Churning, not burning

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Continuity is the glue that binds a successful college football program. Without stability in the coaching ranks, the whole structure can crumble.

An offensive coordinator leaves and the end zone suddenly becomes a mirage. A defensive coordinator bolts and the new system can't stop a parked car. A key assistant leaves and recruits no longer pick up the phone.

It happens every year. Sometimes there's a period of adjustment and sometimes the new hires simply don't work out.

Alabama, in winning three national championships in four seasons, has been immune to the ebb and flow of the coaching carousel. The merry-go-round has spun and spun and spun some more, but the hinges haven't loosened. Coach Nick Saban's grip on the program has remained steadfast.

"Having been around Coach Saban these last few years, it is obvious that the things that drive the program are mostly coming through him," UA athletic director Mal Moore said. "That's not to downplay the role of the coaching staff at all, but it isn't really that unusual for coaches on successful teams to move on to other opportunities. That is definitely the case these days, more than in the past."

Of the staff that won the national championship in 2009, only three assistants remain: Kirby Smart, Burton Burns and Bobby Williams. The Crimson Tide have incorporated a new offensive coordinator, a new recruiting coordinator and a handful of position coaches in the last few years.

Through it all, Saban has maintained the throttle and kept Alabama at the front of the class. As other programs play catch-up, poaching UA staffers has become commonplace. In trying to capture the secret recipe, what better way than to hire away the chefs charged with cooking the dishes? Florida State, long thought to be on the verge of breaking back into the championship picture, has hired more former Saban assistants than any other. And why not? Jimbo Fisher, who ran Saban's offense at LSU, knows best that, in order to work, "The Process" takes talent on and off the field.

Jim McElwain parlayed two national championships as an offensive coordinator into the head coach job at Colorado State last year. Jeremy Pruitt went from coaching defensive backs to being named the defensive coordinator at Florida State in December. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and wide receivers coach Mike Groh followed suit since the national championship in January, accepting jobs in the NFL.

To Moore, it's a point of pride. With every coach who leaves for bigger and better things, it's another sign that the football program is headed in the right direction.

"Whenever you have success, that's part of what you expect," Moore explained. "You want people to grow. The fact that so many of these coaches that have left were recruited by others is definitely an indication of the respect people have for Coach Saban and the program he has built."

And the building process is neverending. Luckily for Alabama, it has made the job look as simple as Paint by Numbers.

When Alabama lost 6-foot-3, 260-pound inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower to the NFL last year, 6-foot-2, 245-pound sophomore Trey DePriest was eager to become a starter. When 6-foot-2, 265-pound Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens last April, 6-foot-3, 262-pound sophomore Xzavier Dickson was ready to step in. Only the numbers on the jerseys changed as the Crimson Tide finished No. 1 in total defense for the second straight year.

The same blueprint applies to coaches. Stoutland was a key recruiter of the South Florida region, so when he left for the Philadelphia Eagles, Saban went and pulled Mario Cristobal away from the University of Miami.
"[Cristobal] can comb through Palm Beach, Dade and Broward County," one area high school coach said. "He has connections he can call on."

When Groh went to the Bears, Alabama lost a young, energetic recruiting coordinator and receivers coach. So what did Saban do? He went out and found a clone in 32-year-old Florida State tight ends coach and recruiting director Billy Napier. ESPN senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill credited the former Clemson offensive coordinator with the success of the Tigers' 2008 recruiting class that featured the likes of DaQuan Bowers and Andre Ellington. Luginbill called Napier a "nice addition to the staff" and a "grinder when it comes to recruiting."

In truth, all of Alabama's hires this offseason have been nice additions by any measure. One promising assistant replaces another. The wheels keep turning.

As Saban continues to build a coaching empire at Alabama, he's not letting staff turnover hurt him. The foundation he has laid in Tuscaloosa is too strong for a little turbulence to bring down the house.