How can Alabama get back to the apex of college football? SDS’ very own Chris Walsh is laying out a five-part series on how the Crimson Tide can become college football’s premier team once again.

Reclaiming the crown series:

Mario Cristobal, Lane Kiffin, Kevin Steele, Bobby Williams and, of course, Nick Saban.

All of them are football coaches for the University of Alabama, but they also have something else in common that will have a direct impact on the Crimson Tide this season.

They’ve all been head coaches at the Bowl Subdivision level, and that’s not a coincidence.

“I think it kind of goes both ways,” said Saban, who has been the head coach at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99), LSU (2000-04), and Alabama (2007-present) in addition to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins (2005-06). “I think you learn a little from them, I think they learn a little from you. I think you can make subtle changes in what you do to make it more effective because of the input you get from your staff.

“The more experience that your staff has, obviously I think the better they understand the big picture and have the kind of foresight that you need to have that you know when you make changes, what the cause and effect of those changes are going to be.”

With director of player personnel Kevin Steele getting back in to coaching and sliding over to again handle the Crimson Tide’s interior linebackers, half of the staff has head coaching experience. He had that role at Baylor (1999-2002), while Cristobal led Florida International (2007-12), Williams replaced Saban at Michigan State (1999-2002), and Kiffin has guided three different teams since 2007 (Tennessee 2009, Southern California 2010-13 and Oakland Raiders 2007-08).

One would think that’s a record, but neither the National Collegiate Athletic Association nor the National Football League could confirm. Additional inquiries with the pro football and college football hall of fames, football historians, and the Southeastern Conference found no one who could recall a similar situation.

“I’ve never seen that before,” said Grant Teaff, who has served as the Executive Director of the American Football Coaches Association since February 1994. “Maybe it’s happened, but not to my knowledge.”

It certainly has the attention of the college football world, though.

Usually things work the other way around with most assistant coaches trying to work their way up to becoming head coaches, and when they get there don’t necessarily want to be looking over their shoulder. There’s also what Bruce Feldman of pointed out, that “some head coaches probably wouldn’t want guys who have been used to running their own show.”

That obviously hasn’t been the case for Saban at Alabama. Going back to his initial Alabama coaching staff in 2007 it included Steele and Williams, Joe Pendry, who had been a head coach at the professional level in the United States Football League, and Curt Cignetti, who has since become the head coach at Division II Indiana University (Penn.).

“New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas to do some things offensively that would enhance our chances of being successful,” Saban said about Kiffin, who was hired as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with him.”

He also added about the 39-year-old who used to coach one of Alabama’s biggest rivals: “I was a head coach once and went back and worked as an assistant, and that’s a difficult transition for anybody. I think Lane has certainly handled that very, very well.

Kiffin and Steele were two of the Crimson Tide’s three offseason coaching moves, the other being defensive line coach Bo Davis. He too was on the 2007 staff and like Steele, wide receivers coach Billy Napier and linebackers coach Lance Thompson, left Alabama only to eventually return to the Capstone.

“What struck me is that it would be five guys who came back to work for Saban, whom everyone loves to describe as so difficult to work for,”’s Ivan Maisel said. “I think it speaks to the level of success that Saban has had. You can debate whether these guys are good assistants or not. But he has their respect.”

To give an idea of how rare it is for a former Bowl Subdivision head coach to be on a Division I staff, there are just four serving as assistants on the other 13 Southeastern Conference teams combined: Cam Cameron (LSU), Ellis Johnson (Auburn), Randy Shannon (Arkansas), and Mark Snyder (Teas A&M). Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips was also on that list before his recent resignation.

A couple more have administrative roles like Steve Kragthorpe at LSU and Rockey Felker with Mississippi State, while Tennessee assistant coach Steve Stripling was the interim coach for Central Michigan in the 2012 Belk Bowl.

Specific to the Crimson Tide, excluding those who served as interim coaches (Joe Kines, Mac McWhorter, Sal Sunseri and Jeff Stoutland), in the pros (Pendry), or at another level (Cignetti and Rick Rhoades), there have been 51 assistant coaches who at some point of their careers served as a head coach at the Bowl Subdivision level.

