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Who Has More Impressive Coaching Tree: Urban Meyer or Nick Saban?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2014

ATLANTA - DECEMBER 06:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide congratulates head coach Urban Meyer of the Florida Gators after the Gators 31-20 win in the SEC Championship on December 6, 2008 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are more than just great head coaches; they're also great mentors, each sporting a long list of disciples who have succeeded on their own. 

Meyer's tree blooms from his two years at Bowling Green (2001-02), two years at Utah (2003-04), six years at Florida (2005-10) and three years at Ohio State (2012-present). Saban's tree blooms from his one year at Toledo (1990), five years at Michigan State (1995-99), five years at LSU (2000-04), two years with the Miami Dolphins (2005-06) and eight years at Alabama (2007-present).

8 Nov 1997:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Michigan State Spartans looks on during a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross Ade Stadium in Lafayette, Indiana.  Purdue won the game 22-21. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Both trees impress in their own right, but because all things between Meyer and Saban are competitive, we can't let both coaches enjoy that. We have to know whose tree impresses more.

To answer that question, we've ranked each protege based on two factors: (1) how much they have accomplished since working under Meyer/Saban, and (2) how influential Meyer/Saban was in their mentorship.

One FBS head coach, for example, falls on Meyer's coaching tree after serving one year as Utah's defensive line coach in 2004. His resume is more impressive than some of the students ranked above him, but he ranks lower because he spent so little time under Meyer.

After ranking each coach, we pitted the five best Meyer pupils against the five best Saban pupils for a head-to-head comparison. We also added some categories at the bottom to account for depth.

We'll score each matchup like a boxing round: 10-10 if the sides are even, 10-9 if there's a slight winner, 10-8 if there's a decisive winner, and 10-7 if there's a blowout winner. At the end, we'll add up those grades to see which Sugar Bowl head coach has the better tree.

Meyer vs. Saban...ding ding ding.

1. Dan Mullen (Meyer) vs. Jimbo Fisher (Saban)

USA Today Sports (left) / Getty Images (right)

 

Breakdown

Dan Mullen vs. Jimbo Fisher: Tale of the Tape
Dan Mullen (Meyer)Jimbo Fisher (Saban)
Years as Head Coach65
Career Record46-30 (.605)58-10 (.853)
<a href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=37" target="_blank">Career Simple Rating</a>8.4315.67
Conference Titles03
National Titles01
Current TeamMississippi State (10-2)Florida State (13-0)
Source: sports-reference.com

Mullen Under Meyer

  • Quarterbacks Coach, Bowling Green (2001-02)
  • Quarterbacks Coach, Utah (2003-04)
  • Offensive Coordinator, Florida (2005-08)

Fisher Under Saban

  • Offensive Coordinator, LSU (2000-04)

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has a better resume than Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. He has the better winning percentage. He's had the better teams. He's won three conference titles and one national championship.

But as members of Meyer's and Saban's respective coaching trees, this matchup is closer than that first table makes it appear.

Mullen is a true Meyer product. He followed Urban from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida, then left to take an SEC head coaching job. There was no in-between period in which he was mentored by, say, the second-winningest coach in college football history (and first if you listen to the NCAA record book), Bobby Bowden.

Fisher is less a Saban protege and more a composite of Saban, Les Miles and Bowden, all of whom he served as offensive coordinator for multiple seasons. There were five years between Saban and Fisher's breakup and Fisher's first head coaching gig. Mullen went straight from serving Meyer to running his own program.

That's enough to keep this one close.

