By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 18, 2015
Operating from the assumption that all successful businesses invest time in developing a succession plan, the hiring of Kirby Smart at Georgia made a royal foul-up of what was most likely Alabama’s end game regarding Nick Saban’s eventual retirement.
The subject of Saban’s eventual retirement from Alabama is always a tricky subject to navigate, because the way most Alabama fans deal with the topic is to stick their fingers in their years and yell, “LA LA LA LA LA” while you’re talking to them. But Nick Saban is 64 years old, and working off what is nothing more than a guess – that Saban would call it quits around age 70 and shuffle off to Lake Burton, Ga., to catalog the alimentary habits of ducks (here’s to you, Rob Ezell) – Alabama will have to deal with perhaps the most significant transition in its long and storied history sometime in the next 5-10 years.
Prior to Kirby Smart moving to Georgia, the conventional wisdom around the program said Smart would be the man to take over for Saban. The only real disagreement, for that matter, was whether Smart should stay on staff as sort of an unannounced head-coach-in-waiting, or take a mid-level head coaching job elsewhere to prove his prowess. When the South Carolina job suddenly opened up at mid-year following Steve Spurrier’s abrupt retirement there, most Bama fans probably had Smart pegged for Columbia.
And then his alma mater, Georgia, came calling.
Georgia finished the 2015 regular season with a 9-3 record, but then-head coach Mark Richt couldn’t get off the stage fast enough before someone produced a shepherd’s crook from stage right and yanked him out of the picture. And so it was that the only job most people saw as a competitor for Smart’s long-term affections opened.
The resulting shake-up in the presumed succession plan is still being felt. Given that Nick Saban left the Michigan State job in the hands of an assistant (Bobby Williams) and was said to have tried to do the same at LSU in 2005 (Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp were the coordinators on that team; Saban took Muschamp with him to the NFL but Fisher was passed over for the LSU head coaching job and instead stayed on to serve as Les Miles’ offensive coordinator for one season), the first place to look for Saban’s eventual replacement is the current Alabama payroll.
As such, here’s our short take on what’s going on in Tuscaloosa, what might be going on in five years or so, and we’ll throw in some features of what used to be our annual “Coaches To Watch” article and identify some names that might be in the mix (and still young enough) 5-10 years down the road.
The Alabama Gang – These are the coaches who are currently employed on staff that could find themselves in the mix.
Mario Cristobal, Alabama OL coach, 45 years old (would be 51 when Nick Saban turns 70 in 2021)
The good: Cristobal is the best mix of youth and prior head coaching experience, having led Florida International from 2007-2012. He and Tosh Lupoi are currently considered the best recruiters on the Alabama staff. Alabama’s OL has taken some shots from pundits in recent years for problems in pass protection, but run blocking hasn’t been a problem when the chips are down and he coached the most recent Rimington Award winner, Ryan Kelly.
The bad: Cristobal was just 27-47 at FIU, although he did rather unexpectedly win the Sun Belt in 2010. Most Alabama fans thought the Crimson Tide would lose Cristobal to Miami this year, either as head coach or offensive coordinator, but the Hurricanes barely bothered to give him a sniff. He’s never been a coordinator anywhere.
The verdict: Cristobal would be a controversial choice given his career W-L record and some bouts of spotty OL play. But he also has the best combination of prior experience and recruiting acumen on the current staff.
Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator, 41 years old (47 in 2021)
The good: He has an Alabama diploma, and he’s beginning his second stint under Nick Saban, his first as a coordinator. Pruitt has proved himself on the recruiting trail and has put up probably the best results of any former Saban defensive assistant since moving on from under Saban’s wing. At Georgia, he was noted for his intensity and lack of patience for the status quo.
The bad: He has no head coaching experience, and the same personality traits that admirers like – i.e., his ability to shake up the status quo in Athens – are the ones his detractors point to as evidence of boorish behavior. The biggest detriment to Pruitt’s candidacy for the Alabama job, or any other job for that matter, is the fact there are simply too many unknowns about his ability to lead a team.
