Nick Saban Coaching Tree: The Remarkable Influence of the Alabama Head Coach

    If you want an illustration of the remarkable influence of the retired Alabama head coach, just take a dive into the Nick Saban coaching tree.

    He’s arguably the greatest coach in college football history, so it’s not surprising to find that the Nick Saban coaching tree has roots spread far and wide that touch every corner of the sport.

    Now that he’s retired as the Alabama Crimson Tide head coach, we take a look at the coaches that worked alongside the legendary Alabama Crimson Tide leader, and where are they now?

    Nick Saban Coaching Tree: The Remarkable Influence of the Alabama Head Coach

    With a successful head coaching career dating back to 1990 that spans five teams and more championships than most people have had hot dinners, the Nick Saban coaching tree is more like a forest.

    Currently, 26 former assistants worked under — or alongside, if you prefer — the Alabama head coach who are either current or former head coaches in CFB or the NFL.

    Kirby Smart, Georgia Head Coach

    If there is a member of the Saban coaching tree that embodies the pupil becoming the master, it is Kirby Smart. The current Georgia head coach worked with Saban at multiple spots, firstly at LSU, joining him in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, and then coaching alongside him until 2015 at Alabama. He left for Athens in 2016, finally guiding the Bulldogs to a title in 2021 and 2022.

    Jimbo Fisher, Former Texas A&M Head Coach

    Jimbo Fisher spent five years working alongside Saban at LSU, from 2000-2004. Unlike Smart, he didn’t follow his head coach to the NFL, remaining with LSU before joining FSU as offensive coordinator in 2007. Earning his first head coaching role with the ‘Noles, he took the program to a BCS title before joining Texas A&M in 2018. Fisher was fired by the Aggies on Nov. 12, 2023.

    Will Muschamp, Georgia Co-Defensive Coordinator

    Another member of the Saban coaching tree that spent time with the revered head coach in Baton Rouge and the NFL, Will Muschamp spent time at Auburn and Texas before getting his head coaching break at Florida in 2011. His last head coaching job was at South Carolina from 2016-2020, leaving the Gamecocks with a 55-51 overall record as a college head coach.

    Jeremy Pruitt, Former Tennessee Head Coach

    Saban and Jeremy Pruitt crossed paths multiple times with the latter serving as the director of player development, defensive backs coach, and latterly the defensive coordinator and inside linebacker coach at Alabama. At Tennessee, Pruitt stumbled to a 5-19 overall record in a tenure that was marred by recruiting violations that included the cash in bags scandal.

    Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Associate Head Coach

    Mark Dantonio is back where it all started. The current associate head coach at the Michigan State Spartans following the Mel Tucker scandal, Dantonio was one of the first members of the Saban coaching tree, having worked alongside him in East Lansing from 1995-1999.

    He got his first head coaching gig at Cincinnati in 2004 before guiding the Spartans to three Big Ten titles in 2010, 2013, and 2015. The two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year is the winningest head coach in Michigan State history. Having retired in 2019, he came back in 2023 to assist Harlon Barnett.

    Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Head Coach

    After being fired as head coach from USC in 2013, Lane Kiffin became the most famous reclamation project from the Saban coaching tree. He became the Alabama offensive coordinator in 2014, rebuilding his reputation before taking the FAU job in 2017. After guiding the Owls to two CUSA titles, he was named the Ole Miss head coach, where his overall record is 92-47.

    Derek Dooley, Alabama Senior Offensive Analyst

    The son of the legendary Georgia head coach, Derek Dooley, has found nourishment at the base of Saban’s coaching tree. Having originally been part of the LSU and Miami coaching staffs, Dooley set out on his own as the Louisiana Tech head coach. He returned to the SEC in 2010 as the Tennessee head coach, and after tome in the NFL and at Missouri, he returned to Saban as a senior offensive analyst from the 2022 college football campaign.

    Jim McElwain, Central Michigan Head Coach

    In his first season as the offensive coordinator under Saban at Alabama in 2008, Jim McElwain helped conjure up a 12-0 regular season — a feat the Crimson Tide repeated again in 2009. After helping deliver two national titles, he struck out on his own at Colorado State, before returning to the SEC with Florida in 2015. Despite being SEC Coach of the Year in 2015, he was out the door in 2017, before delivering success at CMU.

    Bobby Williams, Former Michigan State Head Coach

    Bobby Williams is the acorn that didn’t fall far from the Saban coaching tree. Having spent six seasons working as the running back coach at Michigan State under the legendary coach, he was tasked with replacing Saban following his departure for LSU. Williams compiled a 16-17 record in three seasons leading the Spartans and rejoined Saban at several spots during his career.

    Steve Sarkisian, Texas Head Coach

    Another reclamation project on the Saban coaching tree, Steve Sarkisian, came to Tuscaloosa after his tenure at USC was ended amidst concerns over his personal conduct related to intoxication. A two-stint with Saban rebuilt his reputation as an offensive mastermind, winning the Broyles Award in 2020 as the best assistant coach in college football. Sarkisian’s success under Saban led to him being named the Texas head coach in 2021.

    Mel Tucker, Former Michigan State Head Coach

    Mel Tucker coached under Saban at Michigan State, LSU, and Alabama, before leaving Tuscaloosa for Athens in 2016. Tucker’s performances earned him his first full-time head coaching role — he was the interim head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011 — at Colorado.

    After a murky departure from Boulder, he took over at Michigan State, with a one-year success in 2021 earning him a mega-contract. He was fired for cause by the Spartans early in the 2023 college football season following allegations of sexual misconduct.