Verdict: Saban 10, Meyer 9

  

2. Charlie Strong (Meyer) vs. Mark Dantonio (Saban)

USA Today Sports (left) / Getty Images (right)

Breakdown

Charlie Strong vs. Mark Dantonio: Tale of the Tape
Charlie Strong (Meyer)Mark Dantonio (Saban)
Years as Head Coach511
Career Record43-21 (.672)92-48 (.657)
<a href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=37" target="_blank">Career Simple Rating</a>5.346.53
Conference Titles12
National Titles00
Current TeamTexas (6-6)Michigan State (10-2)
Source: sports-reference.com

Strong Under Meyer

  • Defensive Coordinator, Florida (2005-09)

Dantonio Under Saban

  • Defensive Backs Coach, Michigan State (1995-99)

Charlie Strong predated Meyer at Florida, serving as the defensive coordinator under Ron Zook in 2003 and 2004 and as the interim head coach when Zook was fired before the 2004 Peach Bowl. He was the only member of the previous regime that Meyer kept around, and the pair accomplished great things before Strong went to Louisville in 2010.

Mark Dantonio, like Jimbo Fisher, coached under Saban for five years but didn't become a head coach as soon as he left. Instead, he plied his trade under Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel for three seasons, then went off to become the head coach of Cincinnati in 2004.

Comparing Strong with Dantonio is difficult, if only because the latter has a six-year head start. Strong has not accomplished what Dantonio has accomplished—lifting a program to its first Rose Bowl since 1987—but he is far ahead of the curve. His Louisville teams were better than Dantonio's Cincinnati teams, and his first Texas team finished the regular season 6-6.

Dantonio's first Michigan State team finished 7-6.

On merit, these two are a wash. But again, Meyer gets the slight edge for context. Strong was his defensive coordinator and left directly for his first head coaching job. Dantonio was Saban's defensive line coach and left for a three-year immersion program under Tressel.

Verdict: Meyer 10, Saban 9

3. Steve Addazio (Meyer) vs. Jim McElwain (Saban)

USA Today Sports (left & right)

Breakdown

Steve Addazio vs. Jim McElwain: Tale of the Tape
Steve Addazio (Meyer)Jim McElwain (Saban)
Years as Head Coach43
Career Record27-22 (.551)22-17 (.564)
<a href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=37" target="_blank">Career Simple Rating</a>1.67-2.23
Conference Titles00
National Titles00
Current TeamBoston College (7-5)Colorado State (10-2)*
Source: sports-reference.com

*Accepted head coaching position at Florida in December. 

Addazio Under Meyer

  • Offensive Line/Tight Ends Coach, Florida (2005-06)
  • Offensive Line/Assistant Head Coach, Florida (2007-08)
  • Offensive Coordinator (2009-10)

McElwain Under Saban

  • Offensive Coordinator, Alabama (2008-11)

Florida poached Jim McElwain away from Colorado State after the Rams went 10-2 this regular season. His hiring marks the second former Saban assistant the Gators have employed since Meyer left four seasons ago. (We'll get to the first in a bit.)

One in-house option they didn't get was Steve Addazio, who left Florida with Meyer and became the head coach at Temple. His 2011 Owls went 9-4 and posted their highest Simple Rating Score since 1986, which helped Addazio land the Boston College job in 2013.

Addazio and McElwain have similar reputations as smart offensive coaches. They have similar resumes, too. They have won more games the past two seasons than their talent level probably dictates.

McElwain landed a so-called "big job" before Addazio, but Addazio has already proved he can win in a power conference. Florida is banking on McElwain's upside, but we can't know for sure if he'll succeed.

This feels like it has to be a wash.

Verdict: Meyer 10, Saban 10

4. Kyle Whittingham (Meyer) vs. Jason Garrett (Saban)

Associated Press (left) / USA Today Sports (right)

Breakdown

Kyle Whittingham vs. Jason Garrett: Tale of the Tape
Kyle Whittingham (Meyer)Jason Garrett (Saban)*
Years as Head Coach104+
Career Record84-43 (.661)40-31 (.563)
<a href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=37" target="_blank">Career Simple Rating</a>6.59n/a
Conference/Division Titles*11
National Titles/Super Bowls*00
Current TeamUtah (9-4)Dallas Cowboys (11-4)
Source: sports-reference.com

*Garrett has only coached in the NFL; never college.

Whittingham Under Meyer

  • Defensive Coordinator, Utah (2003-04)

Garrett Under Saban

  • Quarterbacks Coach, Miami Dolphins (2005-06)

Jason Garrett's first coaching gig was under Saban, who hired the former quarterback as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Garrett bounced around the league as a backup for the better part of the previous decade and actually ended his career with a short stint in Miami in 2004—just one year prior to coaching there.

Kyle Whittingham was a Utah assistant for nine years before Meyer arrived in 2003 and retained his role as defensive coordinator with the new regime. After the Utes went 12-0 and won the Fiesta Bowl in 2004, Meyer left for Florida and Whittingham succeeded him.

It's hard comparing Garrett's NFL career with Whittingham's college career, although it should be mentioned that both just enjoyed resurgent seasons. Garrett led the Dallas Cowboys to an NFC East title after three straight 8-8 years, and Whittingham led Utah to a 9-4 record after two straight 5-7 years.

(It should also be mentioned that Whittingham won the biggest game of his career over Saban in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, capping a 13-0 season with a 31-17 romp over previously unbeaten Alabama.)

Still, the cachet of Garrett leading a Super Bowl contender after starting his career under Saban gives him the slight edge in terms of impressiveness. Whittingham is more of a Ron McBride creation than a Meyer creation, no matter how well they fared in 2004. 

Verdict: Saban 10, Meyer 9

5. Doc Holliday (Meyer) vs. Will Muschamp (Saban)

USA Today Sports (left & right)

Breakdown

Doc Holliday vs. Will Muschamp: Tale of the Tape
Doc Holliday (Meyer)Will Muschamp (Saban)
Years as Head Coach54
Career Record39-25 (.609)28-21 (.571)
<a href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=37" target="_blank">Career Simple Rating</a>-1.139.00
Conference/Division Titles*10
National Titles/Super Bowls*00
Current TeamMarshall (12-1)Florida (6-5)*
Source: sports-reference.com

*Fired as head coach at Florida, effective after regular season.

Holliday Under Meyer

  • Safeties/Associate Head Coach, Florida (2005-07)

Muschamp Under Saban

  • Defensive Coordinator, LSU (2001-04)
  • Assistant Head Coach, Miami Dolphins (2005)

Will Muschamp is the only non-head coach on the featured section of this article. He was fired after losing 21 games in four seasons at Florida and is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn.

Doc Holliday was a valuable member of Meyer's defensive staff in Gainesville, where he helped coach Reggie Nelson into a Thorpe Award finalist. He left in 2008 after three seasons under Meyer and Charlie Strong, spent two years under Bill Stewart at West Virginia and has since done a fine job as the head coach at Marshall.

Muschamp is one of the best defensive coaches in football, but he didn't have the acumen to run a program—or, at least, he didn't in his first attempt. Who's to say what the future might hold? Lane Kiffin has revamped his image after getting fired as the head coach at USC and enlisting as a coordinator under Saban. Muschamp does enough things well to enjoy a similar redemption on the Plains.

Until then, though, choosing Holliday over Muschamp is easy. He learned enough in his three years with Meyer to successfully rebuild the program at Marshall. There are benefits to coaching out of the spotlight, so the book on these coaches is still being written.

But right now, it's a decisive win.

Verdict: Meyer 10, Saban 8

  

6. Additional FBS Head Coaches

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

Breakdown

Meyer vs. Saban Proteges: Additional FBS Head Coaches
Meyer ProtegeSchoolCareer RecordUnder Meyer
Gary AndersenOregon St.45-31 (.592)DL Coach (Utah, 2004)
Tim BeckmanIllinois33-40 (.452)Def. Coord. (BGSU, 2001-02)
Tom Herman*Houston0-0 (.000)Off. Coord. (Ohio St., 2012-14)
Dan McCarneyNorth Texas78-112 (.411)DL Coach (Florida, 2008-10)
Saban ProtegeSchoolCareer RecordUnder Saban
n/an/an/an/a
Source: Various

*Accepted head coaching position at Houston in December

Our first knockout blow!

