When Nick Saban took over as the head coach at Alabama in 2007, he proceeded to lose six games and finished the year unranked.
But for the next nine seasons, the Crimson Tide dropped a grand total of 13 games, won four national championships and came within a second of winning a fifth in January. It’s maybe the most dominant decade college football has ever seen.
If anything, even coming off that crushing defeat to Clemson in Tampa the last time they took the field, the Tide are stronger than ever before. The offense is led by legit Heisman Trophy candidate Jalen Hurts. The defense is a revolving door of future first-round picks. In the preseason Coaches Poll, they garnered 49 of a possible 65 first-place votes.
While Saban continues to strengthen his case as possibly the greatest coach in the history of the sport, he didn’t do it alone. ’Bama wouldn’t be where it is today without a handful of players, assistants and even administrators in positions of power.
According to Saturday Down South, here are the 10 people who most helped take pigskin to a level never seen before in Tuscaloosa.
10. Terrence Cody
Defensive tackle (2008-09)
The first of many defensive linemen to control the line of scrimmage for Saban, “Mount Cody” was a JUCO transfer and only played two years in an Alabama uniform.
But what a two years it was. Twice Cody was named All-American, as he was almost single-handedly responsible for the Crimson Tide eliminating the enemy running game from 2008-09. Listed at 345 pounds but likely much bigger than that, he simply ate blockers alive.
’Bama finished second nationally in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense in 2009 en route to a 14-0 record and Saban’s first title in Tuscaloosa. But had it not been for Cody, the Tide probably would’ve been upset at home by unranked Tennessee in Week 8. He blocked two field goals, including a 44-yard attempt in the final seconds to vanquish the Volunteers.
The irony is that Saban no longer recruits behemoths like him for the D-line. Make no mistake, though. Cody was an immovable object.
9. Rolando McClain
Before All-American linebackers Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland, C.J. Mosley and Dont’a Hightower, there was McClain.
A 4-star signee out of Decatur (Ala.) High School for the class of 2007, McClain was a big part of Saban’s first recruiting class at Alabama. He eventually embodied everything we’ve come to expect from the inside linebacker position in this scheme.
McClain was simply everywhere defensively when the Crimson Tide won it all in 2009, leading the team in tackles with 104 and tackles for loss with 14.0. Additionally, he registered 4.0 sacks, intercepted two passes and broke up five more. ’Bama surrendered only 2.8 yards per rush and 5.2 yards per pass, both of which were in the Top 6 nationally.
McClain might not have been better than Hightower, Mosley, Ragland or Foster, but he was first and set the standard for his successors.
8. Mark Ingram
Running back (2008-10)
It was hard to believe at the time considering the players who had come through the program, but the Tide never had a Heisman Trophy winner prior to Ingram.
As a sophomore in 2009, Ingram was a battering ram on the ground with 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Greg McElroy was given the dreaded “game manager” label in part because he was asked to do little more than stick the ball in Ingram’s belly.
He didn’t just pad his stats facing the likes of North Texas, either. In the SEC Championship Game against Florida, Ingram ran for 113 yards and 3 TDs on 28 carries. A month later in the BCS title game vs. Texas, he was credited with 116 yards and 2 scores on 22 attempts. McElroy only had to throw 29 passes combined in those two triumphs.
Although Derrick Henry’s Heisman victory in 2015 was more impressive, Ingram’s was more significant for Alabama.
7. Scott Cochran
Strength and conditioning coach (2007-present)
College football strength and conditioning coaches are typically a little bacon short of a BLT, and Cochran is no exception.
However, he’s the best in the business and gets paid accordingly. Is it crazy to think that someone in his position makes north of $600,000 per year? Definitely. Still, is he worth every penny? Again, definitely. Just ask around.
More often than not, the Crimson Tide are bigger, faster and stronger than the competition. That being said, they didn’t necessarily arrive on campus that way. But once Cochran gets a hold of them, he unleashes the beast within with his impossible-to-fake blend of boundless energy and enthusiasm. His subjects rave about him, and not just because he knows his way around a weight room.
’Bama prospects tend to max out in college and, therefore, don’t always improve in the NFL. Cochran is at the heart of that theory. He stretches them to the absolute limit.
6. Lane Kiffin
Offensive coordinator (2014-16)
When Kiffin arrived in Tuscaloosa, for the most part the Tide featured a pro-style system that ran the ball out of conventional sets.
By the time Kiffin left to become the head coach at FAU, Alabama was employing a hurry-up, no-huddle, spread-option attack built around the abilities of true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The transformation was unmistakable.