Prior to Saban’s arrival, just 15 were head coaches before serving a stint as an Alabama assistant coach. There were just four instances in which two were on the same staff together: 1946, 1989, 1994, 1997.

“There’s more organization because you’ve got guys who had to run programs, and know how important organization and communication are,” Matt Hayes of the Sporting News said. “Also, you’ve got guys with something to prove. If they’re no longer head coach, they’ve likely been fired once they reached the pinnacle of their profession.”

Combined, Saban’s current assistants were 87-121 as head coaches at the Bowl Subdivision level, with Kiffin having the only winning record (35-21, but 5-15 at the NFL level). While defensive coordinator and safeties coach Kirby Smart appears to be only waiting for the right head-coaching job to come along, it might only be a matter of time before Cristobal and Kiffin get another chance somewhere.

On the flip side, during the 2013 season there were more than 10 former Saban assistant coaches working as a head coach in either the pros or collegiate ranks, with nearly another 20 serving as coordinators. Among them Jimbo Fisher led Florida State to the national championship, Mark Dantonio guided Michigan State to the Rose Bowl, and Jim McElwain took Colorado State to its first bowl game since 2008.

“I have been extremely impressed with Coach Saban over the years,” Teaff said. “I’ve watched him, and while I’m not as close to him as some of the other coaches over the years, he is extremely meticulous and thorough.

“I have not seen him make mistakes. You see him with the recruits that he’s recruiting and the people he has around him and there’s usually not a mistake.”

Teaff once had a former head coach on his staff and liked having someone with that kind of experience around, especially when he wasn’t in the room during meetings. If there was a question about responsibilities or how something should proceed, no one had to wait for a decision although everyone still knew who had the final word.

“A lot of that depends on leadership because head coaches are different from assistant coaches,” Teaff said, the former Baylor head coach (1972-92) who is enshrined in eight different halls of fame. “They wrestle through the ranks, they earn their stripes, they become head coaches and so they will have more of a tendency to think like head coaches.

“It takes a great leader to not only select the right one, but to lead former head coaches in the direction the program needs to go. I think that again falls under the direction of the genius that is Nick Saban. He is one guy who can do that without question.”

Summarized Teaff, who recently had Saban as a marquee speaker at this year’s AFCA convention in Indianapolis: “I know that he’ll make it work.”


Alabama assistants who were also head coaches
Alabama assistant coaches, pre-Nick Saban (2007), who also became head coaches at the Bowl Subdivision level during their careers. Those bolded indicate that they were a head coach before a stint as an Alabama assistant coach:

