Before they went on stage for the cameras, there wasn’t a word said between them Sunday morning. University of Alabama coach Nick Saban and his former assistant coach, Kirby Smart, would be very complimentary during their final news conference prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, but when they posed with the trophy their body language said otherwise.
They were rigid, almost uncomfortable.
This after Saban said, “What you all don’t understand is this guy was on our staff for, I don’t know, 10 years. [My wife] Terry was there when his babies [were] born. I mean, you become a part of a family. That’s what you do when you’re together for a long time.”
This week has been anything but a vacation or a chance to catch up for the former colleagues turned foes. This is a business trip, through and through, with a lot more than a trophy on the line. Another suitor has arisen to challenge Saban’s status atop college football, and the outcome of the title game on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) could have extensive repercussions — especially if the Bulldogs win.
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This one has the most familiarity for Saban. Smart took Saban’s process to Georgia to not only build up the Bulldogs but also to try and take down his former boss and mentor. Being in the same conference is one thing, and recruiting many of the same players another, although that has led to some friction.
However, the Bulldogs are so much like Crimson Tide that Athens could be called Alabama East.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot (of differences),” said outgoing defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who might soon have Alabama North at Tennessee. “I think both teams are very similar. They’re both committed to running the football, playing good on special teams and playing good defense.”
Same system. Same style. Similar schemes. Plus, a lot of familiar faces on both sides.
“The foundations are the same,” said Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, who also used to work for Saban.
When asked for a difference, Sherrer stated: “Kirby is probably a little more personable, approachable.”
The coaches have been the focal point leading up to this showdown, and with good reason because of their history. Saban used to say that Smart and he had worked so long and well together that all he had to do was think something and his defense coordinator was already doing it.
Yet now he’s on the other side, trying to become the first former assistant to beat the master. Saban is 11-0 when facing his first assistant coaches, having defeated them by a combined score of 427-111 (average of 39-10).
“Yeah, the 11-0 he’s won, I would venture to say he’s been favored in all 11,” Smart said. “He’s got really good players.”
That’s true, but one has to go back 38 games to find the last time Alabama didn’t open in Las Vegas as a clear favorite. Ironically, it was at Georgia in 2015, when the Crimson Tide was initially considered a slight underdog by most oddsmaking services, but by game time that had changed. Regardless, Alabama crushed Georgia, 38-10, and went on to win the national championship.
It snapped a 72-game streak in which Alabama was considered a clear favorite, dating back to the 2009 SEC Championship Game against Florida. The Crimson Tide won 32-13, and the changing of the guard was complete.
As of Sunday night, oddsshark.com had the Tide at -3.5 against the Bulldogs, so it’s 111 out of 112 games — just shy of the sun rising in terms of consistency.
But the overlapping relationships in this game go way beyond Saban and Smart, and how they might influence the outcome is the giant question mark looming over Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Two staffs with some great coaches,” Alabama co-defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi said. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
Football fraternity is small one
When Smart returned to his alma mater in 2015, he hired Crimson Tide defensive backs coach Mel Tucker to be his defensive coordinator and Alabama staffer Glenn Schumann as inside linebackers coach. Among his in-house moves was to retain Sherrer, Alabama’s former director of player development (2010-12).
“It’s interesting for sure, especially when you throw in the fact that Kevin Sherrer is on that staff,” Pruitt said on Saturday. “We talked last night for a little bit. I gave him a hard time. We were working a little bit late. I told him I was going to call Kirby and tell him we were out-working you all tonight.”
The two have known each other for 20-odd years, going back to when they played together at Alabama. Sherrer was a tight end from 1993 to 1995; Pruitt was a defensive back who transferred from Middle Tennessee State for his final two years (1995-96), then began coaching as a student assistant with the 1997 Crimson Tide.
Smart also tried to hire away high-profile strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran. Not only did he get a significant raise of $105,000 to stay (his salary is now up to $535,000), but in Alabama state employees are vested after 10 years on the payroll. He reached that in 2016.