The verdict: Any coach with a Capstone pedigree is going to get a boost among the fan base regardless, but Pruitt might need to take the helm of a smaller school in the meantime so that he can leapfrog more established coaches.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama offensive coordinator/QB coach, 40 years old (46 in 2021)
The good: He has head coaching experience, including head coach of an NFL team. He has a family pedigree. He is regarded as an ace recruiter, and his cool factor among prospects is almost immeasurable. More recently, his work in developing Blake Sims and Jake Coker as Alabama quarterbacks, not to mention his sometimes innate ability to crack the perfect playcalling code, makes him a no-brainer option to get another head coaching gig somewhere soon.
The bad: His maturity still isn’t sufficient for a big-time job, most observers think. His playcalling sometimes needs to be reined in, and he has the propensity to rub people the wrong way. And he has shown few indications that he’s fallen in love with the Alabama program. Tuscaloosa is clearly a stop along a bus route for him.
The verdict: This is probably what Steve Spurrier was like as a young coach. But Kiffin has already had his Florida moment, and unlike Spurrier, he got fired from the gig (USC). It’s highly unlikely Kiffin will be on staff in 2021 – 2016 is miles from a dead-bang surety, for that matter – so if Alabama were to pursue him down the road, the school wouldn’t have much of a built-in advantage beyond what it normally does (salary, prestige, SEC powerhouse, etc.)
The Saban Coaching Tree – These are coaches with prior ties to Alabama’s head coach, who have since moved on to other things.
Kirby Smart, head coach, Georgia, 39 years old (45 in 2021)
The good: Smart proved his worth both as a recruiter and coordinator over the past nine seasons in Tuscaloosa. And while Smart’s alma mater hired him as head coach this month, Smart is an Alabama native and the son of a high school coach with in-state ties. Translation: His ties to Georgia might not be as strong as some other alums’ are. While Georgia would have some degree of home-field advantage for Smart, if Alabama chose to make this a competitive bidding situation, the Crimson Tide would be tough to beat and almost impossible to top, strictly from a financial perspective.
The bad: He’s not proven a thing yet, and at Georgia, he’ll recruit well enough to cover up a lot of flaws. Four to six years in Athens might not be enough to determine his true abilities as a head coach. And, that UGA diploma will count for something in negotiations.
The verdict: Not an impossible get, even given his UGA ties, but now that Smart is no longer the perceived “next-in-line,” he’ll be judged strictly on the numbers from this point forward, and he might not have enough of those by the time Saban hangs it up.
Jim McElwain, head coach, Florida, 53 years old (59 in 2021)
The good: McElwain has been underestimated and doubted by some ever since Alabama – in the eyes of a few resume snobs – deigned to reach down to Fresno State to hire him as offensive coordinator in 2007. All he did was win two national championships and develop John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron into NFL quarterbacks. At Florida, McElwain won the SEC East in his first year despite having to play an offensive line that looked like movie extras in a sequel to “The Replacements.” He enjoyed his time in Tuscaloosa and would consider returning.
The bad: The age. McElwain would be nearly 60 by the time Saban is 70, which would be the equivalent of Saban’s Alabama career beginning with the 2011 season. Not the worst-case scenario by far, but Alabama probably wants to get 10-15 years out of its next coach. There is also the question of recruiting – namely, McElwain hasn’t done much of it at a high-level school like Florida. But Alabama would surely know his abilities after a few more years in Gainesville.
The verdict: Several observers make McElwain the favorite if Saban left between two and five years out from now. If Saban stays in Tuscaloosa longer than that, the situation gets dicey. McElwain’s preferred offensive and defensive sets ought to make for a smooth transition should he get the call.
Jimbo Fisher, head coach, Florida State, 50 years old (56 in 2021)
The good: Fisher is considered the best fit for the Alabama job, from a social standpoint. He’s a Southern coach with a lot of Southern connections and Southern mannerisms. He is a solid offensive mind and an excellent recruiter. His knowledge of the Alabama-Auburn wars, from his time under Terry Bowden at Auburn, would come in handy. With a national title already under his belt, he’s considered by far the most accomplished of those from the Saban tree.
The bad: Fisher’s handling of the Jameis Winston saga drew heavy fire from several corners, and the criticism hasn’t waned. And for all Fisher’s offensive knowledge, his LSU and Florida State teams are known to lay eggs from time to time and display a curious inconsistency.
