Why Alabama's new coaching staff will make college football history
As the poster child for ballooning staff sizes across the Football Bowl Subdivision, Alabama has collected a smorgasbord of former college head coaches willing to accept reduced pay and responsibilities in exchange for having their reputations cleaned, buffed and polished by Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Last year's coaching staff included five former head coaches: offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian (Washington and Southern California), offensive line coach Kyle Flood (Rutgers) and off-field assistants Major Applewhite (Houston), Butch Jones (most recently Tennessee) and Mike Stoops (Arizona).
After two seasons as an Alabama assistant, Sarkisian was hired as the head coach at Texas. Flood will tag along as the Longhorns' offensive coordinator. Applewhite was hired last month as the offensive coordinator at South Alabama. Three years after being fired by the Volunteers, Jones was named the new head coach at Arkansas State.
"The three years at Alabama allowed me to self-reflect," Jones said last month. "You constantly look for improvement. You never waste an opportunity to get better.”
On the heels of an unbeaten season and the national championship, Saban and the Crimson Tide will reload for the 2021 season with a coaching staff set to make college football history: Alabama's new group is the first since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966 to include three former NFL head coaches.
One is Saban himself, who spent two seasons as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins before returning to college with the Crimson Tide in 2007.
Within the past week, Alabama has officially announced the addition of two new assistants with NFL experience: offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, who spent six-plus years as the head coach and about 10 months as general manager of the Houston Texas before being fired this past October, and offensive line coach Doug Marrone, the former head coach of the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Both coaches have college experience. Marrone was the head coach at Syracuse from 2009-12, posting a pair of eight-win seasons, and O'Brien was previously the head coach at Penn State, where he led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons in the wake of stringent NCAA sanctions.
And both were successful to varying degrees in the NFL. Marrone had two winning seasons in his six full years as head coach, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, before the Jaguars bottomed out with the league's worst record in 2020. O'Brien made four trips to the playoffs with the Texans and is the only coach in franchise history with a career winning record, though his front-office tenure was marred by a series of puzzling personnel decisions.
"I have always admired the programs Coach Saban has built, and I am excited to have the opportunity to join his staff here at Alabama," Marrone said in a statement. "Coach's program is the model of consistency, and I am looking forward to helping continue that tradition of success with an exceptional group of players and coaches."
There have been five instances since the merger of FBS coaching staffs including two former NFL head coaches, most recently during this past season at Arizona State. Fourth-year coach Herm Edwards was joined by former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, the Sun Devils' co-defensive coordinator. (Lewis has since been named as the Sun Devils' special assistant to the head coach.)
Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jack Christiansen held the same position at Stanford from 1972-76, with former Atlanta Falcons head coach Norb Hecker as his defensive coordinator.
Stanford had another pair in 1993 and 1994: head coach Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, and offensive line coach Monte Clark, who preceded Walsh with the 49ers and spent seven seasons with the Detroit Lions.
At Hawaii from 2005-6, former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville was the defensive coordinator for June Jones, who replaced Glanville with the Falcons in 1994. In 2008, Jones was the head coach at SMU while Frank Gansz, the former head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, served as the Mustangs' special teams coordinator.
Fifty-six former NFL head coaches, not counting interim replacements, have served on the college ranks since 1966. The list includes six coaches who would win at least one national championship: Pete Carroll (2003-4 Southern California), Dan Devine (1977 Notre Dame), Lou Holtz (1988 Notre Dame), Saban (six since 2009), Howard Schnellenberger (1983 Miami) and Gene Stallings (1992 Alabama).
(Another three coaches — John Robinson at USC, Bobby Ross at Georgia Tech and Steve Spurrier at Florida — won national championships before leaving for the NFL and then returning to the FBS.)
Counting the two new additions at Alabama, 17 of the 56 NFL head coaches served as college assistants. There are currently three such assistants in the FBS, all in the SEC: Marrone, O'Brien and new Missouri defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.
Overall, there will be 10 former NFL head coaches on the college ranks in 2021. The three SEC assistants are joined by Edwards, Saban, Butch Davis, Jim Harbaugh, Chip Kelly, Lane Kiffin and Greg Schiano.