The chance to learn from Saban, as well as compete for a national title, makes it an opportunity few coaches could refuse. After all, there are 12 [sic] former Saban assistants from Alabama who are now FBS head coaches, and that doesn’t include Brian Daboll, who is now the New York Giants head coach, or his former LSU assistant Jimbo Fisher, now head coach at Texas A&M. In all, there are 24 former Saban assistants who have held FBS head coaching jobs and 10 who have been NFL head coaches. ~ The Athletic
Dabo Swinney will be entering his 15th season on the sidelines in Clemson. In a decade and a half of head coaching, you probably expect that he has mentored many assistants who grew up to be head coaches. And you’d be wrong. Active coaches who apprenticed under Swinney have all of one head coaching victory over FBS teams.
In the off-season, the Swinney Coaching Tree increased from one to three. Longtime Tigers DC Brent Venables (2012-2021) has taken the head job at Oklahoma. When his Sooners lace them up against UTEP on September 3, it will be his first game as a head coach.
GRADE: I = Incomplete.
Secondly is Virginia’s Tony Elliott, another rookie head coach. He is a Clemson lifer who played for the Tigers and then joined Swinney’s staff in 2011. He was named co-offensive coordinator with Jeff Scott in 2015. The two shared OC duties until 2019 when Scott left for USF.
GRADE: I = Incomplete.
The aforementioned Jeff Scott also played his college ball at Clemson and joined the CU staff in 2008. In 2020, he took over South Florida from Charlie Strong who had the nerve to go 10-2, 7-6, and 4-8 in three seasons. Terrible, right? Can’t get much worse than that, RIGHT? Scott’s Bulls teams have finished 1-8 (0-7) and 2-10 (1-7). The wins were against FCS Citadel, FCS Florida A&M, and Temple. USF administrators are seemingly patient enough to give him another year to right the ship, even though Strong dropped off the payroll last December.
GRADE: D - He still has a chance to succeed. However, there are way too many good recruits in the Sunshine State that he should have more than one FBS win.
One of the best known former Dabo assistants will probably go down in the annals of college football as one of the worst hires ever. Chad Morris was the offensive coordinator for Clemson from 2011–2014. He was the first assistant under Swinney to jump to the head coaching ranks, taking the SMU job in 2015. With the Mustangs, he was a pretty blah 2–10, 5–7, and 7–5 in three seasons and never coached in a bowl game. Despite the meh resume, Arkansas made the historic blunder of hiring Morris to head up the Razorbacks. In Fayetteville, he won two FBS games and went 0 for 14 in the SEC over two seasons. His 18 defeats with Arky included home losses to North Texas, Vanderbilt, San Jose State, and Western Kentucky. Following his ouster in Hogville, he had a disastrous 2020 as OC for Auburn. That fiasco led to another step down to high school power Allen HS in Texas and he even screwed that up. Allen went 11-3 in 2021, the school’s worst record since 2005, and they lost their first home game since the debut of Eagle Stadium in 2012. He resigned in May of this year.
GRADE: F-minus - One of the worst SEC coaches of recent memory.
Some may want to add Billy Napier to the Dabo Coaching Tree. However, their relationship is an iffy one. Napier was a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator for Swinney’s predecessor, Tommy Bowden. When he was fired, offensive coordinator Dabo took over as head coach. He handed the OC job down to Napier. However, he fired him after just two seasons in that role and hired Morris as his replacement.
GRADE: N/A - Getting canned was probably a good thing for Napier. It allowed him to land in Tuscaloosa (2011, 2013–2016) where he would learn from the G.O.A.T.
For the record, there are actually 13 former Nick Saban staffers who coached at Alabama who are now FBS head coaches with James Madison moving up to FBS. These coaches are spread over seven different conferences including all five Power 5 conferences.
- Kirby Smart Georgia Bulldogs SEC
- Lane Kiffin Ole Miss Rebels SEC
- Billy Napier Florida Gators SEC
- Steve Sarkisian Texas Longhorns Big 12
- Mike Locksley Maryland Terrapins Big Ten
- Mel Tucker Michigan State Spartans Big Ten
- Dan Lanning Oregon Ducks Pac-12
- Mario Cristobal Miami Hurricanes ACC
- Geoff Collins Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets ACC
- Jim McElwain Central Michigan Chippewas MAC
- Butch Jones Arkansas State Red Wolves Sun Belt
- Charles Huff Marshall Thundering Herd Sun Belt
- Curt Cignetti James Madison Dukes Sun Belt
* Jimbo Fisher was an LSU assistant and never worked in Tuscaloosa.