The verdict: Support for Fisher will be huge in some circles, particularly amongst Alabama fans still smarting over Joab Thomas’ decision to bypass Bobby Bowden for Bill Curry long ago. Hiring Fisher would be some kind of serendipity for those fans, not to mention Fisher currently has the strongest resume. But the Winston catastrophe looms.
Will Muschamp, head coach, South Carolina, 44 years old (50 in 2021)
The good: Muschamp is starting his second tenure as an SEC head coach, following up his time at Florida. One would think Muschamp has surely learned from his mistakes in his first go-round, while few doubt his knowledge of how to field a competent defense. Muschamp is a plus-plus recruiter and good tactician, and he’s young enough to fit the parameters.
The bad: Anyone who saw Muschamp’s meltdown on the sideline during the 2015 Alabama-Auburn game knows what the problem is here. Muschamp simply doesn’t have his emotions under control most of the time, certainly not enough to guide a program the scope of Alabama. He’ll be on a short leash as it is in South Carolina, which doesn’t need the headache. And his inability to quickly turn around the Auburn defense – to say nothing of the systemic failures under his watch in Gainesville – have to be resolved.
The verdict: Nick Saban has passed over Muschamp for promotions before, and at the moment, Muschamp is considered little more than a goon in coaching circles. He needs to rehab his image in Columbia and most of all, win and win early. Otherwise he has no shot at keeping his own current job, much less moving up to take Alabama’s.
Jason Garrett, head coach, Dallas Cowboys, 49 years old (55 in 2021)
The good: Garrett was Saban’s QB coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and was Saban’s first choice for Alabama offensive coordinator in 2007 before he opted to join the Dallas Cowboys in one of the most fortuitous choices of all time for an assistant coach. He became offensive coordinator there, then took over the reins in Dallas on an interim basis in 2010 when Wade Phillips was fired eight games into the season. The promotion took, and Garrett has been there ever since. Garrett has a healthy dose of Saban’s no-nonsense personality, and his resume would be sure to attract plenty of recruits.
The bad: Garrett has never coached in college in any capacity and his Dallas record has been uneven. He didn’t spend much time under Saban and NFL lifer coaches sometimes don’t make the move to college easily. He has no Southern ties. But the biggest hindrance to his candidacy may be timing: Unless Garrett makes a major step forward in Dallas, he will probably be relieved of his duties before Saban leaves Alabama, and his future would become impossible to predict. Many observers are surprised he hasn’t already been canned by the infamously impatient Jerry Jones.
The verdict: A Garrett hire would be as close to out-of-the-box thinking as one could muster while still staying on the Nick Saban coaching tree. But Alabama could be caught in the middle here. If Garrett starts winning big in Dallas, Jerry Jones is one of the few owners who could (and would) outbid Alabama for his services. But if Garrett fails in Dallas, he could drop from the ranks of desirable coaches in fairly short order.
The Outsiders – These are coaches with no significant ties to Nick Saban. Some may be considered too young or too inexperienced to get a serious look. Consider this a substitute for our “Coaches To Watch” list.
Dabo Swinney, head coach, Clemson, 46 years old (52 in 2021)
The good: Swinney’s primary selling point is his Alabama diploma. A large portion of Alabama fans and boosters are always searching for the next Bear Bryant – i.e., a prodigal son returning to head the program, whether or not his resume actually qualifies him for the job. But with Clemson’s sudden surge to the top in 2015, Swinney’s fans now have actual results to point to in his defense. He would also almost certainly take the job with little fuss.
The bad: Swinney is 3-5 against his primary rival, South Carolina, despite the Gamecocks being historically the second-fiddle program in their own home state. But it’s Swinney’s personality that comes most under fire; his over-the-top, hyper-emotional method of motivation can have extreme peaks and valleys, and his nice-guy act is an ill fit for the Alabama job, which typically demands a no-nonsense, business-heavy, CEO-type persona from its leader. There is also the issue of Swinney’s time on the Mike DuBose staff at Alabama, when he was considered part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The verdict: The fact Swinney is an Alabama alum means many will never judge him by objective criteria, and that’s proven to be a dangerous thing under former head coaches with Alabama ties (Ray Perkins, Mike DuBose, Mike Shula). He’ll get too much credit for successes and too little blame for failures. There isn’t much internal support for a Swinney hire at this time, but things could change depending on the makeup of Alabama’s power structure in 2021.
