coaches they’re familiar with. Saban is no exception. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley both worked elsewhere on the staff before later being hired as full-time assistants, too.
“When you’re given the opportunity to be in that role, I think certainly it gives the head coach the opportunity to evaluate you in that role,” Lupoi said. “If something does open down the line, there’s somewhat of a familiarity already established there, some possible candidates.”
There are innumerable other ways those positions help the program. Off-field assistants cannot recruit, but can often free up time for full-time assistants to optimize their schedules. The analysts can break down practice film, evaluate opponents and do whatever helps the on-field coaching staff. It helps distribute the workload.
That doesn’t mean there’s no pressure. There’s still a sharp focus on those staffers, especially those looking to become on-field coaches.
“You get to be seen by coach in a different light,” Cochran said. “Every day in that position is an interview.”
Plenty of analysts aren’t hired on staff, but many are hired elsewhere, like Napier. Former UA offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin took analyst Charlie Weis Jr. with him to FAU.
There’s opportunity to be had for those willing to take the year to learn. And there’s lots of learning to be done. Analysts get an inside look at one of the country’s preeminent programs and get to work with one of college football’s most successful coaches. Because they don’t have the responsibilities of a normal on-field assistant, they’re not limited to working with one position group. Analysts can float from one side of the ball to another, from a meeting room with players to a film session, and take it all in. Napier remembered using that time to observe and take notes on what was most important to him as a coach. Lupoi watched how the organization as a whole operated and saw the careful planning that went into each day.
“That’s really neat and a really cool experience to have,” Lupoi said. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything, for my time of maturing both as a coach and a man.”
All the extra support has come to be a trademark of Alabama under Saban, though the off-field staff has grown more robust in recent years. Napier had been Clemson’s offensive coordinator before he landed on staff in 2011. Voices like those of Bobby Williams, Sarkisian and Locksley – all former FBS coaches working off the field – provide perspective no other program has.
Off-field staffers also bring continuity to the staff. Alabama’s run of three straight playoff appearances and three straight SEC championships has been helped in part by a coaching staff with several former analysts.
When Lance Thompson left the staff, Lupoi was ready to step in. Napier was familiar with the team even though he hadn’t been a full-time assistant at Alabama. Locksley learned the program inside and out before moving on the field as an assistant.
“We don’t have time to slow down and teach everybody,” Napier said. “(Saban) likes to keep moving, stay on The Process. If you have a little bit of familiarity, you can get in there and go to work. You’ve seen it work. It continues to work. We’ve been able to sustain because of that.”
Pattern of The Process
There’s no singular skill or type of coach that Saban has hired at Alabama. Many of his recent hires had been former analysts, like Sarkisian and Locksley, but his final two assistants this offseason came from the NFL.
New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll arrived from the NFL’s New England Patriots and had never been a full-time assistant in college football. Tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio had extensive college experience, but was most recently director of personnel operations for the Philadelphia Eagles. He hadn’t been an on-field assistant since 2010.
Neither was a prototypical hire, and perhaps there is no prototype for Saban.
“Obviously he has something he looks for in assistant coaches when he hires assistant coaches,” offensive line coach Brent Key said. “I think his model is something that’s worked very well. He looks for highly-organized, disciplined guys that want to work hard that can relate to players and teach players, that can teach the philosophy of his program and relay those from the coaches to the players.”
Those skills aren’t always apparent to outsiders, whose first impression of a new coach is a regurgitation of his resume. But the interview to become an assistant at Alabama is much broader than that.
Key went through that process twice. He was a candidate at Alabama earlier in his career when Saban was looking for an offensive line coach. Interviewing with Saban is more than just a meeting in the head coach’s office.
“It’s a mix of a lot of things,” Key said. “Film work, drawing on the board, just casual conversations, meeting different people in the organization, all those kinds of things.”
The candidates who pass the test can come in many different forms. Daboll doesn’t fit the mold of Kiffin or Sarkisian before him. Kiffin’s style and background was different than those of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain.
That’s been the case even with some of Saban’s earliest hires at Alabama. Kevin Steele was a veteran defensive assistant when he was hired at Alabama, but Saban brought Kirby Smart onto his staff at LSU at 28 years old. Smart was promoted to become Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama when he was just 32.
“I think (Saban) has learned a lot, that certain positions, I think he needs certain things, as everyone does,” Cochran said. “But I like when he takes risks on younger guys, because he has a feel. Like he took a risk on me. He took a risk on Kirby Smart. Hired him as a DB coach from being a GA. Just takes some good risks.”
‘100 percent, it’s him’
Even if it doesn’t look like it, there are common threads among Saban’s hires. Alabama’s head coach knows what separates good coaches from the rest.
“At the end of the day, it’s your ability to convey the X and O portion of it, your ability to communicate with the staff and have a relationship with the guys on the staff, and communicate with the players,” Key said.
That’s what he’s after as he builds a coaching staff. The construction keeps changing, and the offense and defense have changed. Saban remains the fixed point at the center of the program, rebuilding around him each year as needed.
The football offices will continue to be stocked with analysts, former head coaches, and assistants can come and go. None of those changes have slowed Alabama yet.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s (Saban),” Cochran said. “100 percent. it’s him. Hands down. It’s not even close. It’s him. You can put whoever you want in all those seats. It’s him.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.