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Alabama Coach Nick Saban doesn’t have to settle for assistants

Changes in Alabama coaching staff have not affected football success

It is amusing to see “rankings” of college football coaches. A coach can be on the verge of a national championship one season and a couple of under-par years later be listed among those on the hot seat.

These days there is the occasional column or commentary about college football coaches, and general agreement that Alabama Coach Nick Saban is in the top tier at the least. Most consider him to be the best in the game for the moment, and minimally among the best of all time. That’s what winning four national championships in eight years and five overall will do for you.

In fact, we have seen musings that concede Saban as best in the Southeastern Conference with the area of discussion “Who is second best?”.

Thus, with the concession that Alabama is in great shape insofar as head coach, the discussion turned to the recent additions of three new assistant coaches to Saban’s staff. The three include the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and two other offensive assistants.

There are at least two things to keep in mind in assessing the staff changes: One is the Paul Bryant contention that a good coach can coach anything. The second is that the man who has been selecting assistant coaches in Alabama’s current run of success selected the new men on the Crimson Tide staff. Change in the staff is basically an every year occurrence.

Here is what happened.

Just before the national championship game, Saban and Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin mutually agreed that Kiffin needed to move along. Being an assistant for Bama is a fulltime job. Kiffin had been selected as head coach at Florida Atlantic, also a fulltime job.

Fortunately, Saban’s implementation of the use of non-coaching analysts meant that Steve Sarkisian, who was familiar with Bama’s offense as an analyst, was on board to step in for Kiffin. The result of the national championship game wasn’t great as the Tide lost to Clemson in the final seconds, but consensus was that Alabama had a competent offensive coordinator and QB coach in Sarkisian.

Then to the surprise of almost everyone (and we can’t help but wonder if Saban wasn’t among those surprised), Sarkisian jumped ship to accept the same position that he had held for one game at Bama with the Atlanta Falcons.

Between the College Football Playoff national title game and the departure of Sarkisian, the Tide also lost Mario Cristobal, who coached offensive tackles and tight ends in 2016, and Billy Napier, the wide receivers coach. Saban has a long history of having his assistants move on to jobs of promotion. In addition to Kiffin taking a head job, Cristobal became co-offensive coordinator at Oregon and Napier offensive coordinator at Arizona State.

There was very little suspense as Saban made replacements. Here is how he has handled the situation:

Once again, Saban reached into his bag of analysts and pulled out a fulltime assistant. Mike Locksley had been a head coach at New Mexico and offensive coordinator (and interim head coach) at Maryland. Locksley was initially named only an offensive assistant with unspecified duties and later revealed as holding the title of co-offensive coordinator.

(On defense, Alabama has Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator and Tosh Lupoi as co-defensive coordinator.)

There is no way to know for sure, but many believe that the change from Napier to Locksley will have a positive effect on the attitude of Bama’s wide receivers. The first sign of that is the apparent change of mind by Robert Foster. Foster was reported as planning to transfer, but now is expected to remain with the Tide because of the coaching change.

One excellent attribute of Cristobal was his recruiting ability in Florida. Locksley is also expected to do very well in recruiting the Sunshine State, one reason he was high on the list of the Gators for a position.

Saban has a reputation of a man who is very demanding, and some aren’t interested in working as hard as necessary for Saban. But others have worked for Saban, gone off to other jobs, and then returned to the Saban staff.

Thus, it was no surprise when it was learned that Joe Pannunzio had interviewed for an on-the-field job with the Tide, or that Pannunzio was added to the staff to coach tight ends and serve as special teams coordinator. Pannunzio had spent the last two seasons as director of personnel operations for the Philadelphia Eagles after having been Bama’s director of football operations 2011-14. But he also has a long history as an on-the-field coach and recruiter.

The addition of Pannunzio meant a shakeup in assignments for other assistants.

Cristobal had coached the offensive line from tackle to tackle before Bama added Brent Key to the Tide staff a year ago. Key coached guards and centers, Cristobal tight ends and tackles. With Pannunzio now coaching tight ends, Key will add coaching tackles to his duties.

There does not seem to be any consensus on whether there is an advantage or disadvantage to having one coach for the offensive line or dividing those duties.

Burton Burns, who coaches Alabama running backs, added special teams coordinator to his duties in 2016. Pannunzio, who has a long history of coaching tight ends and coordinating special teams, will relieve Burns of that burden.

Finally,  Saban completed his staff with the addition of Bama’s third offensive coordinator in the space of about six weeks. It was no surprise that Saban added a man who had been a graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State and who had served primarily in the NFL for most of his career, including the majority of that time with the New England Patriots under Saban confidant Bill Belichick, the best coach in the NFL.

Daboll has very limited college experience, a year with William & Mary and a year at Michigan State, neither as a fulltime assistant.

His first stint in the NFL was with the Patriots, a seven-year run from 2000 through 2006, primarily coaching wide receivers. He left New England for two years as quarterbacks coach with the New York Jets. Daboll was then hired by the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, and Kansas City Chiefs as offensive coordinator 2009-12. Even though he lacked success at those spots, he continued to be hired.

More important for his resume, Belichick brought him back to New England in 2013, primarily as tight ends coach and notably as the coach of the best tight end in pro football in Ron Gronkowski.

Saban likes to have assistants who have spent time in the NFL because part of Alabama’s recruiting success is the success of Tide players when it comes to the NFL draft, and players respect coaches who have been in pro football. He has been a quarterbacks coach and an offensive coordinator at the pro level and he has been a part of five Super Bowl championship teams.

Although New England does not run a spread offense and ask Tom Brady to run the ball, Saban has said in the past that a new offensive coordinator doesn’t come in to install his offense, but rather to run the Alabama offense. Still, he expects to get ideas from assistants who come from outside.

For any number of reasons, it is folly to believe that Alabama has to “settle” for football staff members.

That Bama pays top dollar is one inducement to very good coaches.

Knowing that the list of coaches who would like to have “Assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama” on their resumés is a long one and knowing Saban’s previous success in selecting assistants, one has to believe that there will be no fall off in Crimson Tide success with the restructuring of the offensive staff.


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