Todd Graham, head coach, Arizona State, 51 years old (57 in 2021)
The good: Graham worked magic at Rice and Tulsa, the two smallest schools in FBS, and his Arizona State career got off to a rousing start with a pair of 10-win seasons in his first three years. He has a defensive background, but also prefers imaginative, high-octane offenses and is considered a good recruiter. He’s shown that he’s open to frequent moves in order to climb the ladder and some observers that claim to know him say he covets the Alabama job. While on the older end of the age range in 2021, he would have one of the stronger resumes from a coach that has had success both at mid-majors and at Power 5 schools.
The bad: Graham reminds a lot of people of Dennis Franchione – he’s prone to making comments about loyalty and faith, then jumping ship to the next job. His jilting of Pitt after one season triggered immense scrutiny and blowback. And then there’s the issue of his 2015 team, which went 6-6 despite playing in a PAC-12 conference that didn’t have many quality teams.
The verdict: Graham is still considered to be on the ascent, but Arizona State has historically had a finite ceiling on its program. If Graham is in consideration six years from now, it will likely be while he’s at his next stop.
Dino Babers, head coach, Syracuse, 54 years old (60 in 2021)
The good: Babers will take over the Syracuse program in 2016 after having a breakout year as the head coach of Bowling Green in 2015. He has a plethora of experience as an offensive coach and sports a 37-16 record as a head coach for his career. Babers is considered an innovative offensive mind and found a way at Bowling Green to effectively meld the hurry-up, no-huddle offense with a pro-style attack. His offensive fundamentals are sound and not prone to fall victim to the failures of fads.
The bad: While he looks much younger, Babers is already 54 years old. Syracuse will be his first Power 5 job, so for now we’re projecting him based on potential. He’s worked with an impressive array of veteran coaches and at big-time programs in the past, but he isn’t much further along in his head coaching career than many coordinators. His performance at Syracuse will make or break him.
The verdict: This would be an off-the-radar choice and several other candidates would probably have to fall away first. Because of Babers’ age, Saban would probably have to leave within four years and Babers would have to win immediately at Syracuse, and win big. Otherwise the timing will just be altogether off.
David Shaw, head coach, Stanford, 43 years old (49 in 2021)
The good: There is probably no greater fit for what Alabama likes to do offensively than Shaw, whose Stanford program is the master at punching above its weight. Due to academic restrictions, it’s amazing Stanford has had the run of success recently that it has enjoyed, and Shaw’s annual habit of knocking on the door of the national championship game is a credit to his abilities as a program leader. His age is also close to perfect for the gig.
The bad: There is still a question of how much of Shaw’s success is due to former coach (and Shaw’s former boss) Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh built the program and turned the reins over to Shaw in 2011, but the program still bears the trademarks of Harbaugh’s philosophy of unbridled toughness. The next five years or so will allow Shaw to fully move out from under Harbaugh’s shadow and establish his footprint.
The verdict: So little of Stanford football is analogous to Alabama football. Even if Shaw continues to win, hiring him might be considered a real reach. But Shaw gains more fans every year inside Alabama’s inner circles and it would not be a surprise to see the UA administration hand him the keys.
John Harbaugh, head coach, Baltimore Ravens, 53 years old (59 in 2021)
The good: Speaking of the Harbaugh family, the elder brother, John, may be real possibility for Alabama in the next five years. Virtually all pro coaches are hired to be fired from the outset and the Ravens are on a downward trend at the moment. Harbaugh has two conference championships and a Super Bowl on his resume, which equals instant credibility on the recruiting trail. His offensive and defensive systems would both be easy fits.
The bad: Another coach on the back end of his career five years from now, the main question would be how much fuel he had left in the tank. And while Harbaugh has college coaching experience, he was never an offensive or defensive coordinator (his background is in special teams and defensive backs, mostly), nor was he a head coach.
