TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Wouldn’t you love to see Nick Saban’s Rolodex?
Just imagine some of the names and phone numbers that the University of Alabama head coach has at his fingertips. They include essentially everyone in football, the people he lines up to be guest speakers and some of the most influential figures in the world.
Yet one can almost picture a second set of numbers belonging to the people he trusts most and calls when his coaching staff has an opening. It’s obviously a much shorter list, but the one he considers more important, especially the way Saban values the notion of loyalty.
Curt Cignetti? Saban worked for his father, Frank.
Joe Pendry? Like Saban, he’s a West Virginia guy. They traveled in the same circles.
Bobby Williams? His former assistant came aboard a year later in 2008 and until two months ago was Alabama’s special teams and tight ends coach.
Jeff Stoutland? He was Williams’ offensive line coach at Michigan State.
It wasn’t like Saban suddenly heard about any of them overnight.
Really good teams in the NFL always have contingency plans for every player on the roster, from the starting quarterback down to long snapper. If there’s an injury there’s already a plan for who moves up and for how that player’s spot will be filled as well.
A good example is the kicker position, because no NFL team carries a backup on the roster. Should he get hurt, there’s essentially an automatic move regarding a replacement or which players will come in and try out for the job.
Saban essentially has the same thing for his coaches. If someone left today, he would already have a good idea of who would be filling that office space tomorrow, and if necessary he could probably replace the entire staff by the weekend.
He recently had to go to that list with the sudden departure of defensive line coach Bo Davis.
Almost immediately, AL.com's Matt Zenitz reported that Alabama was poised to hire Karl Dunbar, an NFL defensive line coach who had previously worked for the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, and most recently, the Buffalo Bills. It was like a military reaction to an insurrection: direct, immediate and proportional.
It would be a very Saban-type move.
Although he keeps an eye out for fast-rising coaches and has been known to hire former opposing head coaches who impressed him, (like Lane Kiffin and Mario Cristobal) when it comes to Saban’s coaching staff there are some specific things he covets in addition to being a good recruiter—especially on the defensive side and with the coordinators.
|Nick Saban's Offensive Coaches at Alabama|
|2007||Major Applewhite||Burton Burns||Curt Cignetti||Joe Pendry||Bobby Williams|
|2011||McElwain||Burns||Mike Groh||Jeff Stoutland||Williams|
|2013||Nussmeier||Burns||Billy Napier*||Mario Cristobal||Williams|
|Compiled by the Author (*worked with Saban before)|
One is that they have both NFL and college coaching experience. Another, which can trump the former, is that he’s worked with them before.
Yes, Saban has a reputation for being very demanding, but few critics mention how regularly he rehires people.
Saban was so familiar with Kirby Smart, who went all the way back to his LSU years, that at times he didn’t even have to say anything for the former defensive coordinator to know what was wanted. Even when he did, it could be like listening to a conversation in a foreign language.
So when Smart recently left to become Georgia’s head coach, Saban only interviewed one person, the man whom he had initially been grooming as a replacement, Jeremy Pruitt.
He called the decision a “no-brainer.”
Pruitt began his coaching career as a student assistant coach at Alabama during the 1997 season, but it was during his years at Hoover High School that led to his return. He first joined Saban’s staff as the Director of Player Development in 2007, and the fast-riser was promoted to defensive backs coach in 2010.
For three seasons, the two worked on the field together as Saban oversees the cornerbacks during practices. Had Smart left in 2011 or 2012, there’s a good chance Pruitt would have been directly promoted.
Instead, he was hired away by former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher to be Florida State’s defensive coordinator during its 2013 national championship season. The Seminoles led the nation in scoring defense (12.1 points per game), were second in team passing-efficiency defense (93.77 rating), third in total defense (281.4 yards) and 18th in rushing defense (124.8). He subsequently spent two years at Georgia.
“It's always difficult to find someone who knows our system and our scheme,” Saban said. “So to be able to bring somebody back like that helps. New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas, but somebody who really understands what we do.”
|Nick Saban's Defensive Coaches at Alabama|
|2007||Kevin Steele||Bo Davis*||Lance Thompson*||Steele||Kirby Smart*|
|2009||Smart||Davis||Sal Sunseri*||James Willis||Smart|
|2015||Smart||Davis||Tosh Lupoi||Smart||Mel Tucker*|
|2016||Pruitt*||Karl Dunbar*||Lupoi||Pruitt*||Derrick Ansley*|
|Compiled by the author (*worked previously with Saban)|
Consequently, few expect there to be any sort of drop-off with Alabama’s defense this season even though the Crimson Tide just had four former starters selected during the second round of last week’s NFL draft. There’s still an incredible amount of talent left on the roster, including some of the players Pruitt helped recruit like linebacker Ryan Anderson.
Pruitt was also the primary recruiter for running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, and linebacker Reggie Ragland.
“They’re both aggressive,” said senior defensive back Maurice Smith about the different coaching styles of Pruitt and Smart. “I can definitely say that, and they both bring a swag about themselves. One [area] they do show similarities with is not taking any slack, making sure he presses on us and that we do things until we can’t do them wrong.”
Davis was also considered a prototypical Saban assistant, having worked for him four different times. The first was when the former All-SEC defensive lineman for LSU joined the Tigers strength and conditioning staff as assistant coordinator under Tommy Moffitt in June 2002.
When he left to be the defensive line coach at Oklahoma State, Dunbar was hired to be a part of the weight room staff that also included current Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran.
Saban obviously kept tabs on him just like he never lost the phone number for Derrick Ansley, who was Alabama’s defensive graduate assistant during the 2010-11 seasons. He served as Tennessee’s defensive backs coach in 2012 before moving on to Kentucky.
“He's an outstanding coach,” Saban said about Ansley before Alabama played the Wildcats in 2013. “Did a great job when he was here. Very bright guy. Learned a lot. Worked hard. I think he's done a really good job in coaching where he's been.
“I can't say enough good things about Derrick Ansley. He did a fantastic job for us here and I've heard nothing but good things about him from other people in other places.”
To the surprise of no one, Ansley’s back in Tuscaloosa as Alabama’s secondary coach despite having just been promoted to be Kentucky’s co-defensive coordinator.
At this point, it’s all just part Saban’s reloading process, a phrase and approach that doesn’t only apply to the high level of his recruits.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.