The Nick Saban coaching tree taking some lumps this season

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Going back to his tenure as the head coach at Michigan State, Nick Saban has been building more than teams and developing players. He has an outstanding track record for developing head coaches, at both the FBS level and the NFL.

The current list of former Nick Saban assistants, who are now FBS head coaches, is long enough alone to approach historic levels.

Pretty much every FBS program, in need of a new coach, or contemplating being in need of one, wants a Nick Saban clone. There are good reasons why. Mark Richt, a good football coach, and an even better person could not get Georgia to a championship level. Given the trove of elite recruits within a 100-mile radius of Athens, GA, Georgia should have been better under Richt.

Georgia got better quick with Kirby Smart, now the most successful of all the former Saban assistants. There remains some debate on whether Smart is a great coach. But he is widely respected as an exceptional recruiter. Even more importantly, Kirby worked for Saban for so many years, he was able to transfer all of the ‘Alabama Process’ to the Georgia program.

At other places, with other Saban assistants, it has not been so easy.

In an Alabama Football open week, there is time for some novelty. Ranking 11 current, FBS head coaches, who once were Nick Saban assistants, yields interesting results.

Nick Saban Coaching Tree Ranked

Counting them down from No. 11, there is no need to tease No. 1. It has to be Kirby Smart. Let’s see how the other 10 are doing this season.

  • No. 11 – Jimbo Fisher – The Aggies after Saturday’s loss to South Carolina are 3-4. It has taken Jimbo a few seasons, but he has broken the Aggies as he did FSU in 2017. There is zero excuse with A&M’s massive resources for the Aggies being so bad.
  • No. 10 – Butch Jones – Four wins in 16 Arkansas State games offers no encouragement Jones can equal the 58% win record of his predecessor, Blake Anderson.
  • No. 9 – Jim McElwain – J-Mac is in his fourth season with the Central Michigan Chippewas. His record is 22-19, with the latest loss on Saturday to a bad Bowling Green team, 34-18. CMU did open the season pushing Oklahoma State hard in a 58-44 loss.
  • No. 8 – Mario Cristobal – Mario has Miami at 3-4, and far below expectations. Making it worse, the Canes lost to the Aggies and MTSU.
  • No. 7 – Curt Cignetti – In their first season as an FBS program, Cignetti has James Madsion at 5-2. Unlike Miami, the Dukes beat MTSU and also have a win over Appalachian State.
  • No. 6 – Mel Tucker – After leading Michigan State to an 11-2 record last season, the Spartans are 3-4, but did beat Wisconsin in their last game.
  • No. 5 – Billy Napier – Napier had much to rebuild in Gainesville. The Gators are still getting mileage off an opening win against Utah, and at 4-3, Napier is showing promise.
  • No. 4 – Mike Locksley – Before his stint with Nick Saban, Locks had been a failed head coach. After two tough seasons in Maryland, the Terrapins are better than respectable in Locks’ fourth season. The Terps are 6-2, with a win over Michigan State and a one-touchdown loss to Michigan.
  •  No. 3 – Steve Sarkisian – Sark took on a big challenge in Austin. It has not been easy to get the Longhorns to 5-3 in his second season. He remains one of, if not the best, offensive minds in college football.
  • No. 2 – Lane Kiffin– Kiffin took it on the chin in Baton Rouge on Saturday. His Rebels had benefitted from an easy schedule. Even with LSU blowing out Ole Miss, what Kiffin has accomplished in Oxford cannot be ignored.
  • No.1 – Kirby Smart, of course. Crimson Tide fans not happy about it.

Note: Team and coach histories from Sports Reference.

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The question has to be asked. If Nick Saban suddenly announced his retirement, are any of the 11 coaches on a Alabama Crimson Tide short list. A guess is maybe Sarkisian, and possibly Kiffin or Napier. Mel Tucker and Mario Cristobal might climb back into contention with a couple of future, strong seasons at Michigan State and Miami.