1. Mario Cristobal, head coach, University of Oregon
The Good: Cristobal was formerly head coach at Florida International and helped build that program from nothingness to a legitimate enterprise. More importantly, he’s now the head coach of a successful Oregon program, which he rebuilt. One of the biggest considerations for any Alabama coach will be the ability to recruit, and Cristobal left Tuscaloosa as one of the most accomplished and formidable recruiters of the Saban era. He has a deep understanding of the Southeast and now has name recognition among West Coast prospects as well. He’s relatively young and seems entrenched in the college game.
The Bad: Cristobal was offensive line coach during his time at Alabama, but didn’t seem to get the results some of Saban’s other OL coaches have gotten. His seems to prefer a more conservative offense than even Saban has chosen to pursue. And while he is still young (49), he’s just a year younger than Swinney.
The Verdict: Cristobal has by far the most extensive (and successful) resume of any former Nick Saban/Alabama assistant that would be a candidate for this job. But his resume pales in comparison to Swinney’s.
2. Jeremy Pruitt, head coach, University of Tennessee
The Good: Pruitt is not just a former Saban assistant, but is a former Alabama player as well, which checks off two of the “Non-Dabo” boxes. He is regarded as the best defensive coordinator of the Saban era at Alabama (although probably not by as much as some would think, with Kirby Smart sitting there) and has a reputation as an assistant for being a tenacious, effective recruiter. He’s shown a good ability to pull players and assistants away from other top staffs in the SEC, and he put up good numbers in 2019 under difficult circumstances – meaning, with former Tennessee head coach and current athletic director Phil Fulmer watching his every move.
The Bad: Pruitt is unpolished as a speaker, coarse and still new in his role as a head coach. He still makes mistakes, some of them significant. Looking at Saban’s career and applying it to Pruitt, Alabama wouldn’t be getting the Saban of LSU – Bama would be getting the Saban of Toledo, and hoping it worked out. On other fronts, Pruitt’s choice for offensive coordinator at Tennessee, Jim Chaney, didn’t excite anyone.
The Verdict: This would be a long-term play and one that might blow up in Alabama’s face. Alabama fans could expect a drop-off immediately and would likely have to hope for a rebound as Pruitt developed in the CEO role that is the Alabama head football coaching job these days. But his recruiting prowess and defensive knowledge are both above reproach.
3. Jason Garrett, former head coach, Dallas Cowboys
The Good: Garrett was a Saban assistant when he was with the Miami Dolphins, and hiring any multi-year, former NFL coach is a bit of a coup for a college program. Garrett was Saban’s initial choice for Alabama offensive coordinator in 2007. He knows what it’s like to coach in a high-pressure environment and he did manage to have some success at Dallas, staying there for nine years. Name recognition wouldn’t be a problem, and he had two Super Bowl rings as a player.
The Bad: Garrett was 2-3 as a postseason coach, never advancing beyond the Divisional Series. More importantly, he’s never been a college coach, meaning he’s never had to manage a recruiting program. Aside from the one year spent with Saban in Miami, his entire coaching career has been spent in Dallas. And even though he doesn’t look like it, he’s two years older than Dabo Swinney.
The Verdict: We’re not even sure Garrett would have an interest in the college game, but even if he does, the potential for boom/bust here is very high. Garrett would have to surround himself with exceptionally experienced coaches, most if not all of them SEC veterans, to manage the recruiting war and not get buried by it.
4. Lane Kiffin, head coach, Ole Miss
The Good: Kiffin’s tenure as offensive coordinator will go down as being perhaps the most important in Alabama history, as it encouraged Saban to loosen up. Kiffin is a dynamic playcaller and connects ridiculously well with young players, as he is young at heart himself – sometimes to his detriment. Perhaps the most important part of his resume is that which is yet to come, specifically how he responds to getting the reins of the Ole Miss program after high-profile flame-outs at USC and with the Oakland Raiders. However, he nearly ruined Alabama’s 2009 national title run and out-coached the Alabama sideline in a game against Kiffin’s Tennessee Vols that has come to be more remembered for a blocked field goal than for Kiffin’s abilities. He’s younger than Swinney by 5 years. His time at Florida Atlantic is promising, and points to a young coach maturing.
The Bad: He may be maturing, but he hasn’t matured yet. Kiffin’s (mis-)use of Twitter rivals that of celebrities and politicians. For all his appeal, he surprisingly had a reputation of being an uneven recruiter while at Alabama. He tends to get unfocused easily and was alleged to have played loose with NCAA etiquette at some of his prior stops. There isn’t a position in Alabama’s organizational chart for chaperon of the head football coach, but there might need to be one.
The Verdict: If Garrett looks like boom/bust, Kiffin is a nuclear warhead attached to a missile flying out of control. A lot of programs are going to be watching his Ole Miss tenure closely, because there’s no way he ends up in Oxford long-term. He’s either going to flame out, or coach a blueblood program again. Would it be Alabama?