The verdict: As good as Harbaugh has been as Baltimore’s head coach, the question will always be there as to his interest in coaching at a major college program. Harbaugh’s name first emerged as a legitimate successor to Nick Saban following the 2013 season, when rumors first circulated about Saban considering the Texas job. That means contact was probably made between agents and insiders. Whether it is still being cultivated is anyone’s guess.
Larry Fedora, head coach, North Carolina, 53 years old (59 in 2021)
The good: Fedora is widely regarded as one of the 5-10 best offensive minds in the college game. He is aggressive and innovative, and has managed to stay ahead of the curve for the better part of 20-plus years. He has SEC coaching experience as Ron Zook’s offensive coordinator at Florida, and he guided Southern Miss to a 34-19 record over four years, culminating with a 12-2 record in his final year (2011). Fedora has since done the same thing at North Carolina, taking over a moribund program and almost getting it into the Final Four in 2015.
The bad: If some Alabama fans have trouble stomaching Lane Kiffin’s high-flying offense, Fedora would trigger mass myocardial infarction at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Fedora can be abrasive and his commitment to defense has been, in a word, lackluster. There is a question as to how much of his 2015 success at UNC is due to finally biting the bullet and hiring a premier defensive coordinator (Gene Chizik). His age is also borderline for this scenario.
The verdict: If North Carolina advances to the College Football Playoff a couple of times over the next six years – not a difficult assignment in the ACC, all things considered – Fedora will have Alabama’s attention. His ability to reinvent himself several times now as an offensive coach shows a grasp of football concepts that few coaches are fortunate enough to possess. But the question of whether he can be the CEO of an elite program will be out there until someone gives him the chance.
Bobby Wilder, head coach, Old Dominion, 51 years old (57 in 2021)
The good: Wilder is the best coach most have never heard of. When Old Dominion restarted its football program in 2009, it hired Wilder, who went 9-2 out of the gate. Wilder’s teams then rattled off records of 8-3, 10-3, 11-2 and 8-4 before jumping into Conference USA in 2014 and going 6-6 in their first season on the FBS level. Wilder suffered his first losing record in 2015 (5-7), but a 57-27 record at the helm of a startup program is nothing to laugh at. Wilder’s teams are often outmanned but rarely outplayed.
The bad: To say Wilder has a limited resume would be to say the Alabama sometimes has a lot of fans attend its games. Wilder was a graduate assistant at Boston College for two years, then returned to his alma mater Maine, where he stayed until Old Dominion came calling in 2007 to prepare for its 2009 restart. Norfolk, Va., is the farthest south he’s ever been as head coach. And no amount of success will change the fact that he’s at a small-time school in a small-time conference. He needs to move away from ODU first and prove himself on a bigger stage. And, he’s not a young pup anymore.
The verdict: The chance that anyone at Alabama would give Wilder an interview is infinitesimally small, at least if he stays put at ODU. Wilder is beginning to take on the persona of longtime Nevada coach Chris Ault, who managed to amass 200-plus wins and consistently field competitive teams despite getting no one’s attention for years.
Others: Joey Jones (head coach, South Alabama), Kevin Sumlin (head coach, Texas A&M), Mark Dantonio (head coach, Michigan State), James Franklin (head coach, Penn State), Chip Kelly (head coach, Philadelphia Eagles), Bret Bielema (head coach, Arkansas), Jim Tressel (president, Youngstown State University), Jim Mora (head coach, UCLA)
The verdict: The names in this catch-all category represent a wide range of connections back to the Alabama job, from alumni status (Jones) to in-state place of birth (Sumlin) to prior Nick Saban connections (Dantonio) to other factors. Each, however, has at least one critical flaw to his candidacy. Age trips up Dantonio, Tressel and Mora. Franklin left behind a player sex abuse scandal at Vanderbilt. Kelly and Mora would be curious fits for a Southeastern Conference team. Sumlin and Bielema have both spent time on the hotseat lately; Sumlin is still on it. Jones’ resume isn’t strong enough. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that one or more of these names could find their way into the discussion when the time comes – Kelly the most likely of all of them – but each is a longshot.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN