Connect with us

Published

on

THEY HAD A front-row seat for coaching greatness.

The coaches who came and went under Nick Saban, many of whom are now running their own programs, are like everybody else in the college football world. They’re still processing Saban’s retirement and have been since he announced Jan. 10 that he was walking away from coaching after winning seven national championships, six at Alabama and one at LSU.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart joked that he would like to fly all the coaches who worked under Saban to his new home in Jupiter Island, Florida, bring in a film crew and simply sit around and tell stories about Saban’s legendary career.

This is ESPN’s attempt to do just that, as we talked to 11 members of the Saban coaching tree, viewing the legendary leader through the eyes of the people who know him best.

Saban’s protégés, including Mark Dantonio from their Michigan State days, Jimbo Fisher from their time at LSU and Smart, Mario Cristobal, Lane Kiffin, Dan Lanning, Steve Sarkisian, Mike Locksley and more from Saban’s 17-year run at Alabama, share their most memorable, funny and moving moments and break down what made him one of the greatest coaches of all time.

From Saban’s decision to replace Jalen Hurts with Tua Tagovailoa at halftime of the 2017 national championship game to helping Sarkisian pick up the pieces of his life. We learn what Kiffin did to provoke an epic “ass-chewing,” about Smart’s awkward first interview and Fisher’s shared “West Virginia hillbilly” ties with his former boss/nemesis. We get insight into Saban’s softer side and some blow-by-blow accounts of Saban’s pickup basketball games.

One spoiler on those hoops games: Very rarely was Saban fouled.

‘It’s like dog years working for me?!’: Untold Saban stories

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin has joked over the years that he received his share of “ass-chewings” from Saban during his time at Alabama. But nothing rises to the level of the one he endured during the 2016 fall camp.

The team was in a “good-on-good” drill, pitting the starting offensive players vs. the starters on defense, and even though Kiffin had been warned by other coaches not to go overboard and try to make Saban’s defense look bad, Kiffin couldn’t resist. He was hired in 2014 as Saban’s offensive coordinator with the specific goal of helping modernize Alabama’s offense.

“I’d come from the Pete Carroll camp. I wasn’t wired that way, to let the defense win,” said Kiffin, who spent three turbulent but successful seasons as Saban’s offensive coordinator.

Kiffin had several coaches on his offensive staff present different types of plays, or what one of those assistants recently referred to as “cool plays,” and put them in before practice. Everybody in the offensive staff room knew Saban wouldn’t be pleased.

“We had a really good day on offense, ran some reverses, threw a double pass and had all these touchdowns, and he said that all I was trying to do was win the drill and trick the defense and not help the team,” Kiffin said. “I was like, ‘Isn’t that the point in good-on-good situations on offense, to see if you can move the ball?’

“He was furious.”

His ears ringing from the chewing-out the day before, Kiffin changed it up the next practice.

“Stubborn old Lane, I ran the most generic, basic, under-center offense I could, sort of their old-school offense they ran under Joe Pendry,” Kiffin said. “And the defense killed us. We’d be third-and-8, and I’d have the quarterback under center.”

In the staff meeting afterward, Saban was again miffed and wanted an explanation from Kiffin on why he was going under center on third-and-long and running the ball.

“‘I’m just running what I thought you would want me to run against the defense,'” Kiffin answered. “Again, it was just me being smart-ass me.”

At that point, Saban cleared everybody out of the room except Kiffin, who knew what was coming.

“I have to sit there, and he is screaming at me, standing over me screaming as I’m sitting in my chair. I thought he was going to fight me physically,” said Kiffin, who can laugh about it now. “So, yes, I got a lot of ass-chewings, but that’s the biggest one and one that no one saw. But I deserved it.”

Saban, however, had one last salvo, which Kiffin and the offensive coaches from that staff still find hilarious. Saban compared Kiffin to a children’s book character, P.J. Funnybunny, a spoiled bunny who went around creating havoc.

“He screamed at me that I was the bunny,” Kiffin said, “and we were like, ‘What the hell is that? There’s no way Coach has read a little kid’s bedtime story like that!'”


SMART WILL NEVER forget his first interview with Saban in 2004 when Smart was up for a job at LSU as defensive backs coach. Smart was a graduate assistant at Florida State at the time, and his old pal Will Muschamp, then Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU, had vouched for him.

“I go on the interview, and I’m young and unassuming, and there are all these stories out there that if Miss Terry [Saban’s wife] invites you to the house for dinner, she had to give you the OK. And if you didn’t get the OK, then you weren’t going to get the job.”

Lance Thompson was leaving LSU to take the UCF defensive coordinator’s job. Smart remembers Thompson, who worked under Saban two different times, telling Smart in passing: “Working for Nick is like dog years. Every year feels like seven.”

Smart visited the Saban home on Super Bowl Sunday, and they were all sitting around and talking after dinner.

“I was comfortable and feeling good about the way it was going, and I just say, ‘I don’t get it. People say working here is like dog years.’ I don’t know why in the hell I said that. Just dumb,” Smart said. “Think about it. Why would you ever say something like that to an employer you’re trying to get a job with? But I did. I guess I wasn’t overwhelmed or intimidated. I was too young to know any better.”

The next morning, Smart got a call from Muschamp after that day’s LSU staff meeting. Muschamp told Smart that an irate Saban barked to everybody in the staff room: “Which one of you dumbasses said it’s like dog years working for me? We’re trying to hire the guy, and you tell him that?”

Smart is still sheepish about it all these years later.

“I got the whole staff cussed out and somehow still got the job.”


MIAMI COACH MARIO Cristobal was Saban’s offensive line coach for four seasons at Alabama before moving to Oregon as co-offensive coordinator and later head coach. A second-generation Cuban American who grew up in Miami, Cristobal said driving to see recruits with Saban was always an adventure, especially with Saban being a renowned back-seat driver, something to which every coach who ever went out on the road with him will attest.

One time, Saban and Cristobal were driving to see a recruit in Iowa, and it was snowing heavily.

“I didn’t know how to drive in the snow, and we were almost crashing,” Cristobal said.

Saban looked at Cristobal and asked quizzically, “Tell me, man, there ain’t no snow in Cuba. Why the hell are you driving?”


OREGON COACH DAN Lanning got a taste of what working for Saban was like on one of his first days on the job as a graduate assistant at Alabama — and at Saban’s youth football camp, no less.

“I’m part of the group that’s running the bag drills. It’s not something unique, but Nick had a way that he wanted to run those drills. And it’s one of the first times I remember getting my butt chewed,” Lanning said. “The strength coach was running the drill and then he had to leave and go run the drill for our actual guys. So I had it, but I wasn’t doing a good job of paying attention to how Nick wanted the drill run.

“I learned quickly that I was running the drill wrong — and I’m talking about sixth- and seventh-graders. It wasn’t like these are the guys we’re about to coach. And it was just a great reminder to me: Pay attention to details. For me to get my best butt-chewing during kids camp, I think that just shows the intensity of Nick.”


WHEN SABAN CONTRACTED COVID-19 during the 2020 national championship season, he had to quarantine at home. But that didn’t mean he missed practice. He was there — just not physically.

Saban had Alabama officials set up cameras so he could watch practice from home via Zoom.

“We know he’s watching practice from home, and after practice, we bring it up [in the middle of the field] like we would if he was there. It was just routine,” said Marshall coach Charles Huff, who was Alabama’s running backs coach at the time.

As the team gathered, Saban’s football chief operating officer, Ellis Ponder, rolled a 19-inch television set on a stand onto the field in the indoor practice facility. Saban addressed the team on video just as he would have if he had been there in the flesh.

“And at the end, he holds up his hand and goes, ‘One, two, three,’ and everybody yells, ‘Team,'” Huff said. “It was like ‘Saw,’ the movie where the little TV rolls in, and boom, that doll pops up and gives you instructions.”


THERE WAS NO basking in championships under Saban, even after winning it all.

Georgia Tech coach Brent Key remembers traveling back home after winning the 2017 national championship, which was Saban’s fifth at Alabama. The game was on a Monday night, and the team returned to campus the next day. On Wednesday morning, there was a staff meeting, and there was very little reflection from Saban.

“He comes in, sits down and is like, ‘Guys, congratulations on a good season. We overcame a lot of adversity. We had injuries. We had guys prepared to come back,'” Key recalled.

But everybody in the room knew a “but” was coming, and with colorful language.

“But that was last year. We’re behind in recruiting. We shouldn’t have been behind in that game,” Saban said, his voice rising.

Saban had already moved on to the next challenge.

Key remembers looking over at current Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who was in his second season at Alabama as receivers coach.

“Locks goes, ‘Damn, that was yesterday! I just won my first national championship. Like, that just happened yesterday. I’m still hungover,'” Key said, laughing.

“That’s it in a nutshell, man.”

‘Is Coach OK?’: Saban’s softer side

When Kiffin’s three children were young, he remembers getting an invitation to the Sabans’ house for Easter. His first thought was: “I’m not getting yelled at on Easter. I get yelled at enough at the football complex.”

Kiffin’s former wife, Layla, was in town with the kids and convinced him to go.

“It was amazing. Coach was completely different,” Kiffin said. “I think his first grandchild had just been born, and he was walking around with [Kiffin’s son] Knox and helping him find an egg. I was like, ‘Is Coach OK?’ Because I’d never really seen that side of him before.”

Kiffin had a similar experience with Tom Coughlin earlier in his career while working with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Seeing that side of Coach Saban, it’s then that I understood that two of the most demanding coaches I’ve worked for were one way at home and then one way when they walked into that football building,” Kiffin said. “They felt like they had to be that way, to hold people accountable, to be tough on people, and obviously it worked because they’re both legendary coaches.

“But it was cool seeing that side of Coach Saban.”


FLORIDA COACH BILLY Napier said Saban and his wife, Terry, who have been married for 52 years, were an unbelievable team in the way they took care of their coaches and the coaches’ families.

“Don’t underestimate the impact Miss Terry had on him and all that touched that program,” Napier said. “I was always grateful when I got there in 2011 after being let go as offensive coordinator at Clemson and kind of starting my career over. He believed in me and gave me another chance, the same thing he’s done for so many coaches.”

More than just a professional boost, Napier feels even more indebted to the Sabans from a personal standpoint.

“People don’t see some of the things that he does for you behind the scenes, both he and Miss Terry,” Napier said. “My wife went through some things medically, and they were there for us. They take care of their people. My dad got diagnosed with ALS my first year as a receivers coach. I wasn’t worth a wood nickel that year, and Coach Saban helped me navigate that when I probably didn’t do my job to the best of my ability. But he had a pulse for how challenging that was for me and guided me through it.”


TEXAS COACH STEVE Sarkisian has said several times that Saban saved his career when he brought Sarkisian on as an analyst in 2016 after alcohol issues led to his firing at USC.

“He believed in me at a time when I was having a hard time even getting an interview,” Sarkisian said.

Following Texas’ 34-24 victory over Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa, Sarkisian made sure Saban knew how much he meant to him.

“None of this would’ve been possible without you,” Sarkisian told Saban at midfield.

One of only three former assistants to beat Saban, along with Smart and Fisher, Sarkisian thought about that moment at Bryant-Denny Stadium when he heard Saban was retiring.

“As great as it was for us to go and get that win, that would never have been possible without Nick Saban, ironically,” Sarkisian said. “To think that was where I kind of resurrected my career, in that stadium with him, to have that moment — which was our biggest moment in three years here — was something I won’t forget. I’m forever grateful that he and Miss Terry were both there for me at a tough time in my life.”

‘There’s no turning back’: Decisive calls, memorable moments

One of Saban’s most memorable in-game decisions was making the switch from Jalen Hurts, who was 25-2 as Alabama’s starting quarterback, to true freshman Tua Tagovailoa at halftime of the Crimson Tide’s come-from-behind 26-23 win over Georgia to capture the 2017 national championship. Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime won the title for the Tide.

Alabama trailed 13-0 at the half and hadn’t been able to generate any offense. A week earlier, the Tide scored only two offensive touchdowns in a semifinal win over Clemson.

“We come into the locker room at halftime of that Georgia game, and the first question Nick has is, ‘What the hell is going on? What do we need to do to get the offense going?'” Locksley said.

Locksley was then the receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator. His younger receivers were already restless about not being more involved in the passing game. Locksley looked around the locker room and spoke up.

“‘Coach, if you’re asking my opinion and you want to get the offense going, let’s give Tua a shot,'” Locksley recalled saying. “I said, ‘I’ll talk to Jalen, and if it doesn’t work, we can always go back to Jalen.'”

Any critical decision was always Saban’s call, but he wanted input from his coaches, especially in tough situations, and that’s something else that set him apart, according to Locksley.

“There was never a flinch whatsoever on his part to make that move,” Locksley said. “But you’ve also got to remember that he’s the same guy that made a decision a year before when we lost the championship to go with a new playcaller [Sarkisian] for the championship game. That’s the thing about Coach. He listens to people, but he’s the one that makes the decision. And when he does, there’s no turning back.”

Locksley said he’s not sure Saban could have managed the whole Hurts-Tagovailoa situation any better. Tagovailoa had taken most of the first-team reps prior to the semifinal against Clemson after Hurts got the flu.

“I’m not sure the ball hit the ground in any of those practices,” Locksley said. “Tua was unbelievable.”

But when Tagovailoa didn’t start against Clemson, Locksley said Tagovailoa was boiling mad and ready to transfer. It was a similar story with Hurts after he was benched in the national title game. After all, he had lost only two games as a starter — and one of those was the national championship game against Clemson the year before, when his 30-yard touchdown run gave Alabama the lead with a little more than two minutes remaining.

“It’s never easy to juggle those types of things. Only one quarterback can play, but Coach does a great job of managing it and allowing the people who are closest to the players to be a big part of it,” Locksley said. “And then in 2018, it was almost a reversal. Jalen comes in and saves us in the SEC championship game. He was ready. Those things don’t happen by accident. The tone is set at the top.”


CRISTOBAL ARRIVED AT Alabama in 2013, the year after the Crimson Tide lost to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa. The pregame meeting the next year in College Station remains etched in Cristobal’s mind.

“Every detail in those meetings is covered, from where the sun rises and sets, does it affect the returners, the referees, what they are prone to calling, all that stuff,” Cristobal said.

The Tide had heard all offseason that they were going to have to go play at Kyle Field, and that Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was going to light them up again. Cristobal said the mood in the locker room was uptight, and Saban sensed it right away.

“Hey man, ain’t no one going to die today, you know?” Saban insisted. “Get your asses focused and enthused about this opportunity we have today. Ain’t no one going to die.”

Cristobal said the tension was immediately relieved.

“We got back to business,” Cristobal said. “He had a knack for doing stuff that made everybody in the organization better.”

Alabama beat Texas A&M 49-42 in one of the best college football games of the year.


THE WEEK BEFORE the 2016 national championship game, Saban abruptly cut ties with Kiffin, who was his offensive coordinator and playcaller for Alabama’s semifinal win over Washington. Saban had Sarkisian, then an offensive analyst, call plays for the title game against Clemson; the Tigers would beat the Tide 35-31 on a last-second touchdown. Kiffin had been named Florida Atlantic’s coach a few weeks earlier, and Saban didn’t feel Kiffin was fully invested in his duties at Alabama.

After Saban retired, Kiffin said he reached out to reiterate what he has told Saban almost every time he has seen him since that parting.

“I just told him that I appreciated him so much, and as I look back now at any issues we had between us, they were 100 percent my fault,” Kiffin said. “I didn’t see it at the time, but I see it now.

“It’s a lot like being a parent. You don’t always understand when you’re a kid and your parents are telling you things, but then you get older and have your own kids, and you’re like, ‘OK, now I get it.'”

Kiffin said he apologized for being so difficult, but that Saban was very gracious and talked about what a good run they had together — three SEC championships, three College Football Playoff appearances, one national title and a 40-3 record, including a 26-game winning streak to end their three years together.

“I would have really struggled with myself as an assistant coach at that stage, and I told Coach that,” Kiffin said. “Now I’m the head coach, and I see that. Yes, I would have liked me on game day because there was a lot of success and all the plays that we created. All that stuff would have been great, but always questioning things, wanting to know why and arguing back. … I don’t think I would have put up with it as a head coach.”


SABAN AND FISHER were raised a “few hollers over,” as Jimbo would say, in West Virginia, but they were never what you would call close friends after their days of working together at LSU from 2000 to 2004. Their relationship seemingly went up in flames prior to the 2022 season.

You’ve heard this part before. Saban, who once called Fisher the best offensive coordinator he ever had at the college or pro level, said at a May 18, 2022, fundraiser that Texas A&M “bought” all its players in the previous signing class with name, image and likeness deals. An enraged Fisher, then the Aggies’ coach, fired back the next day in a hastily called news conference. He called Saban a “narcissist” and described Saban’s comments as “despicable.” Saban later apologized and said he shouldn’t have singled out specific schools, but he didn’t back down on his stance that NIL was being used as a guise for pay-for-play.

Fisher said he hasn’t talked to Saban since his retirement, but is glad to see his old boss walking away when he’s young and healthy enough to do some of the other things he wants.

“I know everybody thinks we’re enemies because I said what I said, but I truly believe Nick’s a good guy and a genuine guy,” said Fisher, who was fired toward the end of the 2023 season at Texas A&M. “Now, Nick likes to win and will do what he needs to do to win. We all will. Maybe it’s the West Virginia hillbilly in us. We like to hit you and scratch you. But at the end of the day, we give a s—. That’s the way we grew up.

“I remember when we got to LSU, Nick was sort of an outsider, hadn’t coached in the SEC and really hadn’t won crazily. But none of that fazed him. You could see his vision right away, his tenacity to do it the way he knew it had to be done despite what anybody else thought. There was nothing outside his program that affected him.

“A lot of it is that we’re the same guy, Nick and me, and are point-blank about what’s on our minds.”

‘If I want to call a timeout, I’ll call a damn timeout’

Throughout his coaching career, Saban loved organizing pickup 3-on-3 basketball games with his coaches at lunchtime. Only in the offseason, mind you.

The games at times were intense, and legend has it that Saban picked the teams and occasionally picked who would guard him. At Alabama, that guy often was current Arkansas State athletic director Jeff Purinton, who was then one of Saban’s most trusted confidants as associate athletic director for football communications.

“My first years with him, I loved it and looked forward to it. My last six years, I dreaded it,” Smart said with a laugh.

Smart participated in those games at all three of his coaching stops with Saban.

“We played outside when we were with the Miami Dolphins, some great games,” said Smart, noting that current South Carolina receivers coach James Coley and former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett were part of the games.

One of the funnier stories, and Smart says Coley tells it best, was when Saban was at LSU. They went from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3, making it a faster-paced game. Coley said Saban, in his mid-50s at the time, became winded and called timeout after a loose ball. But Stan Hixon, who was on Saban’s team, was the only one who heard Saban call timeout. Derek Dooley was on the opposite team and thought Hixon had called the timeout. Dooley yelled, “There’s no timeouts out here.”

Dooley had no idea the call came from Saban, and Saban was none too pleased.

“Hey Derek, I’m 50 years old, and I’m about to have a heart attack. If I want to call a timeout, I’ll call a damn timeout,” Saban huffed.

play

1:55

Nick Saban on where it all began for him as a coach

In 2018, Nick Saban told the story of the exact moment he started thinking like a coach.

Fisher said he and Saban were always on the same team during their LSU years. They would play on the practice court underneath the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“We’d always go to 11. Nick was the point guard, and I was the shooting guard,” said Fisher, who was Saban’s offensive coordinator at the time. “Our third player would vary. I mean, we’d go at it too. I wasn’t going to lose, and neither was Nick. I’d score about nine of our points, and he’d score the other two. He could handle the ball and shoot, but I could shoot from long range. It was some serious basketball.”

Former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who worked two stints under Saban at Alabama, joked that he was banged up all the time because he was constantly diving for loose balls to impress Saban, especially those first few years when Pruitt was a younger, off-field staff member.

Saban continued with his lunchtime games until spring 2019 before having hip replacement surgery. Those early years at Alabama were the best, according to Smart.

The Alabama assistants had an hour for lunch, but they were required by Saban to make recruiting calls during the break.

“So the coaches that he demanded play basketball over that lunch hour would show up across the street at Coleman Coliseum with their phones in their hands making recruiting calls,” Smart said. “Nick would jog down the steps, and we all made sure he saw us making calls before the games started.”

Kiffin doesn’t have any hoops stories because he strategically made it a point not to participate.

“I knew better,” Kiffin said. “When I got there, they told me all about the games and how Coach picks the teams and that if you cover him, you can’t foul him and probably should let him score some. And I’m like, ‘Wrong dude. That ain’t happening. I’ll just go for a jog or something.’

“I knew if I went over there, it probably wasn’t going to go well. So I never once went and played basketball.”

‘Nobody does that’: What makes Saban unique

Smart’s Bulldogs have won two of the past three national championships, and of Saban’s former assistants, he is probably the most like his old boss. Both defensive masterminds, they were together for four of Saban’s six national titles at Alabama.

“His ability to manage and motivate people was unlike anything I’ve seen, and I mean everybody in the organization,” said Smart, who beat Saban to capture the 2021 national championship but was winless in their other five meetings as a head coach.

“He leads by example. Nobody outworks Nick. He doesn’t hold you to a different standard than he holds himself. He’s smart and that’s one thing, but his message always has a purpose. Everything’s calculated, and he just does it better than everybody else.”

Saban was 31-3 against his former assistants, with one of those losses coming this past season to Sarkisian, who guided the Longhorns to their first CFP appearance and their first 12-win season since 2009. Sarkisian, the offensive coordinator on Alabama’s 2020 national championship team, marvels at Saban’s run, especially considering that in five of the 10 years prior to his arrival, the Tide failed to produce a winning season.

“I mean, from when he took [Alabama] over in 2007 and the state of the program then to what he was able to do, even until the last snap of his career, is unbelievable,” Sarkisian said. “He instilled in everybody every day that they were competing to be a national champion. He set a standard and a bar for excellence in our sport that we’re all striving to get to.”

Beyond the wins, Saban’s ability to lead resonates with Cristobal.

“He’s the epitome of an elite CEO, and one of the greatest things you learn from him is that he has a relentless attack on human nature because his belief in upholding the standards of an organization is as prioritized as it can be,” Cristobal said. “He made it very clear to us that once you don’t hold people to that elite standard, an entire organization could fall to pieces. He made sure he kept us on edge, and he challenged us all the time.”

Saban never deviated from his core beliefs, but he was continuously self-scouting, tinkering and trying to gain an edge.

“I appreciated the level of detail, the competitive spirit, the constant search for improvement and the ability to be flexible and to always be evaluating things and trying to get better and staying ahead of the curve and thinking outside the box,” Napier said. “You don’t do what he’s done unless you’re just a little bit different.”

Dantonio, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in January, coached defensive backs under Saban at Michigan State.

“He always talked about two things: consistency and performance,” Dantonio said. “He’s been consistent throughout, and he’s built something that lasts. That’s his legacy, and I think that’s what everybody wants to do. I can still hear Nick saying something that stayed with me throughout my coaching career: ‘If you’re not coaching it, you’re letting it happen.’ There’s nothing he didn’t coach.”

Saban produced 43 first-round NFL draft picks during his 17 seasons at Alabama, with more ahead in the upcoming draft.

“It’s easy to say they just had better players. They did. Really good players,” Sarkisian said. “It’s easy to say, man, he’s the greatest defensive mind. Yeah, he’s a great defensive mind. But his ability to adapt schematically, his ability to continue to bring in new coaches year after year on both sides of the ball, his ability to motivate the different teams, the different personalities and different quarterbacks that led to all those championships is what’s fascinating.”

At the end of the day, though, Saban never lost sight of the main ingredient in winning those championships.

“He always sort of laughs and smiles and says, ‘Hey, I can’t coach bad players, either,'” Dantonio said.

Locksley, who had been a head coach or coordinator for 15 years before he joined Saban in 2016 as an offensive analyst, said his three years at Alabama were “the equivalent of Muslims going to Mecca or Catholics going to the Vatican. … For me, it was like when a college professor takes a sabbatical. That’s how much I learned.”

He has been resolute in building his Maryland program with the same blueprint Saban used.

“I tell people all the time that I’ve got grandma’s famous chocolate chip cookie recipe from my time with him,” he said. “If the process tells you to put two cups of chocolate chips in there, why the hell are you going to put three? If it says three eggs, why would you put two? Everything fits and has a perfect place for how it fits.”

Even Kiffin, who is never at a loss for words, struggles to put Saban’s career in proper perspective.

“I always look at coaching, and a lot of times, somebody has a run when they hit it right with an elite quarterback who’s a top-10 pick and then they have drop-offs,” Kiffin said. “But there’s no one who’s done it like Coach has for the last 17 years and then LSU before that. He’s withstood all these changes over the years, coaching changes and the game changing, and just kept winning.

“I mean, nobody does that. It just doesn’t happen, and I’m not sure it ever will again.”

Continue Reading

Sports

Sources: Yankees add Hill to banged-up bullpen

Published

on

By

Sources: Yankees add Hill to banged-up bullpen

Reliever Tim Hill and the New York Yankees are in agreement on a one-year major league contract, sources told ESPN, in a deal that adds the veteran left-hander to the team with the best record in baseball.

Hill, 34, was designated for assignment by the Chicago White Sox last week after a rough patch in which his ERA ballooned to 5.87. Hill still has not allowed a home run, and his 65.6% groundball rate is the third best among relievers in major league baseball — behind Yankees closer Clay Holmes and Baltimore Orioles setup man Yennier Cano.

Hitters have tagged Hill’s fastball this season, dropping 41 hits in 23 innings, but he’s been an effective bullpen option since his debut with the Kansas City Royals in 2018, posting a 3.88 ERA over the next five years. The San Diego Padres non-tendered Hill after the 2023 season, and he signed a one-year, $1.8 million contract with Chicago in December.

The Yankees, who lost reliever Jonathan Loaisiga to Tommy John surgery earlier this season and placed reliever Ian Hamilton on the injured list earlier this week, have the third-best bullpen ERA in the American League at 3.41, with pitching coach Matt Blake helping extract career-best seasons from right-handers Luke Weaver, Michael Tonkin and Ron Marinaccio.

Right-handed reliever Scott Effross and right-handed starter JT Brubaker, both of whom haven’t pitched since 2022 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, are currently on rehabilitation assignments for New York as well.

Hill is the latest reclamation project for the 51-25 Yankees, who added ace Gerrit Cole back to their rotation Wednesday and already have lefties Caleb Ferguson and Victor Gonzalez in their bullpen.

Continue Reading

Sports

Cole solid in season debut, eyes higher pitch limit

Published

on

By

Cole solid in season debut, eyes higher pitch limit

NEW YORK — New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole‘s assignment for his season debut Wednesday wasn’t cushy: a mid-June clash against the loaded Baltimore Orioles, his club’s primary competition for American League East supremacy, after just three rehab starts fresh off an alarming elbow injury.

But Cole isn’t your typical pitcher, and the Yankees deemed him ready knowing he would have to build up his stamina at the highest level. Working with a short leash Wednesday, the reigning Cy Young Award winner proved he was up for the challenge. He was sharp, with a touch of rust, over four-plus innings in front of a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium, though New York would go on to lose 7-6 in 10 innings.

The right-hander was charged with two runs on three hits. He compiled five strikeouts to one walk. He threw 62 pitches and induced six swing-and-misses. His average fastball velocity was down 1.6 mph from last season, but he still touched 97 mph.

“I felt pretty good,” Cole said. “Good command for the most part. And made some good pitches when we needed to make some good pitches.”

Cole took the mound for his long-awaited return at 7:07 p.m. to cheers after a video montage was played on the big screen highlighting his debut. It began with a couple of bumps.

The Orioles inflicted most of their damage against Cole in the first inning. Gunnar Henderson led off the game with a one-hopper that bounced off second baseman Gleyber Torres‘ glove into right field and was ruled a double. Two batters later, Ryan O’Hearn, facing an 0-2, slashed a slider for a two-out, RBI ground-rule double.

Cole quickly regrouped. He needed just seven pitches to retire the side in the second inning. He issued a one-out walk to Henderson in the third. Henderson stole second base on the next pitch but was stranded there as Cole recorded his first three strikeouts of the season in the inning.

Cole retired the side in order with two strikeouts in the fourth frame on 16 pitches. He took the mound for the fifth inning but was pulled for reliever Ron Marinaccio after surrendering a first-pitch single to Cedric Mullins. The crowd showered Cole with a standing ovation. Cole, visibly annoyed with the end of his performance, acknowledged the supporters with his glove twice.

Then he watched Marinaccio yield a two-run home run to Ramon Urias for the second of the two runs on his pitching line.

“I thought he got better as he went,” said Boone, who noted he sensed Cole was fatigued after the fourth inning.

Before the game, Boone declined to share Cole’s pitch limit, not wanting to give the Orioles a competitive edge. But Cole was obviously going to be limited after he was built up to 68 pitches over 4⅓ innings in his third and final rehab start Friday.

Boone said the goal was to build up Cole “conservatively.” On Wednesday, that meant a 65-pitch limit, Boone said after the game. Asked what his pitch limit would be in his next outing, Cole echoed his manager’s competitive disadvantage line. But he did offer a hint: “More.”

“I’m tired now,” Cole said. “Certainly a different level. It just demands a higher level of focus and execution. I definitely felt I could keep making pitches, but it was strategic in the pitch count. And, certainly, in that regard we executed that perfectly.”

Continue Reading

Sports

College Football Playoff: Five questions for the committee

Published

on

By

College Football Playoff: Five questions for the committee

When the College Football Playoff was introduced more than a decade ago, and the sport’s championship evolved from two to four teams, even the system’s creators couldn’t answer some of the questions that arose — or they had a heckuva time trying.

What was the value of winning a conference title when two SEC teams could be in and two Power 5 conference champions were out? When do head-to-head results matter? And at what point are they dismissed? How do you measure a team’s schedule strength? And how much was a schedule’s strength derived from the perceived strength of a contender’s own conference?

When the 12-team CFP is unveiled this fall, it will again be a learning curve for everyone — fans, coaches, players, media and the selection committee. The committee’s task — and its protocol — remains mostly unchanged, but an unprecedented 12-team field naturally raises new questions for the group charged with ranking the best teams in the country.

In the spirit of the new CFP format, which will guarantee playoff spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions, here are five questions for the committee.

1. Will strength-of-schedule evaluations change with conference realignment?

Losing isn’t something the top national title contenders are used to — but even some coaches expect that to change, and it could make things tricky in the committee meeting room.

The committee has historically rewarded teams that play tougher opponents, holding wins against CFP top 25 teams in high regard. With the Big Ten expanding to 18 teams and the SEC to 16, though, some CFP contenders now have a more difficult path to their own conference championship game. The rigorous SEC and Big Ten schedules are going to make it even more difficult for those respective leagues to produce undefeated or even one-loss conference champions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 2014, 14 of the 20 teams that participated in the SEC championship game had one or no losses. During that same time frame, 11 of 20 Big Ten teams playing in the league championship game had one or no losses.

Now?

According to ESPN’s preseason FPI, only three teams have at least a 10% chance to finish the regular season undefeated (Oregon, Notre Dame and Georgia), and none have more than a 20% chance to go 12-0. The only other time during the CFP era that no teams had more than a 20% chance to finish undefeated was 2016, and Alabama was the only Power 5 team to finish 12-0 that year.

What will that mean at Selection Central when teams from those leagues have multiple losses and are being compared with contenders from the ACC and Big 12 — teams with better records but against fewer ranked opponents?

“Do I think there’s going to be teams with multiple losses in the playoff? Yes, most certainly there is,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “How do you differentiate? I’ll leave that to the committee. That’s why we have the system we have. … There’s going to be debate about what football teams get left out. Ultimately, everybody has a chance to go out on the grass and perform and play and earn the right to get in. Somebody’s going to get left out that probably shouldn’t. … We had that with the four-team playoff. There was probably three times I thought we were one of the best four teams but we didn’t earn it on the field.”


2. How many teams from the SEC and Big Ten will fill the bracket?

Using last year’s final CFP ranking with conference realignment for 2024, the Big Ten and SEC would have combined for 10 of the 12 spots.

