As the 1960s were exploding with counter-culture social awareness across the United States, Buffalo Springfield’s For What It is Worth proffered,
Something’s happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
While 2020 certainly isn’t the 1960s, and we’re far removed from the Vietnam War and concurrent cultural revolution the Springfield’s Stephen Stills sang about, his words could easily describe an interesting trend in college football today. Well, at least halfway describe—something’s definitely happening, but this time it’s fairly clear what it is: Nick Saban is loading his coaching box with former head coaches and two former Alabama assistants that are installing Sabanesque programs at Georgia and Oregon are adopting the same strategy.
This is no accident. Georgia and Oregon are mimicking the recognized guru’s every move, in this case hiring bright, experienced and ambitious former head coaches. Like Saban’s hires, these Georgia and Oregon hires are not only top football minds but upper-tier recruiters, teachers and leaders who can inspire young athletes to greater achievements.
These coaches have impeccable football credentials, though some have been chewed up recently by today’s ultra-competitive, pressure-cooker of a coaching environment, with many exits looking more like crash landings than golden parachutes. Let’s start by looking at Saban and how he’s established this trend at Alabama.
Alabama, Where it All Starts
Saban’s growing reliance on former head coaches has not gone unnoticed in the college football’s current heartland. AL.com‘s Joseph Goodman (firstname.lastname@example.org) recently noted that “The bizarre number of former head coaches now on Alabama’s staff is your latest sign that major college football has completely flown off the rails.” Goodman goes on to say that “Saban now has just as many former head coaches on his staff as he has national championships.” Doing the math for those of us who attended Oregon and (ahem?) haven’t followed Saban’s career as closely as we should have, that number is six!
Alabama’s latest addition to the head-coach roster is Charlie Strong. Strong, a highly-regarded defensive mind, was a defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida before leading programs at Louisville, Texas and South Florida. Credentials aplenty, but job titles are not necessarily important in Saban’s head-coach brain trust. His coaches make great money, and he somehow aligns them toward the common goal of adding another Title for the Tide.
As with Strong, the other former head coaches on staff at Alabama are pretty much household names, at least for households that lean college football:
– Mike Stoops (analyst), HC Arizona
– Major Applewhite (analyst), HC Houston
– Butch Jones (analyst), HC Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee
– Steve Sarkisian (offensive coordinator/former analyst), HC Washington, USC
– Kyle Flood (offensive line), HC Rutgers
While (returning to Stephen Stills here) not all the motivations behind these Alabama landings are exactly clear, coaches outside the program have suggested that spending a year or two on Saban’s staff provides an opportunity to decompress from head coaching stints and build energy for another round. And, as Joseph Goodman points out, there’s a certain laundering effect at play, “Hat tip to agent Jimmy Sexton for helping make it all happen. Sexton is the voice behind the throne and uses Saban’s unchecked power at Alabama to scrub and clean formerly fired coaching clients then send them back out into the profession. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin got the rinse and clean, and so did Maryland coach Mike Locksley.”
Interesting, isn’t it?
From an Alabama Apple to a Georgia Peach
Georgia Bulldogs Head Coach, Kirby Smart, is smart—very smart. Coach Smart has been recruiting and stockpiling a stable of football thoroughbreds and has Georgia football knocking once again on the door to the national championship.
Georgia garnered the No. 1 recruiting ranking for its 2020 class and that rank is no outlier—Georgia has recruited Top 5 classes the past three years running. Smart is now beginning to recruit his staff at the same high level as players by bringing in former head coaches as assistants. Given that trend, would it surprise you to learn Kirby Smart coached for eight years at Alabama under Nick Saban? Smart is is a veritable apple from Nick Saban’s coaching tree, and one that landed very close to the trunk.
Smart first hired former Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke to take over the offensive line and then added former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Todd Monken to man that same position with the Bulldogs. Monken, no surprise, has the title of head coach on his resume—in this case, a three-year stint at Southern Mississippi.
Again, the trend is clear while the reasons behind it may vary. As Kyle Funderburk of Fansided posits, “The inclusion of head coaches on offense answers some of Smart’s biggest criticisms; the claims he meddles too much in the offense. What better way to allow himself to step away from the offense than to hire two former head coaches?”
Is this starting to sound familiar, my FishDuck.com friends?
Westward Ho! to Mighty Oregon
Like Kirby Smart, Mario Cristobal didn’t just fall off the hay wagon. Following a playing career at Miami that included two national championships, Cristobal considered joining the Secret Service before ultimately deciding to enter the coaching ranks. Cristobal is an avid reader, student and teacher with an ultra-competitive personality and unbending character.
Cristobal played for Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. He coached on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff from 2013 through 2016 before moving to Oregon. After being handed the reins summarily dropped by Willie Taggart, one of Cristobal’s first moves was to retain Jim Leavitt. Coach Leavitt was Oregon’s defensive coordinator, but, true to form, had twelve years as head coach at South Florida packed into his extensive coaching career.
After the 2019 season ended, Coach Cristobal hired Jim Moorhead, head coach at Mississippi State in 2018-2019. Coach Moorhead has deep experience and is often cited as an offensive wizard. Moorhead was Head Coach at Fordham and UCONN at other stops in his career. Cristobal’s latest addition to the Oregon coaching pool Bryan McClendon. McClendon has spent time as an interim head coach at Georgia, and as an offensive coordinator at South Carolina. McClendon will coach wide receivers at Oregon but also bring significant in-game value to the coaching box. Like Moorhead and Cristobal, McClendon is recognized as a strong recruiter.
From hiring former Georgia strength coach Aaron Feld (himself a veteran of Saban’s program) to hiring former head coaches as assistants, Coach Cristobal has shown his Nick Saban pedigree time and again. Cristobal views Saban as a mentor and is rebuilding Oregon football in the mold of Alabama football. Will the “Alabama Way” work in the Willamette Valley? We’ll have to wait and see, but I think most observers would agree that the current coaching staff is much stronger than it was when Cristobal took charge of the program. Position by position, our current coaches are stronger recruiters, talent evaluators, teachers and game-day coaches.
What to look for in the 2020 season ahead?
With each passing day hope grows that the 2020 college football season will be played. The wildcard we cannot see is whether there will be a second wave of COVID-19 that results in new closures and states of emergency.
If the season is played, the Ducks could field a best-ever team to go along with their stacked coaching staff. The defense is deep and loaded with talent and experience at all levels. The offense could be outstanding if it can replace losses along the line and develop enough breakout receivers to support a new starting quarterback. With Cristobal at the helm, Oregon players should adjust, rise to the occasion and enjoy the help of experienced coaches that can pull them through big games and trap games alike to repeat as Pac-12 champions.
Oregon is holding a crimson-colored trump card this season—the Saban-like depth and skill of the coaching staff. Overall, this staff is like nothing Duck fans have experienced before, and the combination of experienced players and coaches should be dynamite—more than the rest of the Pac-12 can handle.
Greenville, South Carolina
Top Photo by Yellowhammernews.com
Brad Nye, the FishDuck.com volunteer editor for this article, works for the Deschutes Land Trust in Central Oregon.