TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s habitual presence in the College Football Playoff and its championship game consistently gives it high-stakes games at the end of its seasons. Other programs trying to duplicate the Tide's success lead them to pilfer Alabama’s assistant coaches for their own head-coaching jobs, creating a higher than average turnover.
The intersection of the two can create difficult situations.
Once again, Alabama is going into its most important game with a coach on his way out, as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will take over at Texas after Monday’s national championship game. This dynamic has plagued Alabama in previous years, but the experience and the people involved have it optimistic it won’t happen again against Ohio State.
“We’ve had several of these situations where we’ve had guys playing in the national championship game and guys are getting head-coaching jobs someplace else,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think it’s up to each individual.”
Alabama has seen both ends of the spectrum.
Jim McElwain was able to help Alabama beat LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game after the 2011 season before departing for the head job at Colorado State, and four years later, Kirby Smart did the same on his way to Georgia. Jeremy Pruitt coached Alabama’s defense to the national championship in 2017 before departing for Tennessee.
Lane Kiffin’s departure — elevating Sarkisian to play calling duties the first time — did create discord leading up to a national championship game loss. Not long after, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley leaving for Maryland was one of several impending coaching changes going into a national championship game loss to Clemson.
Saban understands the juggling act these coaches have on their hands, having done it himself. He also understands the easiest path to clarity.
“I went through it when I became the head coach at Michigan State, and I was the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick and we had like five or six games left to play in the season and had a chance to get in the playoffs, which we did, and went two deep in the playoffs, won the first game, lost the second,” Saban said.
“I think you just have to separate yourself and focus on — look, if it wasn't for the players, if it wasn't for the players at the Cleveland Browns being the best defense, I probably would have never got the Michigan State job. So you kind of owe it to the players to give your best, to do your best to help them get prepared for the game so they can play well in the game.”
Saban added most of the coaches in this position have been able to maintain the proper focus on both jobs. If it’s needed, a motivated player corps will help.
“Everyone is happy for Coach Sark,” Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith said. “That's part of the business. But he's going to be here with us throughout this last game, and we're trying to finish things the right way.”