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They have been in “Satan’s Workshop,” meeting rooms, sidelines and on the headphones.
And they still can’t crack the code.
Over the next two weekends, Alabama football coach Nick Saban can go to 25-0 as a head coach versus his former assistants turned head coaches. The No. 1 Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) plays No. 12 Ole Miss (3-0) and Coach Lane Kiffin (2:30 p.m., CBS) this Saturday and No. 15 Texas A&M (3-1, 0-1) and Coach Jimbo Fisher (7 p.m., CBS) on October 9.
“They have gone on to programs that were basically rebuilding,” Saban said about his former assistants a few years ago, trying to be humble. “That can be difficult.”
With the streak at 19-0 entering 2020, Saban faced a stretch of four straight games last October against schools coached by former assistants: A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia with Kirby Smart and Tennessee with Jeremy Pruitt, who was later fired last season.
“I never even realized that, but I guess it is true,” Saban said, probably trying to be nice again. “I’m really happy for the guys who did a great job for us here and got opportunities to become head coaches, which is probably what they all really aspire to be and work hard to be.”
And then they find out they’re not Saban, who went 4-for-4 and pummeled his pupils last season by a combined score of 204-113. The closest was Ole Miss and Kiffin, who fell, 63-48.
“Well, first off the streak gets rid of this whole, ‘I knew him, so that’s an advantage,’ thing,” Kiffin said. “That thing’s kind of shot down because there have been 20-some-odd games where the coaches knew him and they went 0-for-20.”
Make that 23.
“So, that just shows you can’t duplicate somewhere just because you worked there,” said Kiffin, Saban’s offensive coordinator from 2014-16 who dramatically improved Alabama’s offense from stodgy to the ultimate spread.
But athletic directors have continued to cling to Saban’s coaching offspring like they are golden children.
“We all have the same father,” Kiffin once said of a group text he is on with other former Saban assistants. Kiffin’s own father is Monte Kiffin, a former NFL defensive coordinator mastermind who was inducted last week into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Ring of Honor. He is personnel analyst for the Rebels now.
“What coach Saban does is very unique,” Kiffin said. “It works for him, and I don’t think it works for many other people – his style. But he has it nailed, and everyone knows what it is when they get there. That’s why it works.”
Derek Dooley, whose real father Vince was quite the coach at Georgia, was a Saban assistant at LSU from 2000-04 and again with the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and ’06. He got the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech in 2007 because of his career proximity to Saban. He then started the 0-23 failures as Tennessee’s coach in 2010 with a 41-10 loss to Alabama and fell twice more in 2011 and ’12. He has not been a head coach since and is coaching tight ends for the New York Giants now.
Here is the complete Saban-Student Score Sheet:
Derek Dooley (0-3) – Lost 41-10 in 2010, 37-6 in 2011, 44-13 in 2012 as Tennessee coach. Coached under Saban at LSU (2000-04) and Miami Dolphins (2005-06).
Jim McElwain (0-3) – Lost 31-6 in 2013 as Colorado State coach, 29-15 in 2015 and 54-16 in 2016 as Florida coach. Coached under Saban at Alabama (2008-11).
Mark Dantonio (0-2) – Lost 49-7 in 2011 and 38-0 in 2015 as Michigan State coach. Coached under Saban at Michigan State (1995-2000).
Will Muschamp (0-3) – Lost 38-10 in 2011, 42-21 in 2014 as Florida coach and 47-23 in 2019 as South Carolina coach. Coached under Saban at LSU (2001-04) and Miami Dolphins (2005).
Jimbo Fisher (0-4) – Lost 24-7 in 2017 as Florida State coach, 45-23 in 2018, 47-28 in 2019 and 52-24 in 2020 as Texas A&M coach. Coached under Saban at LSU (2000-04).
Kirby Smart (0-3) – Lost 26-23 in 2018, 35-28 in national championship game of 2018 season and 41-24 in 2020 as Georgia coach. Coached under Saban at LSU (2004), Miami Dolphins (2006) and Alabama (2007-15).
Jeremy Pruitt (0-3) – Lost 58-21 in 2018, 35-13 in 2019 and 48-17 in 2020 as Tennessee coach. Coached under Saban at Alabama (2010-12, 2016-17).
Billy Napier (0-1) – Lost 56-14 in 2018 as Louisiana-Lafayette coach. Coached under Saban at Alabama (2013-16).
Lane Kiffin (0-1) – Lost 63-48 in 2020 as Ole Miss coach. Coached under Saban at Alabama (2014-16).
Kiffin’s group text, meanwhile, is getting smaller.
“Well, Jeremy and Will aren’t head coaches any more,” Kiffin said. “So our thread’s died down a little bit.”
Pruitt is now a New York Giants assistant coach, and Muschamp is on Smart’s staff at Georgia.
Asked if Fisher and Smart were on the thread, Kiffin said, “Jimbo didn’t make our cut. He was a long time ago.”
The text thread had more recent Saban disciples.
“Mine was a long, long time ago. Last time we were together was 2004,” Fisher said.
The thread is down to Kiffin and Smart.
“We’re the only ones left,” Kiffin said. “Every once in a while, there’s something on there, but not as much any more.”
Smart is the only Saban student to have played his mentor within single digits, and he did it twice.
Fisher is the only one to win a national championship. He did it at Florida State in 2013, but the closest he came against Saban was a 24-7 loss as the Seminoles’ coach in 2017.
“It’s great,” Fisher said of Saban’s streak before losing 52-24 last year. “It shows the success of the program, and that guys are getting jobs out of that. I think it’s very impressive what Nick has done with his production of players in the systems, and people want to hire people who come from successful places.”
Fisher obviously would like to be the first to beat Saban. One got that feeling last May when he was asked at the Houston Touchdown Club if it would take Saban, 69, retiring before someone else takes over the No. 1 position in college football.
“We’re going to beat his ass,” Fisher cracked.
“In golf?” Saban said later when told of Fisher’s comments, then went humble again. “I’m sure there will come a day.”
Fisher followed his comment that night with diplomacy.
“I respect everything they do and how they do it, but we can do it just as good and be just as good or better, and we will,” he said. “That’s what our goal is and what I want. So we’re going to get there.”
Lately, though, Fisher’s offense is having trouble scoring touchdowns and lost 20-10 to Arkansas last week. Ole Miss, meanwhile, is a 14.5-point underdog to Alabama by FanDuel.
Kiffin came close to beating Saban in 2009 when he lost 12-10 as Tennessee’s head coach, but he had not been a Saban pupil yet.
“It’s very challenging when you play folks that know you well,” Saban said. “We also probably know them a little bit, too.”
Yeah. So, will that day ever come?
“He’s built the premier program maybe in the history of college football,” Kiffin said. “So, we’ve got a long ways to go to catch him.”
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