Publish date:

THE IMITATION GAME

Author:

Programs looking to replicate Nick Saban's Process have been eager to turn his assistants into head coaches. InKIRBY SMART,Georgia may have hired the closest thing to the original, and he could find himself facing his mentor for the national championship

IN THE DAYS after a 40--17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 11, Georgia players heard the same message whether they were eating dinner at their training table, bench-pressing in the weight room or doing homework in study hall. The season isn't over. All of your goals remain in front of you. Beating Kentucky is all that matters.

Second-year coach Kirby Smart and strength coach Scott Sinclair had begun formulating that refrain the night of that loss, the Bulldogs' first of 2017. Smart honed it after he met with his staff. To make sure every athletic department employee who interacted with the players knew what to say, the word went out to all department heads: No one was to dwell on the defeat in the presence of the players.

Why does Smart care what the person serving chicken breasts or an academic adviser says to his Bulldogs? "What's really been important in the success of the places I've been is that the message came clear and direct and everybody understood that," says Smart, whose team responded with three straight wins to end the season, the last of which kept their goal of a national title in front of them. With a 28--7 victory over Auburn in the SEC title game, Georgia secured a date with Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff.

The programs for which Smart worked where the message came through most clearly and directly? LSU, the Dolphins and Alabama. The common denominator in those jobs? Smart's boss, Nick Saban—who has won five national titles as a head coach. Five years ago SPORTS ILLUSTRATED examined the Sabanization of college football. Schools hired former Saban assistants with the hope that they would institute his Process on their campuses. The results have been mixed. Saban's former LSU coordinator Jimbo Fisher won the 2013 national championship at Florida State before leaving this month for Texas A&M. In 2010, Florida hired Saban's former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp—then fired him during his fourth season. (Muschamp was hired as South Carolina's coach in '15.) The Gators then replaced Muschamp with Saban's former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain before canning him this season.

Five years later, schools still strive to replicate Saban's philosophy and results. A&M hired Fisher and gave him a guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract. In early December, Tennessee brought in the Tide's defensive coordinator for the last two seasons, Jeremy Pruitt, in its second attempt at Sabanization. (Derek Dooley, an assistant at LSU under Saban, got fired in 2012 after three seasons in Knoxville and is now the Dallas Cowboys' receivers coach.) When the 2018 season begins, four former Saban coordinators will be SEC coaches.

Smart, who played safety at Georgia from 1995 through '98, now leads a program that might represent the purest distillation of the Process yet. He served as Saban's DC from 2008 through '15 and helped the Tide seamlessly adapt to some of the most dramatic tactical shifts the game has seen. Smart turned down other jobs (including the head job at Auburn) and waited for an opening at his alma mater, which has the recruiting base and the resources to build a program similar to his mentor's. The hope is that when Saban, 66, decides it's time to turn his full attention to his car dealerships, Georgia will be positioned to become the next SEC power.

But before that, the programs are two of the four remaining in the hunt for the national title, and Smart could face his former boss with college football's biggest prize hanging in the balance.

AFTER

THE 2015 SEASON GEORGIA officials took a big gamble: They fired Mark Richt to create an opening for Smart. Richt had won two SEC titles—but no national championships. Richt had already lost much of his political capital after a strange choice to start a third-string quarterback in a 2015 loss to Florida even though neither of his first two QBs was injured. That was bad enough, but Georgia officials decided the Richt era needed to end late that season after watching the Bulldogs celebrate an overtime win over Georgia Southern as if they had won the Super Bowl. A few days earlier Saban had delivered his now-infamous rant about his D, in which he described an opposing offense as going "through us like s--- through a tin horn." Georgia higher-ups wanted their coach to have a similar attitude. With South Carolina sniffing around Smart while seeking a replacement for Steve Spurrier, Georgia fired Richt after a win over Georgia Tech. Athletic director Greg McGarity signed Smart to a six-year deal a week later.

When Smart accepted the job, McGarity didn't issue marching orders. He asked questions. "He needed to educate us," McGarity says, "about what it meant to go big-time."

To build a program like Saban's requires expertise in four areas.

MANAGEMENT

The coach must clearly define everyone's role in the organization and then hold employees accountable when they don't deliver. According to people who have worked with Smart and Richt, this was an issue at the tail end of the Richt era. Smart sees this as one of his priorities going forward. "Holding people accountable is really the part I think some people miss out on," he says. "Nobody wants to hold people to the fire. They just want wins." And just as Smart did after that Auburn loss, the coach has to ensure the players hear the same thing from everyone.

Fisher adopted that attitude when he took over at Tallahassee in 2010, hiring mental-conditioning coach Trevor Moawad because Saban trusted him. Moawad, who works for multiple teams, no longer works with Alabama, but he does work with another SEC team. Smart's Bulldogs, of course.