    Butch Jones, Arkansas State Head Coach

    Unlike a large number of the members of the Saban coaching tree, Butch Jones had already had a long career as a head coach before crossing paths with the legendary Alabama head coach. Jones won conference titles with Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but a difficult season with Tennessee in 2017 saw him head to Alabama as an offensive analyst. He joined Arkansas State in 2021.

    Billy Napier, Florida Head Coach

    A former quarterback at Furman, Billy Napier spent time at Clemson and South Carolina State before working his way to Tuscaloosa in 2011. After a year at Colorado State, he returned to Alabama as WR coach for four seasons — notably working with Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley. After two Sun Belt titles at Louisiana, he’s back in the SEC with Florida.

    Mario Cristobal, Miami (FL) Head Coach

    Going 8-14 down the stretch of his first head coaching role at FIU, Mario Cristobal rejuvenated his career under Saban at Alabama. Spurning Miami — his current employer — he became assistant head coach, offensive line coach, and recruiting coordinator for the Crimson Tide. His success in the latter two areas, in particular, earned him HC roles at Oregon and Miami.

    Mike Locksley, Maryland Head Coach

    Maryland head coach Mike Locksley has held multiple roles with the Terrapins during a coaching career dating back to 1992, but it was his time in Tuscaloosa under Saban that helped solidify him as a hot commodity in the head coaching arena. After winning the Broyles Award in 2018, he was named Maryland head coach, where he received a contract extension in 2023.

    Jason Garrett, Former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach

    A rarity on the Saban coaching tree, Jason Garrett has never coached at the college football level. Garrett was the quarterback coach for Saban during his two seasons as the Dolphins head coach before departing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2007. Garrett worked his way up to being head coach, winning NFL Coach of the Year in 2016 while compiling an 87-70 record with the ‘Boys.

    Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator

    Having called Garrett a rarity, Dan Quinn came from the exclusively NFL branch of the Saban coaching tree. He served as the defensive line coach of the Dolphins under the future Alabama head coach, going on to fill various assistant coach roles around the league before getting his break as the Atlanta Falcons head coach in 2015. He has a 46-44 overall head coach record.

    Mike Mularkey, Former Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Buffalo Bills Head Coach

    Here comes another NFL-exclusive member of the Saban coaching tree. Mike Mularkey was the offensive coordinator for the Dolphins in Saban’s final season in Miami. He’d previously served as the Buffalo Bills head coach for two seasons and would go on to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars for one year and the Tennessee Titans for two. His overall career record was 37-54.

    Adam Gase, Former Miami Dolphins and New York Jets Head Coach

    Adam Gase was a student at Michigan State when he sprouted from the Saban coaching tree. A student assistant with the Spartans, he followed Saban to LSU in 2000. After spending three seasons in Baton Rouge, Gase pursued a path in the NFL that would see him become an acclaimed offensive coordinator but struggled when handed the keys to the Dolphins and Jets.

    Pat Shurmur, Colorado Co-Offensive Coordinator

    When Saban returned to East Lansing as the head coach in 1995, Pat Shurmur had already established himself as a multi-faceted coaching weapon. After spending three years with Saban, he moved on to Stanford for a year before solidifying himself as a sound offensive mind in the NFL.

    Compiling a 19-46 record as a head coach at Cleveland and the Giants, his final NFL role was as offensive coordinator for Denver before returning to CFB with Colorado in 2023.

    Major Applewhite, South Alabama Offensive Coordinator

    A highly decorated college football player at Texas, Major Applewhite joined the Saban coaching tree as the Alabama head coach constructed his first staff in 2007. After leaving Tuscaloosa for Texas, he joined Houston as the offensive coordinator in 2015, earning promotion to head coach in 2017.

    Applewhite put together a 15-11 record with the Cougars before returning to Tuscaloosa as an analyst in 2019. Two years spent with the Crimson Tide saw him land the OC/QB coach role at South Alabama.

    Geoff Collins, Former Georgia Tech Head Coach

    A rather tenuous member of the Saban coaching tree, Geoff Collins had held multiple roles across various levels of college football before becoming director of player personnel for Alabama in 2007. He spent one season in Tuscaloosa before coaching at UCF, FIU, Mississippi State, and Florida ahead of his first head coach role with Temple. He was fired by Georgia Tech in 2022.

    Curt Cignetti, Indiana Head Coach

    While Georgia head coach Smart might be considered the most successful of the Saban coaching tree, don’t overlook Curt Cignetti’s accomplishments in college football. After spending four seasons in Tuscaloosa working with Julio Jones and recruiting at a high level, he’s achieved remarkable success at JMU before becoming the Indiana Hoosiers head coach for 2024.

    Brian Daboll, New York Giants Head Coach

    The reigning AP NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Giants to their best start to a season in a decade, Brian Daboll got his coaching start as a graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State in 1998. After jumping to the NFL in 2000, he was reunited with the Alabama head coach for one season — helping the Crimson Tide win the 2018 National Championship Game.

    Dan Lanning, Oregon Head Coach

    While many associate Dan Lanning’s rise to prominence with Georgia head coach Smart, the Oregon head coach and former defensive coordinator is a member of the Saban coaching tree. Lanning was a general assistant on the 2015 Alabama team. After stops in Memphis and Georgia, he’s led Oregon to a 22-5 record as head coach — with a Pac-12 title game appearance.

    Charles Huff, Marshall Head Coach

    Although Charles Huff spent time at Tennessee State, Maryland, Hampton, Vanderbilt, the Buffalo Bills, Western Michigan, Penn State, and Mississippi State, his two seasons spent in Tuscaloosa as the assistant head coach and running backs coach led to his hire by Marshall in 2021. Huff has guided the Thundering Herd to a 20-15 record during his tenure, gaining bowl eligibly twice.

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