SEC champion Alabama would have been in along with Texas, Georgia, Mizzou and Ole Miss. Big Ten champion Michigan would have been joined by Washington (the Pac-12 champion in 2023), Ohio State, Oregon, and Penn State.

There is no limit to how many teams from one conference can qualify for the playoff, but there are guaranteed spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions. Most likely those will usually feature the champions from the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and a Group of 5 winner. In 2023 those winners were Florida State (ACC), Michigan (Big Ten), Alabama (SEC), Texas (Big 12, now in the SEC) and Liberty (out of Conference USA, the highest ranked G5 winner).

How often will the conference champs from the ACC and Big 12 be their lone representatives?


3. How difficult will it be to rank the No. 8 and No. 9 teams with the No. 1 team looming?

The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn a first-round bye. Everyone else will play a first-round game on the home campus of the higher seed. The winner of the game between No. 8 and No. 9 will face the best team in the country in the quarterfinal. The loser goes home. Is this something the committee will think about — either consciously or unconsciously — as it compiles its final ranking on Selection Day?

Remember, these games will be played on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21 this year, which could be very cold on some campuses — particularly in the Big Ten. (According to Accuweather.com, Ann Arbor, Michigan, had a high of 38 degrees last Dec. 20 and a low of 21 degrees.)

How much of an advantage might that be if they are hosting a team from the South?

Last year, in a 12-team field, Oregon would have hosted Mizzou. Autzen Stadium has a distinct home-field advantage because of its smaller size and location. The winner of that game would have played No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Michigan.


4. What will the criteria be for ranking the top Group of 5 champion?

Last year, the selection committee’s most controversial ranking outside of the top four was its decision to slot undefeated Liberty at No. 23, which guaranteed the Flames a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Liberty earned the Group of 5’s coveted bid to a New Year’s Six bowl without beating a single Power 5 opponent. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Flames had the easiest schedule in the country last year (No. 133) entering the postseason. Eight of Liberty’s 12 regular-season opponents finished with losing records. It was a decision that blatantly defied the committee’s typical reverence for strength of schedule and was inconsistent with its justification throughout the rest of its Top 25.

Had the 12-team playoff existed in 2023, Liberty would have earned a spot in the field as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion, and the Flames would have bumped out No. 12 Oklahoma for the spot. Was Liberty’s selection an anomaly last year? Or is going undefeated the committee’s new standard for the Group of 5, regardless of schedule strength? If so, does that translate to the rest of their Top 25?

In the four-team playoff, even the best Group of 5 champions faced a nearly impossible standard to reach the CFP — an undefeated record that included wins against Power 5 opponents and CFP Top 25-ranked teams. In 2021, Cincinnati, which was then a member of the American Athletic Conference, was the only team to reach a CFP semifinal in the decade of the four-team playoff.

The criteria for reaching the 12-team field will be highly scrutinized because of the likelihood that the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion will bump out a strong contender at No. 12. Remember, It’s not the committee’s top 12 teams. It’s the five highest-ranked conference champions plus the next seven highest-ranked teams. So if that fifth champion is ranked outside of the top 12, the unlucky 12th team will be snubbed to make room for it.

If the fifth champion is not ranked at all, then the selection committee will separately rank the Group of 5 champions and then announce the top school as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion along with the Top 25.

Liberty again doesn’t face any Power 4 opponents. Will it matter?


5. How will the playoff path change for independents?

It’s not just Notre Dame that will be impacted by the new format. Oregon State and Washington State will also be treated as independents this fall, as they no longer have a Pac-12 conference championship game to play in.

If any of those schools qualify for the 12-team field, they can’t earn a first-round bye because they can’t finish as one of the four highest-ranked conference champions. They would play a first-round game and need to win four straight games to win the national title.

In the past, not having a conference title game was a pro-con situation for the Irish. If they were already in the top four heading into Selection Day, the Irish didn’t have to risk losing and falling out. If they were on the bubble, though, there wasn’t another opportunity to impress the committee against a ranked opponent. Notre Dame had to sit and wait and hope for help while everyone else was competing.

Now?

The Irish should be in more often than not if they finish with no more than one — maybe two — losses, depending on their schedule, results and how everyone else fares. There is far less pressure to go undefeated, even without a conference title. They still need to beat the marquee opponents, though, like Texas A&M, Florida State and USC, and avoid upsets to Marshall.

Oregon State’s best opportunity will be Sept. 14 against rival Oregon, as most of the Beavers’ opponents are Mountain West Conference teams through a scheduling alliance. Washington State faces rival Washington, Texas Tech and Oregon State. Both the former Pac-12 teams need to leave no doubt they’re playoff material against unranked opponents because they may have limited opportunities for CFP top 25 wins.

Continue Reading

Trending