Alabama football: Ranking Nick Saban's 5 best head coach rehab jobs
The Nick Saban Coaching Tree has plenty of branches on it, as coaches like Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt have moved on to become head coaches after spending time with Saban.
But there are also coaches who have gone the opposite direction — coaching successfully elsewhere before latching onto Saban as a reclamation project at Alabama. Saban recently added former Texas head coach and Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to the staff. Strong was the head coach at USF for the past 3 seasons but was fired in December.
Here are the 5 best Saban head coach rehabilitation projects:
5. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Alabama fans might not know this, but Butch Jones is actually 30 games over .500 as a college football head coach. Jones went 27-13 at Central Michigan from 2007-09, then 23-14 at Cincinnati from 2010-12. That earned him a shot at a Power 5 school — Tennessee.
Of course, Jones was deemed a spectacular failure in Knoxville — going just 4-6 in his final season at UT in 2017. But Jones went 9-4 in 2015 and 2016 and actually finished his ill-fated creamsicle career with a 34-27 record.
Jones was canned after losing to Missouri 50-17 in 2017 (presumably losing the Championship of Life title in the process …) and latched on as an intern with Saban and Alabama in the offseason, while still cashing Tennessee checks. That didn’t sit particularly well with Tennessee fans, especially when players posted photos on social media picturing Jones celebrating victories against the Volunteers with a celebratory cigar.
Jones was reported to go to Maryland with former Tide assistant Mike Locksley after the 2018 season, but instead remained on the Tide staff as an offensive analyst in 2019. He has a new title for 2020.
4. Mike Stoops, Arizona
Perhaps the Fredo of the La Football Familia De Stoops, Mike Stoops went 41-50 during his 7 1/2-year tenure at Arizona — getting fired after a 1-5 start in 2011.
The younger brother of long-time Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and the older brother of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, Mike Stoops was a longtime assistant at Kansas State under Bill Snyder — serving as co-defensive coordinator from 1996-98. Brother Bob tapped him to help run the defense at Oklahoma from 1999-2003 before he latched on at Arizona.
Following his departure from Arizona — which ended with a loss to previously winless Oregon State and was made official by athletic director Greg Byrne (who is now Alabama’s AD … small world!) — Stoops returned to OU as co-defensive coordinator and was teamed with Brent Venables for a short for time before Venables left for Clemson. Even though Bob Stoops retired after the 2016 season, Mike Stoops was retained by Lincoln Riley until October 2018 — when Riley fired him shortly after a 48-45 loss to Texas.
He spent the 2019 season as a defensive analyst at Alabama but reportedly is set to join his brother’s staff at Kentucky.
3. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Moving out of analyst and into coordinator category, Flood was the head coach at Rutgers from 2012-15 — and actually found a decent amount of success in East Piscataway, N.J. Flood led the Scarlet Knights to a 9-4 record in 2012 with Greg Schiano’s players, but then backed it up 2 seasons later with an 8-5 mark, including the highly competitive Big Ten and a Quick Lane Bowl victory in 2015.
Flood was ousted from Rutgers in following alleged misconduct by Flood and the arrests on violent felony criminal charges of several players. Flood was the center of an ongoing investigation for possible violations of school policy and NCAA regulations for claims that Flood contacted faculty regarding the academic status of a player. Flood defied academic support staff by contacting a professor to attempt to establish the player’s eligibility. In September 2015, the university-led investigation determined that Flood’s conduct was improper Flood was fined $50,000 and suspended for 3 games.
Rutgers fired Flood at the end of the 2015 season, during which the Scarlet Knights went 4-8. He received a 1-year show-cause order from the NCAA that expired in September 2018 after an investigation determined Flood “failed to monitor his operations staff” and their oversight of a group of mostly female student recruiting hosts.
Flood latched on with the Atlanta Falcons (trend alert!) in 2017 as an offensive line coach, and was brought in by Saban in 2019 to coach the Tide’s offensive line.
2. Steve Sarkisian, Washington/USC
Steve Sarkisian made his bones as offensive coordinator at USC (where he replaced Lane Kiffin, more on him later …) before Washington tapped him to replace Tyrone Willingham in 2009. Sarkisian went 34-29 in Seattle before heading back to Los Angeles to replace Lane Kiffin (and interim coach Ed Orgeron) at USC in 2014.
Sarkisian’s 1st season as the Head Trojan in 2014 was a success, as USC went 9-4. But Sarkisian took an indefinite leave of absence from the team in October 2015. During a conversation with Sarkisian, USC AD Pat Haden said he became aware that Sarkisian was “not healthy” and asked Sarkisian to take an indefinite leave of absence. ESPN later reported that Sarkisian had his assistants tell him to go home when he appeared to be intoxicated in a pre-practice meeting. Hours before his October firing, it was that Sarkisian had been involved in numerous alcohol-related incidents while at the Washington.
Saban brought Sarkisian in as an offensive analyst in September 2016, and after Kiffin’s departure to become head coach at Florida Atlantic, Sarkisian was promoted to the Alabama offensive coordinator position for the national championship game in January 2017.
Sarkisian departed Alabama soon thereafter, becoming offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. He lasted 2 seasons in Atlanta before being fired, at which time Saban tapped Sarkisian for a 2nd stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Sarkisian was mentioned for a few head coaching jobs after the 2019 season and reportedly interviewed to replace Mel Tucker at Colorado. One report listed him as the front-runner to land the job, but he decided to return to Alabama.
1. Lane Kiffin, Raiders/Tennessee/USC
And here we are. The prodigal son.
Lane Kiffin was 31 and the youngest head coach in modern NFL history when Al Davis tapped him in Oakland. He was fired in 2008, only to become head coach in Tennessee at age 33 — then the youngest coach in FBS. That experiment lasted a single year — 2009 — before he bolted for Southern Cal in 2010. Kiffin spent 3 seasons in Los Angeles and went 28-15, but was infamously fired by Pat Haden on the LAX tarmac.
Kiffin spent 8 days in December 2013 with Saban and the Tide staff, ostensibly reviewing the team’s offense. And when Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan, Saban hired Kiffin as his offensive coordinator. College football’s ultimate odd couple, Saban and Kiffin seemed to bicker often on the sidelines, but the Tide offense enjoyed tremendous success under Kiffin’s tutleage.
That seemed to dissolve quickly in late 2016, though, as Kiffin accepted the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic. Kiffin coached the Tide offense in the CFP semifinals, but was then relieved of his duties after Alabama downed Washington.
Fully resurrected as a head coach, Kiffin’s time at Florida Atlantic was an unqualified success — as the Owls went 26-13 and won 2 Conference USA crowns in his 3 seasons. After the 2019 season, Kiffin was hired at Ole Miss, where he now gets Saban and Alabama on the schedule every season.