Nick Saban assembling the pieces to solve the 2021 Alabama football puzzle | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

There is a good deal of evidence that certain high-IQ men and women actively enjoy chaos. We all have the tendency to some degree. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have jigsaw puzzles. But for some creative minds, there is a deep-seeded need to take a given situation and impose order upon it.

There is no sense in pigeonholing the complicated mind of Nick Saban. He also has characteristics of the engineer, wanting to build things that are both functional and durable and to use core principles (“The Process”) to repeat those successes.

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But the nature of coaching college football, at which he is widely acknowledged as the best, is change. Rosters don’t remain constant as players leave after four years or, now, in the case of a team’s very best players, three years.

The economics of the sport dictate more frequent staff movement than in the past. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant certainly had his share of assistants who went on to be head coaches: Howard Schnellenberger, Gene Stallings and Jerry Claiborne, for example. Virtually the last of the vanishing group, Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will coach in Sunday’s NFL playoffs, nearly 40 years after he was a bright young backfield coach in Tuscaloosa. But through the 1970s at least, there was a core group of assistants (Mal Moore, Ken Donahue, Tex Pool, Dee Powell and others) that remained constant.

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban waves to fans after Alabama defeated Ohio State 52-24 to win the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Not so for Saban, not in these days of less patience and more head coaching opportunities that go with along with that, to say nothing of the million-dollar assistants. Also, Alabama is the team with the most cake, in terms of winning, which makes other programs covet a slice, or at least a taste of the icing.

This isn’t the first year that Saban has had to deal with player movement or coach movement. He’s done the same thing, as all coaches have. He never intended to settle in for a 40-year run at Toledo, although it might be fun to read the media takes on “Let’s Save The Game By Breaking Up The Rockets!” if he had.

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There is no acrimony over Steve Sarkisian taking over at Texas, or Charles Huff moving to Marshall, where he is a reported finalist. Assistant coaches following assistant coaches, especially those making lateral moves for a pay bump, hit differently, although there haven’t been any reports like the ones two years ago when Saban supposedly sent a graduate assistant to check on an assistant coach he wanted to speak with and the GA found only an empty desk.

That story may be apocryphal, but it’s revealing. There is a line between “business” and “loyalty,” and Saban knows exactly where he thinks that line should fall. But he has, through all the shuffling, always managed to put together a staff that kept things moving and, in more cases, brought in new ideas. There is no one, after all, whose name adds more cachet to a résumé than Saban. If the line heading out alarms some people, the line wanting to get in is far longer.

There is another wrinkle in 2021. Because of the coronavirus, players can opt for a sixth year. Already, Chris Owens and Phidarian Mathis have taken advantage of the rule, giving the Crimson Tide two full-grown men with experience on the offensive and defensive front. There might be another player or two to make the same announcement, although it will take the skills of a CPA (or a Saban) to make sure there is enough room for the incoming No. 1 recruiting class. Numbers are already very tight, and Alabama is still recruiting. Perhaps it’s all a frustration for Saban, but perhaps he enjoys, at least to some degree, tinkering with the recipe every year.

Reach Cecil Hurt at or via Twitter @cecilhurt