Thankfully, former Nick Saban assistant Dan Quinn (2005-06 Dolphins) is three time zones away this weekend playing only the 11-win NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams.
Otherwise, to hear of the way Saban schools his underlings, he might have brought Alabama by Flowery Branch earlier this week to put a whipping on the Falcons before moving on to Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs. Just to remind him once more who the alpha wolf is in this pack.
That Saban shows no quarter to those who once worked for him is by now a major theme of Monday’s national championship game. He is demanding when they work for him, and downright merciless when they work against him. Not only is he 11-0 in games against his former assistants, he has outscored them in those games by an average score of 39-10.
Some would liken Saban to the “Star Wars” mentor, Yoda. One image that might more accurately illustrate the Saban-vs-his-coaching-progeny dynamic: Think Darth Vader lopping off Luke Skywalker’s hand.
Such an overpowering record against these former assistants would seem to confirm that Saban has taught them everything they know, but he didn’t teach them everything he knows.
What Saban said about his success against them earlier in the week went beyond false modesty into the realm of actual insight:
“Well, I don’t think the game is about the coaches. I think it’s about the players. And I think in most of those games, if the other guy had the players that we had, they might have beat us. You prepare the players the best you can, but we’ve had pretty good teams around here. Most of the guys were going to rebuild programs, so maybe we’re a little bit ahead of them, and if they had had our team, they’d have probably beat us.”
Of the five other assistants who went on to head-coach teams and play Saban, Smart has the longest history. Smart was in tow for 11 seasons at three stops – the last nine years in Alabama – which deserves some kind of medal for endurance under fire.
Among the many gifts that Smart picked up along the way is the ability to shoot down any trite public perception. Like the one that would suggest he has some advantage over Saban because he knows him so well.
“Yeah, I don't know that it's an advantage,” he has said. “His tendencies and his strengths are recruiting really good players that are really big and really fast, and then you have to block them. Or you have to be able to run the ball against them. Or you have to be able to defend the wide-outs and the corner.
“It comes down to a lot more than his tendencies because his tendencies are very similar to a lot of good coaches: Good decisions, protect the ball, play great defense, kick your butt on special teams. There's not a lot of tendencies that he has that are just going to be ground-breaking to allow us a benefit. The bottom line is our players got to go out and we've got to play a really good football game to stay with these guys.”
The roster of vanquished assistants includes Derek Dooley (0-3 at Tennessee), Jim McElwain (0-3 at Colorado State and Florida), Mark Dantonio (0-2 at Michigan State), Will Muschamp (0-2 at Florida) and Jimbo Fisher (0-1 at Florida State).
Saban has beaten them to begin the season – wrecking FSU this year at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He has beaten them near season’s end, taking out Michigan State 38-0 in a playoff semifinal, and routing both Muschamp’s and McElwain’s Gators in the SEC Championship. And he has beaten them in the meaty middle of a season – I’m sorry, that particular Dooley vs. Alabama in the Third Saturday in October rivalry just wasn’t fair.
However, there is one little detail – actually one huge difference – that separates Smart from the other beaten and bowed. He’s bringing a far more complete and competitive team to Monday’s national championship game than any of those other mentees.
There is a simple reason why Smart is the first former assistant to get to Saban at this ultimate level: He has more talent than the other guys had.
Added to that is the fact that Smart, more than all the others, is just more Saban-esque. From the organization to the recruiting templates to the expectations and to the overall personality of the program, Smart’s Georgia most closely resembles Saban’s Alabama.
There has not been a more Saban-like fruit to fall off this coaching tree. And that should discomfort Alabama far more than that 11-0 number assures it.
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