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Nick Saban owns college football.
Even the most rabid Auburn partisan would recognize this fact if you plied him or her with truth serum. (Under the influence of truth serum Tiger fans would also admit that they cheated their ass off to get Cam Newton). There is no more dominant college coach in the country. In his past 48 games at Alabama Saban is 43-5 with two of those losses to eventual national champions. So he’s 43-3 against non-national title winning teams. He’s also recruiting at an insanely high level, developing the talent he recruits, and crushing opponents on the field. Saban’s success is so monumental, in fact, that he’s become the Bill Belichick of college football — a luminous star so bright and awe-inspiring that every person around him takes on an added shine as well. Just as Bill Belichick’s dominance at New England spawned the head coaching careers of Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and Charlie Weis, so too have Nick Saban connections led to two of the most premier jobs in college football, Florida and Tennessee, hiring Saban disciples.
But here’s the deal — the idea of hiring someone based on their connection to greatness usually fails. There’s something de novo about Belichick and Saban’s dominance of their respective coaching levels. Genius isn’t easily replicated, and it doesn’t spread via proximity. You don’t walk into ancient Rome and snag Michelangelo’s intern and expect him to paint the Sistine Chapel do you? The vast majority of creative writing students at the University of Virginia who studied under William Faulkner didn’t suddenly turn into Cormac McCarthy. Genius stands alone. Those who are incredibly good at what they do aren’t easily replicated.
Mere proximity to greatness does not, in fact, transfer that greatness to the prodigal coaching son. This is an immutable truth that crosses all boundaries of genius. Yet athletic directors haven’t realized this yet.
Let’s take a look at the head coaches who have emerged from Belichick’s dominant reign at New England:
Romeo Crennel coached the Cleveland Browns from 2005-2008, running up a record of 24-40 with no playoff appearances.
Josh McDaniels didn’t even make it two years with the Denver Broncos, going 11-17 before his firing.
Eric Mangini has coached five years for two different teams, his career record 33-47.
The New England trio’s combined record as head coaches in the NFL: 68-140 with zero playoff wins.
Belichick lost all of these guys and the Patriot express never stopped rolling. That’s because Belichick was the secret to the other men’s success as well. (At this point we might as well mention that Nick Saban was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator in the early 1990’s. But both men had yet to flourish and were actually coaching contemporaries. Indeed, Saban is even older than Belichick. Both men were still finding their way as coaches in the early 1990’s. Plus, Saban only spent three years with Belichick; It was merely one stop in a peripatetic coaching journey for Alabama’s modern day Bear Bryant.)
Right now, Charlie Weis is the most successful Patriots protege of Belichick’s coaching reign and he went 35-27 as a head coach at Notre Dame before being fired.
In total Belichick had four assistant coaches promoted to head coaches based on their connection to him at New England.
That’s because greatness isn’t transferable. If you want Bill Belichick, you hire Bill Belichick, otherwise you’re wasting your time.
Now Nick Saban is dominating college football just like Bill Belichick has dominated pro football and proximity to Saban is the hottest coaching trend. You can almost picture athletic directors slamming their fists into their desks screaming: “Get me a young Nick Saban!”
Only a young Nick Saban isn’t likely to be working with Nick Saban. He’s too busy charting his own path in the coaching wilderness. You don’t become an original by hiding in the shadows of greatness. Yet, even still, athletic directors make this mistake time after time. You know what the best predictor of future success is? Past success that you’ve engendered. Not past success that you’ve basked in the reflected glory of. Nick Saban is so dominating college football right now that two of his biggest rival programs are trying to beat Saban by hiring mini-Saban knockoffs at cut rate prices.
First, Tennessee fell victim to this coaching strategy, hiring Derek Dooley, a career 17-20 head coach in the WAC, primarily because he’d spent seven years working under Nick Saban. Who cared that Dooley couldn’t even muster an above .500 record in one of the weakest conferences in America, he’d been close to Saban! He’d knelt at the coaching feet of that great man for seven years. Since his hire Dooley has gone 9-10 and is about to take his second massive beating from his “rival” Saban.
That didn’t stop Dooley from speaking on how Nick Saban had influenced him:
“I’m not Nick Saban,” Dooley said in one of his first interviews. “Have I been influenced by him? Of course. Our organizational structure and infrastructure is going to be very similar.
“But I have my own personality and my own beliefs, and we’ll try to blend those two together and see what comes out.”
What’s “come out” has been a losing record, mismanaged game strategy, and beating after beating. Hell, the primary reason Tennessee hired Dooley was because of his connection to Saban and Saban’s endorsement of Dooley. An endorsement, by the way, that now seems even more ridiculous to rely upon. Do you think Nick Saban would have endorsed someone who could actually beat him? This is a guy who’d throw his grandmother off a bridge if it meant he’d have a good second half against Auburn. Yet we’re supposed to believe that he’s recommending legitimate rival coaches?
Saban knows that his pupils don’t have what he has. He’s not worried about them at all. In fact, he’s played them each once so far. Saban delivered the worst road beat down in the history of the UT-Alabama rivalry, a 41-10 smacking that wasn’t as close as the score. Earlier this month he went on the road and gave Florida it’s worst home beating in over a generation.
The combined scores? Nick Saban 79, Disciples 20.
Not content with seeing Tennessee flounder after hiring a Dooley disciple, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, fresh off two beat downs in a row from Saban that were so severe they sent Urban Meyer rushing in to retirement, shook the Saban coaching tree to find his own mini-Saban, Will Muschamp.
So far Muschamp has distinguished himself by rushing around the field like a mad man and taking one beating after another. Currently Muschamp is mired in three consecutive SEC losses and looks likely to add a fourth in two weeks. Yep, he’s even going to lose to Georgia in the Cocktail Party. That’s how unbelievable his first year has been.
The only SEC win over a team not named Kentucky for either coach this year? When Muschamp and Dooley actually played one another. Someone had to win this game, and Muschamp did. Otherwise, Dooley and Muschamp are a combined 1-6 in the SEC this season.
Once Dooley loses to Saban this weekend, the two mini-Sabans, Dooley and Muschamp, will have the same combined losses in one-half of an SEC season as Nick Saban has in five years at the Alabama helm.
That’s because coaching greatness isn’t transferable. Just as Bill Belichick’s New England coaching tree hasn’t borne a bit of fruit, so too does it seem likely that Nick Saban’s SEC coaching tree will be barren as well. Nick Saban is the best coach in college football, and working alongside of him sure as hell doesn’t mean you can compete with him.
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