SCHEMATIC FLEXIBILITY

Saban's defenses struggled with new up-tempo attacks a few years ago. So he consulted then Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who faced Chip Kelly's warp-speed offenses every day at practice. Saban looked to recruit lighter linebackers and faster safeties who matched up better. After losing to Ohio State in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, Saban invited former Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman to Tuscaloosa to learn about concepts OSU had implemented. "I grilled his a-- good," Saban says.

The next season those concepts showed up in Alabama's offense, and the Tide won the national title. "I didn't invent any of this stuff," Saban says. "I'm always looking for the next guy I'm going to learn something from." Muschamp learned this lesson the hard way after he insisted on a pro-style offense when he arrived at Florida. That scheme didn't fit the players he inherited, and the Gators struggled to score. Muschamp resolved that if he ever became a coach again, he'd tailor his system to his personnel. He is now overachieving at South Carolina, where his team is 8--4.

RECRUITING

In the SEC the head coach must also be the program's best recruiter. Smart and Pruitt were excellent recruiters at Alabama, but the best on campus was Saban. There are already signs that Smart could be as good as Saban in this respect: Georgia's 2017 class, the first that Smart assembled from start to finish, was No. 3.

INSPIRED HIRING

Saban tells the story about the time his wife, Terry, answered the phone at home shortly after Saban, then an Oilers assistant, was hired as Toledo's coach in 1989. Terry spoke to a nice young man from Ohio who was an assistant at Illinois State and looking for a job. Saban hadn't heard of him at the time, and he still regrets that he didn't return a young Urban Meyer's call. He has made it his mission not to miss out on the next Meyer. For those hoping to move their résumé to the top of Saban's pile, work ethic matters more than experience. And don't say you'd be happy sweeping the floor at Alabama. Saban wants people who want his job someday.

But those first jobs may not be glamorous. When Saban got to Alabama, he began beefing up his staff with lower paid analysts and recruiting assistants who grind in obscurity in the service of efficiency. Others noticed. After Dabo Swinney took over at Clemson, Swinney had to cajole his administration into hiring more support staffers. "It's not right to have a donkey running in the Kentucky Derby," Swinney recalled telling his bosses in a 2012 interview. Under Swinney, Clemson has built a thoroughbred to rival Alabama.

To manage staff churn, Saban has developed a farm team of sorts. Pruitt, for example, was Hoover (Ala.) High's defensive coordinator when Saban hired him in 2007 as director of player development. Pruitt then worked his way up to defensive backs coach. Stuck behind Smart, he eventually left to be the coordinator at Florida State and then Georgia. When Smart left for Georgia, Saban immediately hired Pruitt, who needed no on-the-job training.

Smart will be tested soon in this area. Pruitt is targeting Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer as his defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Smart will have to show he can identify coaching talent as well as his former boss does. Smart can already feel himself becoming disconnected from the network that forms every May, when assistants go on the road to evaluate high schoolers, and thus have a harder time of keeping track of assistants who are rising stars. Head coaches have been banned from the practice by the NCAA since 2008, when other coaches tried (and ultimately failed) to keep themselves from being outworked by Saban and Meyer.

IT'S

TOO SOON TO SAY WHETHER

Smart can match his former boss in these areas. Recruiting will evolve. Schemes will change. Assistants will leave. How Smart responds to those challenges will determine how many branches his coaching tree ultimately sprouts. Perhaps in 10 years we won't call it Sabanizing. Maybe we'll call it Smartening.

Two weeks after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs began preparing to face the Tigers again in the SEC championship game with a trip to the playoff on the line. The message that week? Remember how they embarrassed you? Pay them back when it counts the most. Screens in Georgia's weight room looped the Tigers, up 30 late in the game, dancing to Soulja Boy's "Crank That" during a replay review. The message, untainted by any competing ideas, sank in completely.

That Saturday the Bulldogs routed the Tigers. A new SEC power announced itself, and the student had become perhaps the biggest threat to the master.

"HOLDING PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE IS THE PART I THINK PEOPLE MISS OUT ON. NOBODY WANTS TO HOLD PEOPLE TO THE FIRE. THEY JUST WANT WINS."

—Kirby Smart

[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]

NICK SABAN

ALABAMA

MICHIGAN STATE

1995 TO '99

MARK DANTONIO

MICHIGAN STATE

BOBBY WILLIAMS

EX-MICHIGAN STATE

LSU

2000 TO '04

JIMBO FISHER

EX-FLORIDA STATE, TEXAS A&M

WILL MUSCHAMP

EX-FLORIDA, SOUTH CAROLINA

DEREK DOOLEY

EX-TENNESSEE

ALABAMA

2007 TO PRESENT

JIM MCELWAIN

EX-COLORADO STATE, EX-FLORIDA

LANE KIFFIN

EX-TENNESSEE, EX-USC, FLORIDA ATLANTIC

JEREMY PRUITT

TENNESSEE

KIRBY SMART

GEORGIA