As he sat in ESPN’s film room watching the national title game, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp rattled off Alabama’s defensive calls with precision. Muschamp knew them well, as he’d surely called them for Nick Saban in the five years they worked together.
He wasn’t the only coach in the room who spoke to the inner workings of a Saban program. Florida’s Jim McElwain also worked for the five-time national champion.
And those two share a division with another Saban disciple in Kirby Smart, the new Georgia coach. They are competing to face an SEC West champion, which has meant a Saban team six of the past eight seasons.
The Saban influence casts a long shadow, and after coaching changes this year, the SEC East is one hire away from more than half the teams led by his former assistants. It raises several questions about how much one can copy, “The Process,” and the wisdom of following the same blueprint.
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One longtime observer of southern football pointed out the trend isn’t exactly new.
“I think back to when Bear Bryant had coaches littered all over the college football landscape,” said Tony Barnhart, a longtime Atlanta-based college football reporter. “I’ve talked to them many times about what they learned from Nick Saban.”
Barnhart, nicknamed Mr. College Football, pointed out Mike Krzyzewski or Dean Smith had the same thing.
But the history has been a bit tricky with Saban assistants. Outside Jimbo Fisher, none of his recent assistants have established track records of success at the power conference level (though McElwain had a strong first year).
Some national media members have pointed out Saban’s systems rely more on fundamentals and overwhelming talent rather than innovation. He runs that kind of program so well, a similar plan will produce only an imitation that can’t scale to the same heights.
But Gary Danielson, longtime CBS broadcaster, said Saban brought something more basic to the SEC long ago, and that tenet still can serve as the bedrock of a good program.
“I guess, his focus and determination to block out maybe the outside trimmings of college football,” Danielson said. “When he went from Michigan State to LSU, I, along with many people, went, ‘Wait a second. You’re going to go into the heart of the south and just be a football coach? You’re not going to be a good old boy? How are you going to recruit? How are you going to fit in there? And he just showed that a determination of Xs and Os and focus on the game trumps everything else.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean a team has to play exactly like Saban’s teams have. Most of his titles came on the back of grinding, pro-style offenses, and while his recent disciples have started with that outline, many have branched from it (even the Alabama team that just won a title integrated a range of spread ideas).
Muschamp has already come out promising an up-tempo approach, a light he saw working with Gus Malzahn, who also cut his own path in the SEC. Malzahn has been the largest stumbling block for Saban and a stark contrast. But the Tide have still gotten the better of the rivalry.
“I don’t think there’s any easy path to beating Nick Saban,” Danielson said. “I don’t think you have to mimic exactly his style. I think you have to mimic more his determination of building a program that no detail is too small, that there’s strong leadership at the top.”
The question lingers, does that rub off on assistants? You’ve now got nearly half a division riding with members of the Saban tree, and while each is his own man, that stamp is still brought up.
McElwain has already started to produce at Florida. Muschamp and Smart are less certain, with a rebuild job and massive expectations respectively. With the gospel of Saban spread far through the south, one has to keep something in mind.
“I think you do have to realize there’s only one Nick Saban,” Barnhart said. “There was only one Bear Bryant, and you have to realize that going in. Even if you know all the right things to do, learning from a guy like Nick Saban, you still have to do them.”