Will Jimbo Fisher or Lane Kiffin be first former Nick Saban assistant to win vs old boss? | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Earlier this week, CBS Sports began an online series of stories on a topic of endless media fascination — the expanding Nick Saban coaching tree in college football.

Some people refer to the second chances that some coaches have received after working with Saban as “the Saban Rehab Program” or “the other Alabama Coaching Clinic” although those references obscure the purpose that Saban has for hiring anyone: he wants people who can help him win. There is definitely a structure to it, and college presidents and athletics directors certainly like hiring candidates who have a direct association with Alabama’s unprecedented success.

There are coaches on the list of Saban assistants who may fit the “career redemption” story line. Others on the tree, like Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and Kirby Smart at Georgia, followed the more traditional “rising assistant” path and were destined to be head coaches eventually.

Steve Sarkisian is getting a unique second shot at one of college football’s elite programs, taking a rare, not-so-smooth highway from USC to Texas with some deep valleys in between. But in 2020, he was the coordinator for what may have been the best offense in college football history, which wipes away a lot of administrative apprehension.

Lane Kiffin, whose path to Ole Miss might have had even more S-curves than Sarkisian’s road to Texas, is always good copy. Butch Jones is going to grab less headlines at Arkansas State but in four or five years, he might have gone beyond Jonesboro.

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All of those offseason storylines will fade a bit until the season starts in September. There are only two “Saban vs. Former Assistant” games on the Crimson Tide’s regular season schedule. In the first two weekends in October, Saban will face Kiffin when Ole Miss comes to Bryant-Denny Stadium followed by Fisher’s Texas A&M team at College Station in an Oct. 9 game.

That matchup seemed likely to have major SEC West ramifications and Fisher obligingly added some Texas hot sauce with his prediction that the Aggies would “beat (Saban’s) ass” this fall. Saban, who understood the context of booster club hyperbole, had a deadpan response when asked about the comments, responding “in golf?”

That’s part of the fun to the mentor vs. former assistant matchups. As serious as they can be in the field, there is always room for some ribbing. Kiffin, in particular, is noted for the occasional, usual gentle, Twitter jab at Saban.

This year, though, there is no Jeremy Pruitt, no Will Muschamp, no Jim McElwain on SEC sidelines. Smart isn’t on the regular season schedule, although a postseason Alabama-Georgia match wouldn’t be a surprise. (Muschamp, now the defensive coordinator at Georgia, would also be on hand.)

An Alabama-Oregon game in the College Football Playoff isn’t too far-fetched and would give Mario Cristobal an opportunity. Dabo Swinney at Clemson isn’t a part of the Saban coaching tree, although he is a second-generation Paul “Bear” Bryant coaching heir twice, having played and coached under Gene Stallings and having coached under Mike DuBose. The Bryant connections haven’t quite quit spreading, even 39 years after his passing, as his former assistant Bruce Arians led the Tampa Bay Bucs to a victory in the Super Bowl. 


At some point, a Saban protege will probably turn the tables on the boss. It happened to Bryant, not often but occasionally, whether it was a young Stallings or Pat Dye at Auburn. Historians debate whether Dye’s win in 1982 led directly to Bryant’s retirement, although most such decisions are made for a variety of reasons, not simply the result of a single game. 

Saban’s remarkable run may continue right through 2021. If it doesn’t, he will persevere. And rest assured, people will keep writing about it. After all, there is that  2023 matchup with Sarkisian on the horizon.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt