ATHENS — Nick Saban doesn’t like to dwell on success, so good news: When he gets his Alabama staff together he doesn’t have to pass out national championship rings. He can pass out name tags.
Saban’s staff has experienced a remarkable staff turnover since winning the national championship on Jan. 8. But that’s nothing new, and it’s a lesson going forward for those who follow Kirby Smart and Georgia as the Bulldogs ascend into the same top echelon.
Someone in the industry pointed this out to me this week: Tosh Lupoi is the only assistant coach remaining from the Alabama staff that won the national championship in 2016. Since then Saban has brought in nine new assistants, in part to replace four assistants who left for jobs as head coaches: Smart, Jeremy Pruitt, Lane Kiffin and Mario Cristobal.
Georgia, meanwhile, will have three new coaches this offseason, but only lost two from last year: Kevin Sherrer and Shane Beamer, who each moved on to more prominent roles. Georgia was able to fend off the programs that pursued some of Smart’s other valuable assistants, which is why a number of them got substantial raises.
So how much will that help?
Last year, Georgia’s staff returned basically intact, and that had to be a factor in the season the team had. The only new on-field coach worked with the defensive line, where Tray Scott replaced Tracy Rocker, and the D-linemen were so experienced they practically could have coached themselves.
There were two important additions last year ― Jay Johnson and Scott Fountain as analysts ― and look what happened there. The offense and special teams both improved. And now both are back. Johnson will stay in the same role, helping Jim Chaney craft the game plan and presumably sitting by his side in the press box during games. Fountain, after a brief sojourn to Mississippi State, is now the on-field special teams coordinator. That can only help continuity.
But is it automatically a boon to the team in 2018? The evidence for that varies.
Earlier this week, when I was working on another story, a member of the 1982 Georgia football team pointed to coaching turnover as one of the reasons the program dropped off after its great run from 1980-83. And yes, Herschel Walker’s departure had something to do with it, too, but he wasn’t on the 1983 team that went 10-1-1 and won the Cotton Bowl.
But Alabama keeps churning through different assistants and hasn’t had a drop-off yet. It may just be as it is with player turnover. If teams have to replace coaches, they better make sure they replace them with the right coaches.
Four years ago, Mark Richt said this when asked about retaining the beleaguered Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator, “The stability will be good for Georgia.” Whether he would have been right we’ll never know, because a month later Grantham took a lucrative life preserver from Louisville, and Richt ended up replacing his entire defensive staff.
The result: Georgia’s defense got better, and so did the team. Because Richt hired the right new coaches, including Pruitt.
If Georgia keeps winning, it’s inevitable that Smart will have to replace coaches. The Bulldogs essentially got lucky this offseason that assistants James Coley, Mel Tucker, Dell McGee and others stayed. And who knows, maybe they’ll stick around awhile. Athens is a great place to raise a family, after all.
But if teams have good people on their staff, advancement is inevitable. Smart himself is evidence of that.
The most important may be the person at the top. As long as Saban is still the one leading Alabama and hiring those coaches, that program should be fine. Smart, based on the staff he put together and largely has held together so far, is putting Georgia in a similar position. Someday, he too may have to pass out name tags at coaching meetings.
But someday he also may pass out national championship rings.