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Nick Saban turns assistants into head coaches — and in Kirby Smart, a title challenger

Kirby Smart, right, was an assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama from 2007 to 2015. (Dave Martin/AP)
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When Kirby Smart followed his boss, Nick Saban, to the University of Alabama, the young assistant had a modest football coaching résumé. He had recently turned 31, with only two seasons as a position coach at Power Five conference schools and another year in the NFL. He was an enthusiastic teacher who connected with his players, and for years, he stuck by Saban’s side.

In Smart’s second season with the Crimson Tide, Saban promoted him to defensive coordinator. He stayed in that role from 2008 to 2015, forging one of the longest tenures of any Alabama assistant under Saban. As most of the staff shuffled around him, Smart won four national titles at Alabama, becoming an attractive candidate for head coaching positions. He trusted he could develop more as a coach at Alabama — and specifically under Saban — than he could elsewhere. So he waited — until his alma mater called.

The University of Georgia needed a new coach after it fired Mark Richt, who led the program for 15 years and averaged nearly 10 wins per season. The Bulldogs wanted to take that “next step,” then-athletic director Greg McGarity said. The school looked for someone who “understood the specific ingredients necessary to excel” at this level, McGarity said at the time. And Smart, the former Georgia defensive back with experience winning titles at Alabama, fit that mold.

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On that day in December 2015, when Georgia introduced its new football coach, Smart wouldn’t put a timetable on when the program might compete for national championships. But fans could dream of that pinnacle with their belief rooted in Smart’s pedigree. This boost of optimism plays out around the country as Saban’s assistants scatter to new places and administrators hope they can bring a bit of that title-winning magic with them.

At Georgia, it worked. Six years into Smart’s tenure, the Bulldogs (12-0), No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, look poised to advance to the CFP for the second time. The school that hasn’t won a national championship since 1980 has reason to believe it could reach those heights next month. Georgia might not need a win against Saban’s third-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) in Saturday’s SEC title game to land in the top four. But staying undefeated after facing this Alabama team, one that hasn’t rolled through opponents as easily as usual, would feel like a monumental step forward.

Smart hasn’t beaten Saban in three attempts. Nearly four years ago, Alabama derailed Georgia’s hopes of ending its decades-long national title drought when the Crimson Tide won the championship game in overtime. Saban has prevailed in games against Georgia that have twice featured quarterback changes — Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa during the 2018 national title game and Tagovailoa back to Hurts in the 2018 SEC championship that knocked the Bulldogs out of playoff contention. But Georgia and its formidable defense finally could break through this weekend in Atlanta, even though Smart wants to shift the focus from the sidelines to the field.

“It’s about the players,” Smart said this week. “I’ve got an immense amount of respect for Nick and the job he's done and what he’s done at Alabama in the time I was there and since I’ve left. But he’ll be the first to admit it’s the phone calls Monday through Thursday and the official visits Saturday and Sunday that get the job done.”

Those players win the games, and the Bulldogs’ talent level gives them an edge against most opponents. But that performance is still part of the organizational machine that starts with relentless recruiting and then development on campus. So these assistants of Saban often credit their former boss for showing them a way to build that structure so it breeds success.

“He really laid the foundation for me,” Michigan State Coach Mel Tucker said on “College GameDay” this season, referencing the beginning of his career as a graduate assistant for Saban’s Spartans in 1997 and 1998. Tucker then worked for Saban again as the defensive backs coach at LSU (2000) and at Alabama (2015). “He really taught me everything — recruiting, offense, how to run an organization.”

As staff continuity wanes, Saban still wins titles -- With Nick Saban's assistants at Alabama becoming attractive candidates for other jobs, he faces significant turnover most years. In 2015, when Kirby Smart was in his ninth and final season at Alabama, Saban's assistants had been on his staff as on-field coaches for an average of 3.2 years. Yet Saban's teams continue to win national titles, which are highlighted below in blue.

At the end of this regular season, five of the country’s top 11 teams were coached by either Saban or one of his former assistants. No. 8 Mississippi (coached by Lane Kiffin), No. 10 Oregon (Mario Cristobal) and No. 11 Michigan State (Tucker) all compiled 10-win seasons. The Tucker-led turnaround with the Spartans recently earned the 49-year-old coach a 10-year, $95 million contract extension.

The fortune of Saban’s coaching tree extends further: Josh Gattis, the offensive coordinator for No. 2 Michigan, worked in Tuscaloosa for one season. After a four-year stint as Louisiana’s coach, Billy Napier was named the new coach at Florida. Napier coached wide receivers at Alabama from 2013 to 2016.

Jimbo Fisher, the coach at Texas A&M who once served as LSU’s offensive coordinator under Saban, finally ended the winless streak for assistants facing their former boss. The crew had compiled 24 straight losses, with Fisher contributing four defeats between his stints at Florida State and Texas A&M. But Fisher, who won a national title with the Seminoles for the 2013 season, brushed off the magnitude of the accomplishment that broadcasts often turn into a talking point.

“It was inevitable,” Fisher said after the Aggies kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired to beat then-No. 1 Alabama. “Somebody was going to do it in time. So, hey, it happened to be us. That’s great. But that doesn’t mean anything to me because that’s not a goal that I’m trying to talk about or do.”

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Most coaches, not just former assistants, have a dreadful record against Saban’s Alabama teams. Even with Fisher’s recent win, Saban has outperformed his former employees by an average of 24 points, a slightly better mark than the 22.5-point edge in the other 180 games he has coached at Alabama.

Fisher bucked the losing trend in October, but Smart’s three losses have come by an average of just nine points, the best mark among this contingent of former assistants. Those Georgia teams have done the best job containing Alabama’s offense (34 points per game), while Kiffin’s squads have scored the most against the Crimson Tide (34.5 points). Yet now, with the SEC championship approaching Saturday, Saban’s team enters as an underdog for the first time since 2015, ending a 92-game streak of playing as the betting favorite, according to ESPN.

While Smart waited for the ideal coaching opportunity, he remained immersed in that environment of championship expectations. Most assistants stay with Saban for only a couple of years before another program poaches them. That’s enough time for athletic directors to believe they can transfer that success to a new place. When a coach has Alabama on his résumé, other blemishes seem to fade. This season, five of Saban’s 10 assistants are new to their roles, and similar turnover has become an annual trend.

Smart was an exception. He’s the only coordinator who held on to that job with Saban for more than four consecutive seasons in Tuscaloosa. Only Burton Burns, the Crimson Tide’s running backs coach from 2007 to 2017, worked as an on-field assistant under Saban at Alabama for longer than Smart. When Smart left for Georgia, Saban called him “as good of an assistant coach and as loyal an assistant coach as I’ve ever had on my staff.”

With a chance to lead his own program, Smart needed only one eight-win season at Georgia before he turned his team into a national title contender. The Bulldogs fell short against Alabama that time, but Smart has kept the school hovering near that breakthrough. Now Georgia might finally reach the peak, where Smart has climbed before with Saban but never on his own.