“I still have a great relationship with the Cochran family because my kids are best friends with theirs,” Smart said.
Yet that only begins to describe all the staff ties.
For example, Tucker began his coaching career in 1997 as a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State. He’s since worked at Miami (Ohio), with Saban again at LSU, Ohio State and three NFL teams before landing at Alabama in 2015.
“I was a graduate assistant with Mel,” Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “We’ve played each other for years when he’s been at Chicago, Jacksonville and Cleveland.”
When Alabama won at Georgia in 2015, Pruitt was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator. The score could have been a lot worse, but the damage was done. Georgia lost the next week at Tennessee and then at Florida. Even though it bounced back to win four straight games, Mark Richt was let go after 15 years and a 145-51 record.
When Smart was hired, Saban brought back Pruitt, who had worked for him from 2007 to 2012 and rose from director of player development to defensive backs coach. When he was initially added to the coaching staff in 2010, Smart switched from handling the defensive backs as a position group to linebackers.
Consequently, Smart helped recruit a number of key players on the Crimson Tide, as Pruitt did for Georgia, and the others. A lot of them have stayed in touch over the years such as junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tucker, who was his position coach as a freshman.
“I could talk to you about him all day,” Tucker said. “He’s a great player. He’s an even better person.”
“He’s somebody that challenged me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone everyday,” Fitzpatrick said. “So, (I) definitely got better from him being my coach.
“It’s really cool just seeing the success that they’ve had. I’m kind of not surprised by it.”
Does familiarity favor one team?
Although the teams have only had a week since playing their bowl semifinals, the staffs started eyeing each other a month ago after both made the College Football Playoff as the third and fourth seeds. They knew this showdown was a possibility, so contingency plans were made.
Since Alabama has always run Saban’s defense, Smart might be able to snuff out some plays beforehand. But, with his experience, he could do that with just about anyone.
What about play calls and signals? Would they need to be changed?
“You do think about those things,” Lupoi said.
Yet, none of that benefited Jim McElwain the three times he faced his former boss, twice with Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Nor did it help Mark Dantonio in two meetings, including the 2015 playoff (Cotton Bowl semifinal); or Will Muschamp or Jimbo Fisher earlier this season.
Alabama was also paying attention to Georgia long before the playoff announcement, in part, because of the schedule. The Bulldogs played some of the same teams, so the Crimson Tide were able to get a head start on how opponents might play them, and their adjustments.
“We actually followed the defense,” Pruitt said. “And we all still talk now. We talk during the … Heck, I talk to Auburn, talk to Kevin Steele. Talked to Kirby a few times. We still share ideas.”
As for the film study, it removes a lot of the personal aspect just because of the sheer volume. While going over everything from formations to trends, the coaches don’t have time to think, “Hey, I know that guy, I recruited him,” on each of the hundreds of plays they’re examining. Plus, they’re not the only ones going over everything.
While searching for tells, weaknesses and things such as the adjustments Georgia made at halftime against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl (“We didn’t sprinkle any dust on anybody at halftime,” Tucker said), there just are no secrets.
Consequently, when weighing how much to stick to the team’s strengths and possibly being predictable versus trying to think outside of the box at the risk of making more mistakes, coaches on both sides are concerned about going around in circles mentally.
“It’s interesting, because sometimes you could overthink it because you say, ‘OK, if we do this, Kirby’s going to know we’re going to do this,’” Pruitt said. “’So, they’re going to try to do it this way.’
“And I’m sure he’s probably sitting there doing the same thing. So, it’s kind of, probably going to be hit and miss in the game.”
Smart agreed: “It’s not like we play Alabama does this or Alabama does that. Sometimes you can talk yourself out of things that you should do because you know what the other team does, and I think you’ve got to be careful of that.”
That makes this the ultimate test.