With Dabo Swinney locked in at Clemson, here are 5 possible Nick Saban successors
Dabo Swinney is not leaving Clemson anytime soon.
At least that’s what his new contract — complete with Alabama-specific buyout terms — would suggest. I all but dismissed Swinney to Alabama after the national championship, and I’d still argue that the timing doesn’t really line up with Saban’s eventual departure.
If you’re going to talk about potential Saban successors, the timeline is an extremely important thing to keep in mind. If I had to bet on it, my guess would be that Saban coaches until he’s 70 (he turns 68 during next season). Just to go on the conservative side and say somewhere in the 3-5 year range.
That means in all likelihood, we’re not talking about current position coaches taking the Alabama job when it becomes available. Chances are, Alabama will go after someone who is already a head coach, and in all likelihood, it’ll be someone who is at a Power 5 school.
Fear not, Alabama fans. Nobody is counting down the days until Saban calls it a career, but this successor question is an interesting, ongoing discussion that we can start having.
Here are the 5 coaches who I think could eventually be in line to replace the G.O.A.T.
1. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Yeah, I agree with Paul Finebaum. I think Pruitt is the most likely person to replace Saban when that time comes. I also agree with Finebaum that it’s dependent on Pruitt pulling off a rebuild at Tennessee. If the Vols are competing for SEC titles in 2-3 years, then yes, it would make a lot of sense for Pruitt to want to return to Alabama.
That’s where Pruitt’s roots are dating to his days playing at Alabama in the mid-1990s. He really has everything you’d want for a Saban successor. He has incredible experience recruiting in the Southeast, he spent 8 years learning under Saban and he’ll have already had several years as a head coach in the conference at a high-pressure SEC program.
So what could keep it from happening? It’s worth noting what Phillip Fulmer just did to keep Rick Barnes at Tennessee. Nobody was stealing his coach. If Alabama wanted to make a run at Pruitt, Fulmer would probably come over the top with an incredibly rich offer. Again, that’s all in the event that Pruitt turns around Tennessee.
But Pruitt would still likely be the one making that decision, and if he wanted to replace Saban, he’d go do it.
2. Mario Cristobal, Oregon
Another member of the Saban coaching tree, Cristobal was one of the rare Alabama assistants in recent memory who actually stayed in Tuscaloosa for more than a season. We already know that like Pruitt, he’s an incredible recruiter who would be able to at least keep Alabama among the nation’s best.
We’re still talking about someone with 1 year of Power 5 head coaching experience, so it would likely take Cristobal turning Oregon into an annual Pac-12 contender like it was during the Chip Kelly days. He can get a start on that if he wins a bunch of games and develops Justin Herbert into the No. 1 overall pick.
Alabama already stole Cristobal from Miami after he was fired at FIU in 2013 (that’d be incredible if he went from fired at FIU to coaching Alabama in a decade). Obviously there’s some allegiance to the program already there. And if he became one of the country’s better head coach redemption stories at Oregon, perhaps he’d get a legitimate crack at the Alabama gig.
3. Mel Tucker, Colorado
I’m not sure how many people would include Tucker on a list like this, but I think he’s worthy of consideration because of the timeline. He’s entering Year 1 at Colorado, which is a solid job, but it’s by no means a destination job. Tucker spent the past 4 seasons coaching and recruiting in the SEC (3 as the defensive coordinator at Georgia). Being part of the Saban coaching tree would certainly help his case, too:
Mel Tucker becomes the 10TH Saban protege just from his days at Alabama who now has an FBS head coaching job, joining Billy Napier, Lane Kiffin, Mario Cristobal, Jeremy Pruitt, Kirby Smart, Jim McElwain, Major Applewhite, Mike Locksley and Geoff Collins. Amazing.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 5, 2018
The drawback is pretty simple — Tucker has never been a college head coach. For all we know, he might just be cut out to be a coordinator. Time will tell.
As is the case with Pruitt and Cristobal, this is entirely dependent on taking the program to a new level. Let’s say that Colorado improves by multiple wins each of the next few seasons (the Buffs won 5 games last year). Tucker would be considered one of the more coveted candidates for a big-time program looking to make a change.
He’ll get a ton of national attention if he rebuilds a team with 1 Top 25 finish in the past 16 seasons. And possibly, he’ll get Alabama’s attention, too.
4. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
I realize that the last time we saw Brohm coach a game, he was getting his tail kicked by Auburn. That probably wouldn’t be at the top of his résumé if he were to interview for the Alabama job.
What would be? Well, Purdue made a bowl game twice in the previous 9 years before he arrived in West Lafayette. They made bowl games in each of Brohm’s first 2 seasons, but more impressively was how they did it. Brohm’s innovative, unpredictable offense is all the rage. Ask Ohio State about that.
Rondale Moore with the DAGGER
— SI College Football (@si_ncaafb) October 21, 2018
That win helped Purdue clinch its first winning conference season in 12 years. Purdue is in position to compete for division titles because Brohm turned down his alma mater (Louisville) to stick around for a few more years. What if Alabama comes calling in 2023?
For what it’s worth, Brohm did spend a year at UAB, so there’s some familiarity with the state. And he did spend 4 years at Western Kentucky, so there are some recruiting ties in the South. Those factors — plus Purdue’s continued rise — could make Brohm a popular big-time Alabama target a few years from now.
5. Lane Kiffin, FAU
Never say never, right? Kiffin putting himself in position to get the Alabama job would be such a perfect college football story. Obviously he didn’t leave the school on the best of terms, but one thing that never left Tuscaloosa was Kiffin’s offense. That’s still such a crucial piece of Alabama’s identity.
Kiffin landing at Alabama to replace Saban would take the exact right scenario. There would probably need to be an in between job. Going from FAU to Alabama seems unlikely, even for Kiffin. If this were to serve as Kiffin’s last year in Boca Raton, perhaps he’d get a Power 5 job to continue his climb back up the coaching ranks. And that’s only if he can keep out of trouble and win a bunch of games.
The thing I keep coming back to is that Kiffin will turn 44 next week. There’s plenty of time for him to work his way back up if that’s what he wants to do. I also wouldn’t rule out the idea of him living the good life in Boca Raton for the next decade and calling it a career.
Just for the sake of pure entertainment, Kiffin back in Tuscaloosa would be a home run. As for whether it would actually be a good hire, well, perhaps we’re all a bit high on someone who finished with more than 8 wins twice in 7 years as a college coach.
And a couple assistants to keep in mind …
Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator
So think about this. What if Clemson keeps winning national titles and suddenly, it’s Alabama that can’t get on the Tigers’ level? How does Alabama end the Clemson dynasty and replace the best defensive-minded head coach ever? By hiring Venables, AKA the mastermind behind Clemson’s defensive success.
The risk is obviously that Venables has never been a head coach and getting a first-time experience at a place like Alabama would be extremely difficult. And who knows? By the time Saban retires, Venables could be making $5 million a season with a hefty buyout … as an assistant.
If for nothing other than the “well if we can’t have Dabo, we’ll take his top assistant” thing, Venables would be a fascinating move for Alabama.
Josh Gattis, Michigan offensive coordinator
Wait. Do I really think that Alabama’s 2018 receivers coach (and technically he was the co-offensive coordinator) is going to replace Saban? Gattis probably won’t be the top choice on the list, but hear me out.
This is his first season at Michigan, where he has complete control to call plays. If the Wolverines finally win a conference title and make the Playoff this year with a revamped offense, the 35-year-old coordinator will have plenty of Power 5 interest, as he should. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. Don’t forget that he was a key member of James Franklin’s staff at Vanderbilt.
Players love this guy, and they thrive in his offenses. Just look at how incredible Alabama’s wideouts were with one year of Gattis.
If he continues this rise and becomes one of the top up-and-coming offensive minds in the sport — that’s not a guarantee — Gattis could absolutely have a chance to return to Alabama.