Bruce Arians 1981-82, 1997; Temple 1983-88
Charles Bernier 1920; Virginia Tech 1917-19; Hampden-Sydney 1925, 1938
John Bobo 1986; Arkansas State 1993-95
Tommy Bowden 1987-89; Tulane 1997-98, Clemson 1997-2008
Charley Bradshaw 1959-61; Kentucky 1962-68
Paul W. “Bear” Bryant 1936-39; Maryland 1945, Kentucky 1946-53, Texas A&M 1954-57, Alabama 1958-82
Neil Callaway 1997-2000; UAB 2007-11
Pete Cawthon 1942; Texas Tech 1932-40
Jerry Claiborne 1958-60; Virginia Tech 1961-70, Maryland 1972-81, Kentucky 1982-89
Sylvester Croom 1976-86; Mississippi State 2004-08
John David Cow 1969-71; Louisiana-Monroe 1976-80
Phil Cutchin 1958-62; Oklahoma State 1963-68
Paul Davis 1981-82; Mississippi State 1962-66
Red Drew 1931-41, 1945; Birmingham-Southern 1924, Ole Miss 1946, Alabama 1947-54
Mike DuBose 1983-86, 1990-96; Alabama 1997-2000
Pat Dye 1965-73; East Carolina 1974-79, Wyoming 1980, Auburn 1981-92
Rockey Felker 1983-85; Mississippi State 1986-90
Danny Ford 1959-69; Clemson 1978-89; Arkansas 1993-97
Curley Hallman 1973-76, 1996-97; Southern Miss 1988-90, LSU 1991-94
George Henshaw 1983-86; Tulsa 1987
Dixie Howell 1946; Arizona State 1938-41, Idaho 1947-50
Rob Ianello 1987-89; Akron 2010-11
Ellis Johnson 1990-93, 1997-2000; Southern Miss 2012
Al Kincaid 1974-75, 1989; Wyoming 1981-85, Arkansas State 1990-91
Tom Lieb 1946-50; Loyola Marymount 1933-38; Florida 1940-45
Jim McElwain 2008-2011; Colorado State 2012-13
Bud Moore 1972-74; Kansas 1975-78
Jess Neely 1928-30; Clemson 1931-39; Rice 1940-66
B.J. Noonjin, 1915-16; Samford 1912
Bill Oliver 1971-79, 1990-95; Chattanooga 1980-81; Auburn 1998
Charley Pell 1963; Clemson 1977-78, Florida 1979-84
J.G. Pritchard 1907; LSU 1909
Tom Rogers 1966-70; Wake Forest 1951-55
Rip Scherer 1987; Memphis 1995-2000
Howard Schnellenberger 1961-65; Miami 1979-83, Louisville 1985-94, Oklahoma 1995, Florida Atlantic 2004-11
Jimmy Sharpe 1963-73; Virginia Tech 1974-77
Steve Sloan 1968-70; Vanderbilt 1973-74, Texas Tech 1975-77, Ole Miss 1978-82, Duke 1983-86
Homer Smith 1988-89, 1994; Davidson 1965-69; Pacific 1970-71; Army 1974-78
Gene Stallings 1958-64; Texas A&M 1965-71; Alabama 1990-96
Dabo Swinney 1996-2000; Clemson 2008-13
John Thompson 1987; East Carolina 2003-04; Arkansas State 2012-13
Carl Torbush 2001-02; North Carolina 1997-2000
Bob Tyler 1971; Mississippi State 1973-78; North Texas 1981
Bully Vandegraaff 1921-26; Colorado College 1926-37
J.B. Whitworth 1932-34; Oklahoma State 1950-54, Alabama 1955-57
Richard Williamson 1964-71; Memphis 1975-80
Sparky Woods 2003-06; South Carolina 1989-93


The Saban coaching tree
Having worked for Nick Saban can look awfully good on a resume, but none of his former protégés have beaten him as a head coach yet. Assistants who have gone on to be head coaches after working for Saban (through 2013):

Name, head coaching job (initial assistant coach role under Saban)
Curt Cignetti, Indiana University (Pennsylvania), 2011-13 (Alabama wide recovers 2007-10)
Mark Dantonio, Cincinnati 2004-06, Michigan State 2007-13 (Michigan State defensive backs 1995-2000)
Derek Dooley, Louisiana Tech 2007-10, Tennessee 2010-12 (LSU tight ends 2000-02, LSU running backs/special teams 2003-04), Miami Dolphins tight ends 2005-06)
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State 2010-13 (LSU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks 2000-06)
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys 2011-13 (Miami Dolphins quarterbacks 2005-06)
Michael Haywood, Miami (Ohio) 2009-10 (LSU running backs/special teams 1995-2002)
Scott Linehan, St. Louis Rams 2006-08 (Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator 2005)
Jim McElwain, Colorado State, 2012-13, Alabama offensive coordinator 2008-11
Mike Mularkey, Jacksonville Jaguars 2012 (Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator 2006)
Will Muschamp, Florida 2011-13 (LSU defensive coordinator/linebackers 2001-04, Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator 2005)
Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns 2011-12 (Michigan State tight ends coach 1990-97)
Bobby Williams, Michigan State 2000-02 (Michigan State running backs 1990-99)
Sal Sunseri 2009-11; Pittsburgh 1992-i

i – interim