Saban's tree lost an important branch when Muschamp flopped at Florida, the same way it lost an important branch when Derek Dooley flopped as the head coach at Tennessee.

But Meyer's tree supports nine current FBS head coaches, a total that just increased when Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman accepted the head coaching job at Houston.

"I've learned a couple things in my 16 years as an assistant," Herman told reporters at his introductory press conference. "Most of them were the last three years under Meyer, who is a fantastic mentor to me: one of the great champions in our great sport's history."

Gary Andersen only spent one year under Meyer at Utah but has quickly established himself as one of the 20 best head coaches in the country, and Tim Beckman just got Illinois to a bowl game. All around the country, Meyer proteges are leading FBS programs.

Saban only has the three. 

Verdict: Meyer 10, Saban 7

7. Additional FBS Coordinators

Dave Tulis/Associated Press

Breakdown

Meyer vs. Saban Proteges: Notable FBS Coordinators
Meyer ProtegeTypeSchoolUnder Meyer
Vance BedfordDCTexasDB Coach (Florida, 2008-09)
Gregg BrandonOCNew Mexico St.Off. Coord. (BGSU, 2001-02)
D.J. DurkinDCFloridaLB/ST Coach (Florida, 2010)
Billy GonzalesOCMississippi St.WR Coach (Florida, 2005-09)
Chuck HeaterDCMarshallDB Coach (Florida, 2005-10; Utah 2004)
John HevesyOCMississippi St.TE Coach (Florida, 2005-08)
Scot LoefflerOCVirginia TechQB Coach (Florida, 2009-10)
Greg MattisonDCMichiganDef. Coord. (Florida, 2005-07)
Saban ProtegeTypeSchoolUnder Saban
Dameyune CraigOCAuburnST Coach (Dolphins, 2005)
James ColeyOCMiamiOff. Assistant (Dolphins, 2005-06)
Chris Cosh*DCNorth TexasDef. Coord. (Michigan St., 1998)
Todd GranthamDCLouisvilleDL Coach (Michigan St., 1996-98)
Charlie HarbisonDCAuburnDB Coach (LSU, 2001-02)
Doug NussmeierOCMichiganOff. Coord. (Alabama, 2012-13)
Jeremy PruittDCGeorgiaDB Coach (Alabama, 2007-12)**
James WillisDCUL-LafayetteLB Coach (Alabama, 2009)
Source: Various

*Accepted defensive coordinator position at North Texas in December.

**Held a similar but less important assistant role from 2007-09.

Meyer's former assistants band together, which is how you end up with Vance Bedford running Charlie Strong's defense at Texas and Bill Gonzales and John Hevesy running Dan Mullen's offense at Mississippi State. Meyer has worked with all three of those coaches, but he functions more like their grand-mentor than their mentor.

Saban's former assistants disperse from one another. The only two who work together are Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig and co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison, but Craig and Harbison are from different eras of the Saban line.

Still, it's hard to pick one group of coordinators over the other. Bedford, Gonzales and Hevesy are great at what they do, and so are Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and Florida defensive coordinator (and current interim head coach) D.J. Durkin.

But Jeremy Pruitt won a national championship under Saban protege Jimbo Fisher last season, Todd Grantham coaches a heck of a Louisville defense, and James Coley turned true freshman Brad Kaaya into one of the breakout quarterbacks of the season at Miami.

This seems like another wash.

Verdict: Meyer 10, Saban 10

8. Additional Non-FBS Coaches/Coordinators

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

*Also served as graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997-98.