Kiffin was Saban’s offensive coordinator for three combative years, and he was forced to make chicken salad with three flawed QBs. Blake Sims broke school records in 2014. Jake Coker won a national championship in 2015. Neither got anywhere near taking a regular-season snap in the NFL, yet Kiffin continually dialed up fireworks.
Even with Kiffin now in Boca Raton, Saban remains a believer. New OC Brian Daboll was hired to adopt the current scheme, meaning Kiffin’s scheme, not implement his own.
5. Kirby Smart
Defensive coordinator (2008-15)
In all fairness, the Crimson Tide run Saban’s defense. He’s arguably the greatest secondary coach the game has ever seen at any level.
Nevertheless, Smart was a steadying influence as Saban’s coordinator from 2008-15 before departing in 2016 to become the head coach at his alma mater, Georgia. Smart was an extension of Saban and allowed him to focus on the big picture.
Smart was on a headset for all four of Saban’s titles in Tuscaloosa: 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015. Those four campaigns, ‘Bama finished second, first, first and tied for second in the country in scoring defense, respectively. On Smart’s watch, the Tide were never lower than 10th in the nation vs. the run and were No. 1 three times.
Saban’s approach has evolved over time, going away from bigger and stronger defenders in favor of smaller and quicker, and Smart evolved right alongside him.
4. AJ McCarron
Saban has captured a national championship with three separate field generals at Alabama, but McCarron is the only one to win two.
Unlike McElroy, who was a 3-star signee from Texas and not one of Saban’s recruits, McCarron was a 4-star addition and a native of the Yellowhammer State. Additionally, he was more of a playmaker than many critics seem to remember.
During his career, which included three years as the starter, he completed 66.9 percent of his passes with 77 touchdown passes against only 15 interceptions. As a junior in 2012, on the way to back-to-back rings, his passer efficiency rating of 175.3 was tops in the country and highlighted by a TD-to-INT ratio of 30-to-3.
Defenses tried to take away backs Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, daring McCarron to beat them through the air. More often than not, he did just that.
3. Julio Jones
Wide receiver (2008-10)
Amari Cooper possesses most of the significant receiving records for the Crimson Tide, not Jones. But without Jones, Cooper possibly never steps foot in Tuscaloosa.
Jones was the first elite recruit to sign on the dotted line for Saban, as he was a 5-star stud for the class of 2008. He immediately became the primary threat for veteran signal caller John Parker Wilson by posting 58 catches for 924 yards and 4 touchdowns.
’Bama ran the ball down more people’s throats on its way to a national championship in 2009, so Jones’ numbers suffered to some degree, but he was otherworldly as a junior the following season with 78 receptions for 1,133 yards and 7 TDs. He opened the door for top pass catchers like Jerry Jeudy, Calvin Ridley and the aforementioned Cooper to come join the supposedly ground-and-pound Tide.
Unlike a lot of Alabama products who disappointed in the pros, Jones blossomed into arguably the premier wideout in the game.
2. Mal Moore
Athletic director (1999-2013)
A quarterback for the Tide in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Moore was a part of some legendary teams in the beginning stages of the Paul “Bear” Bryant regime.
Moving from coaching to administration in the ’90s, Moore was elevated to athletic director at Alabama in 1999 and inherited Mike DuBose. He then hired Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula, but none of them could return the Crimson Tide to past glory.
Moore decided to push all his chips to the middle of the table and stole Saban from the Miami Dolphins in 2007, which altered the course of college football history as we know it. In a year’s time, ’Bama was an annual contender for the national title and an unstoppable force on the recruiting trail. He also oversaw some of the facility improvements that remain second to none.
While Moore passed away in 2013, the Tide were defending champions for the third time in four seasons at the time. As a result, he likely took his last breath a happy man.
1. Nick Saban
Head coach (2007-present)
Of course, nobody is more responsible for Saban’s success than Saban himself. Despite everything he’s accomplished for Big Al, he might still be underrated on the national scene.
Unlike a lot of coaches in this profession, he doesn’t have static systems in place. Offensively, he’s slowly embraced the 21st century approach of running as many plays as possible. On defense, he’s learned to put less emphasis on size and more value on speed.
But more than anything, Saban’s greatest gift is his ability to keep his kids hungry. When most programs break through and win that coveted championship, it’s only natural for them to take their collective foot off the accelerator the following season. Not Saban’s, though. His players have an unquenchable thirst — “The Process,” they call it — to want more and are never satisfied.
The Tide aren’t too big to fail. Just ask Shula and others. Saban is the difference. Not even Bryant was this consistent of a winner.