You probably know of Nick’s Kids as the charity foundation of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. It has distributed more than $7 million in contributions to the needy since he arrived in Tuscaloosa more than 10 years ago.
Saban himself has raised two children, and he can be seen as a father figure to hundreds of players who have gone through the Crimson Tide program in his tenure, as well as those at previous coaching stops.
But there’s another group of Nick’s kids: the ones in the coaching profession. Saban has mentored dozens of assistant coaches over the course of his career, including 10 who are current head coaches at the collegiate or National Football League level.
They learned from the man who has five national championship rings, who has molded Alabama into a powerhouse that serves as the gold standard in college football – and use those lessons as they coach their own programs today.
One of those is Jimbo Fisher, who has a national title of his own, and who will coach Florida State against Alabama on Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Here is a look at the current head coaches who worked under Saban and, in their own words, what some of them have to say about him:
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Fisher was Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, where they won a national title in 2003. Fisher was there from 2000-04 under Saban, and stayed two more seasons before moving to Florida State. He was promoted to head coach at FSU in 2010, and has won three Atlantic Coast Conference titles to go along with the 2013 national championship.
Fisher learned from Saban that football is like a puzzle, and that every piece has to go together to make it work at a championship level.
“The thing about the way he has an all-encompassing program, about how to develop players and how offense plays to defense and defense plays to offense and you don’t separate yourself,” Fisher said, “I think that’s one of the greatest things Nick does is build that team concept.
“Sometimes you may think he wants to be conservative. That’s not it at all. Nick wants to do what he has to do to win the game. I think that’s his first and foremost thing, I think he always kept that in the forefront in his game-planning, his scheming, whether it was offense, defense or special teams … and how the game had to be played. And then his over-encompassing development of players.
“He’s obviously a tremendous football mind.”
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Dantonio coached defensive backs – Saban’s specialty – under Saban at Michigan State from 1995-99. He moved on soon after, but returned as head coach in 2007, and has won three Big Ten titles. He took the Spartans to the 2015 College Football Playoff, where MSU lost to Alabama.
Saban’s influence with Dantonio starts with defensive schemes and philosophy.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing, I think there’s a multitude of things that we do relative to technique, relative to common terminology and just concepts, things conceptually, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that we try and implement in our system,” he said. “That’s been a constant, really, since I left Nick.
“Basically, who I am as a defensive coach really has been shaped by a lot of people, because I’ve had great experience with guys like Dom Capers and some of these other people, but Nick Saban is probably at the forefront of who I am as a defensive coach.”
The influence, however, goes beyond defense. Dantonio still draws upon how Saban operated on a day-to-day level.
“Our practice schedules and things of that nature are detailed like he did, a lot of the things that he did,” he said. “I’ll go back and look at certain things, even if it’s a 1999 installation notebook in fall camp, I’ll go back and look at that or some of the drills we used to do.
“There’s a foundation in terms of what we experienced here, and I was with him here for five years. A big part of what we do and who we are is what I learned from Nick back in the day.”
Jim McElwain, Florida
As offensive coordinator from 2008-11, McElwain was a big part of two national championship seasons at Alabama. From UA, he moved on to a head coaching position at Colorado State before being hired by Florida in 2015. He has twice taken the Gators to the SEC Championship Game.
McElwain recognizes his time under Saban prepared him for his current position.
“As I’ve said before, what an unbelievable opportunity that was, and I think there isn’t a day goes by that you don’t reflect on some part of the things and lessons you learned,” he said. “Really, it goes to the overall program and not just the football-playing piece.
“The overall organization and the things it takes that touches the football program, I think he does an unbelievable job of that, and clearly sets the mission.”
But what about specific examples?
“How much time do we have? We could go a long time on that subject,” McElwain said. “Right now, the things you learn thinking in the now as to what it is preparing for an opener and how to go about it. You know, you can prepare too early, and that’s something I actually spoke to him this year about to reiterate some things as you prepare to go get ready to play a big ballgame.”
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart is the current head coach most influenced by Saban, considering they worked together continuously for 10 years – from 2006 at LSU through two seasons with the Miami Dolphins of the NFL to a long stint at Alabama, including eight seasons as defensive coordinator. And that doesn’t count one season at LSU, where Smart coached defensive backs.
Smart was hired at Georgia, his alma mater, before last season. He relies heavily on Saban’s management style.
“The organizational structure of each day, day-in and day-out, he does a great job of managing the overall program,” Smart said. “Not just the Xs and Os, not just the recruiting, not just the team – but you put everything together, I think he’s very focused and detailed in what he does. That obviously has proven successful for him and the way he’s done things.
“His attention to detail each day is one of the key things I carry over into everything I do each day.”
Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Muschamp coached with Saban as an assistant at LSU from 2001-04 and for one season with the Dolphins. He landed his first head coaching assignment at Florida in 2011, but was dismissed after a disappointing four-year run. After a year coaching Auburn’s defense, he got another shot as a head coach at South Carolina starting last season.
He adheres closely to the Saban model, or strives to do so.
“I would say the foundation of our program, as far as philosophically being on the same page, offense, defense and special teams; from a practice structure and how we practice whether it’s spring ball, whether it’s fall camp, whether it’s in the season; from a recruiting standpoint how we structure ourselves in the evaluation process in recruiting – I think there’s no question that I obviously drew a lot from Nick and the job that he’s done,” Muschamp said. “A lot of our structure of our organization is very similar.”
Saban has landed a series of top-ranked recruiting classes at Alabama. Muschamp was brought to South Carolina, in large part, because of his reputation as a recruiter.
“I really learned a lot when he took the Miami Dolphins job and we were extremely involved in the draft and personally worked out players,” Muschamp said. “You’re a little limited as a college coach about what you can do, other than when you get them in a camp setting here on your campus.
“But as far as the different things you’re looking for, the position-specific criteria, to be detailed in how you’re identifying a player at a position and what you want, making sure you’ve defined it to your staff as far as what you want – all of those things to me that we use in the structure of our recruiting program are things that I learned from him.”
Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic
Kiffin served as Alabama’s offensive coordinator for three seasons before landing the head coaching job at FAU after last season. He helped Alabama to three SEC titles and three CFP appearances, as well as one national championship.
Kiffin had served as a head coach previously with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL, at Tennessee and at Southern Cal, but he learned a different style of leadership from Saban.
“CEO approach: His attention to detail is like no other,” Kiffin said. “He covers every detail every day. Nothing is done less than perfect.”
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans
The head coach of the Titans served as offensive coordinator under Saban with the Miami Dolphins in 2006.
“Very demanding, detailed, wants it done in a specific way,” Mularkey said. “And that’s the way you’re going to do it.”
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys, and Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
Garrett’s first assistant coaching job was under Saban with the Dolphins, where he served as quarterbacks coach. Quinn coached Miami’s defensive line for two seasons under Saban.
Quinn took the Falcons to last year’s Super Bowl, while Garrett has gone 58-46 in seven seasons, winning division titles in two of the last three seasons, including last season.
Curt Cignetti, Elon
Cignetti worked under Saban at Alabama from 2007-10 as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. He left to become head coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, coaching that program to three NCAA Division II playoff appearances while going 53-17 in six seasons before being named Elon’s head coach going into this season.
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