Breakdown

Meyer vs. Saban Proteges: Non-FBS Coaches/Coordinators
Meyer ProtegeTypeTeamUnder Meyer
Teryl AustinDCDetroit LionsDef. Coord. (Florida, 2010)
Jay HillHCWeber St.Assistant (Utah, 2003-04)
Mike SanfordHCIndiana St.Off. Coord. (Utah, 2003-04)
Everett WithersHCJames MadisonDef. Coord. (Ohio St., 2012-13)
Saban ProtegeTypeTeamUnder Saban
Curt CignettiHCIndiana-Penn. (IUP)WR Coach (Alabama, 2007-10)
George EdwardsDCMinnesota VikingsLB Coach (Dolphins, 2005-06)
Josh McDanielsOCNew England PatriotsAssistant (Michigan St., 1999)
Dean PeesDCBaltimore RavensDL/ILB Coach (Michigan St., 1995-97)
Pat ShurmurOCPhiladelphia EaglesTE/OL Coach (Michigan St., 1995-97)
Mel TuckerDCChicago BearsDB Coach (LSU, 2000)*
Dan QuinnDCSeattle SeahawksDL Coach (Dolphins, 2005-06)
Source: Various

Saban left the NFL on terrible terms—so terrible that Pat Forde once wrote a column titled "Saban only lied when his lips were moving" for ESPN.com. And he was not the only one who felt that way.

But despite his own exit from the professional level, Saban's impact can be felt in just about every corner of the league.

Four defensive coordinators are former Saban assistants, highlighted by one of the best: Dan Quinn of the Seattle Seahawks. On top of that, two of the best offenses in the NFL—those of the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots—are run by former Michigan State staff members Pat Shurmur and Josh McDaniels.

Meyer's only connection with the NFL is Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, which is not a bad name to counter with. The Lions defense has been one of the best (and most surprising) units in the league, making Austin a hot name in coaching circles.

Combine that with Meyer's FCS connection—two former coordinators and one former assistant are head coaches at the Championship level—and it's hard to call this a knockout. But the names on Saban's list are too good to call it a close round, either. 

Verdict: Saban 10, Meyer 8

Final Scorecard

Saban vs. Meyer Proteges: The Final Scorecard
MatchupUrban MeyerNick Saban
1. Dan Mullen vs. Jimbo Fisher910
2. Charlie Strong vs. Mark Dantonio109
3. Steve Addazio vs. Jim McElwain1010
4. Kyle Whittingham vs. Jason Garrett910
5. Doc Holliday vs. Will Muschamp108
6. Additional FBS Head Coaches107
7. Additional FBS Coordinators1010
8. Additional Non-FBS Coaches810
<strong>FINAL TALLY:</strong><strong>76</strong><strong>74</strong>
Source: Previous Tables

Meyer wins the contest by a nose, riding the depth of his coaching tree past Saban even though the latter's four best disciples (Fisher, Dantonio, McElwain and Garrett) have a slight edge over Mullen, Strong, Addazio and Whittingham.

The volume of FBS head coaches who once coached under Meyer is alarming. In six fewer seasons as a head coach, he has three times more proteges running their own programs, and two-thirds of those proteges (six of nine) are coaching in a power conference.

Ironically, one of the biggest things holding Saban back against Meyer is one of the biggest reasons for Alabama's success: the fact that Kirby Smart is still his defensive coordinator.

Smart has been to Saban what Strong was to Meyer, keeping the defense stable during the current Alabama "dynasty." He has been vetted for bigger jobs but has yet to find the right opportunity to spread his wings and fly without his Mama Bird.

Nov 8, 2014; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart during the first quarter of a game against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

If he had, this conversation might be different.

It's also important to remember that a big part of this breakdown was subjective. Like an actual round-by-round boxing match, I do not expect one judge's scorecard will look the same as the next. Whether Meyer won by unanimous decision or majority decision or didn't win at all is up to you. There's a chance I'm the dissenting opinion.

So chime in with your own grades below!

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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