- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley still remembers glancing over at Jeremy Pruitt one late-December night in 2017 at a Sugar Bowl function.
Alabama was in New Orleans, preparing to face Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and Pruitt, then Alabama’s defensive coordinator, was doing his best to burn both ends of the candle as the newly hired Tennessee head coach.
“I still have a picture in my phone, and Jeremy is sitting at a table at a function and he fell asleep,” said Locksley, now Maryland’s head coach. “It’s hard to do, man, juggling two jobs. When I saw what Jeremy went through, staying up all night and interviewing coaches and trying to sign kids, it helped me that next year.
“I put Maryland behind personally because I was so intent to make sure that I did everything I could to finish things at Alabama. Even though we lost the [championship] game, I know in my heart that I put everything into that game. The truth is that you can’t do both jobs and do both well.”
Either way, here Nick Saban is again, getting ready to play for a national championship with one of his coordinators ticketed for a head-coaching job elsewhere. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was named Texas’ head coach on Jan. 2, a day after Alabama beat Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One.
This is the sixth time it has happened, going back to offensive coordinator Jim McElwain’s taking the Colorado State head-coaching job in 2011 prior to Alabama’s BCS national championship game matchup with LSU.
The Crimson Tide are 3-2 in those previous five games. One of the two losses came in 2016 when Lane Kiffin was named the Florida Atlantic head coach and coached in the 24-7 CFP semifinal win over Washington. Saban, feeling as if Kiffin was spread too thin in trying to get things up and running at FAU and also handle his duties as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, parted ways with Kiffin the week before the national title game.
Saban turned to Sarkisian, then an offensive analyst for the Tide, to call plays against Clemson. The Tide lost 35-31 after going ahead with 2:07 to play on a Jalen Hurts 30-yard touchdown run, only to have the Tigers drive back down the field and score the game-winning touchdown with a second left.
Now, Sarkisian gets a second shot at calling plays in the national championship game for Alabama. In some ways, Georgia coach Kirby Smart thinks it could be more of a slippery slope for Sarkisian than it would be for a defensive coordinator on his way out.
“Coach Saban sits in there and is part of the defensive game-planning and knows this guy is all here [prepared and focused on this game] because me and Pruitt are right there in front of him,” said Smart, who was Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator at Alabama before landing the Georgia head-coaching job. “With Sark, it’s complete trust because coach Saban’s not over there and sitting in offensive meetings.
“I know it’s a pain in the ass for [Saban], but I’d also say he’s more comfortable by now with all this than he’s ever been. The more you do it, the more you get used to it.”
In Alabama’s last national championship game appearance, Saban also had a coordinator on his way out, with Locksley having taken the Maryland head-coaching job at the end of the 2018 season. Locksley was one of several Alabama assistants to leave following that season. Alabama beat Oklahoma 45-34 in the CFP semifinal and was then blown out 44-16 in the title game by a Clemson team led by then-freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
“Most of the guys in the past have been able to [manage both roles] and been effective, and it’s not been a distraction for us,” Saban said. “We’re going to try to help manage it every way that we can so that it’s not a distraction for us this year.”
Saban knows from experience it’s not an easy thing to do. As Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns, Saban was named Michigan State’s head coach while the Browns were still trying to make the NFL playoffs during the 1994 season.
Saban said he felt a sense of obligation to Belichick to finish the job, but even more of one to his players.
“Look … if it wasn’t for the players at the Cleveland Browns being the best defense, I probably would have never gotten the Michigan State job,” Saban said. “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. That’s how I always felt. I think that’s how Sark feels.”
By now, Saban is well-versed in having a coordinator pulling double duty heading into a championship game. His first defensive coordinator to do so was Kirby Smart, who was named Georgia’s head coach on Dec. 6, 2015, and then coached in both CFP playoff games, culminating with Alabama’s 45-40 championship win over Clemson on Jan. 11, 2016.
That was before the early signing date, too, which made recruiting especially challenging. Smart was trying to assemble the Dawgs’ entire signing class for February, whereas now most of the recruits sign in December.
“There are levels of this. I did it before there was an early signing date,” Smart said. “I was going to a direct competitor where we recruit the same kids, and I was preparing for two games and it was a longer time. I got the job after the SEC championship, so you were looking at three to four weeks of buildup for the first game in which you can call and recruit and do everything.
“So you’re sitting there in the same building with [Saban], and you’re trying to call and text kids, the same kids, the kids we want and they want out of Georgia. That was a nightmare dealing with that. Once the game week came, it really wasn’t an issue because you’re preparing for the game, and I wanted to beat the team just as badly as he did.”
That Sarkisian has only one game to prepare for a week after getting the Texas head job, and the Longhorns’ 2021 signing class mostly complete from the early period, should make for a less stressful preparation than some of the other former Alabama coordinators who took head jobs.
“I think me and Kirby were passing the phone back and forth to each other in 2015, and he was recruiting kids for Georgia and me for Alabama,” Pruitt joked. “But I can tell you, having gone through it later when I got the Tennessee job, that the best recruiting job Sark can do for Texas is winning that game on Monday night. That’s better than any recruit he could sign or any coach he could hire.”
McElwain said Saban is a master at setting up the schedule and doing things with such consistency that there shouldn’t be any gray area as to when there’s time to focus on the “other” job.
In fact, McElwain said Saban helped line up an aide for McElwain leading up to the 2011 BCS national title game so he could focus exclusively on game prep and the aide could handle any organizational items dealing with Colorado State.
“He’s so equipped to handle this and doesn’t leave any stone unturned,” said McElwain, now Central Michigan’s head coach. “Obviously, there are going to be a lot of late nights like there always are, but he made the transition as seamless as possible by having my aide do everything for me as it related to Colorado State.
“He said the Browns and Belichick did something like that for him when he took the Michigan State [job], and it made you feel like you were never cheating either job.”
One of the things Saban made clear, according to Locksley, was that he didn’t want Locksley raiding his full-time staff and taking a bunch of assistants with him to Maryland.
“He’s used to it by now, but I remember him saying to me, ‘I will support you, but you better not take guys off my staff.’ It’s almost like the Godfather threatening you,” Locksley joked. “But I had no intentions of doing that.”
Locksley added, “I can promise you he will be all over Sark’s ass because of what happened in our game, but we didn’t lose because of my lack of focus. I did nothing for the University of Maryland during that time. I didn’t fly any coaches in. I didn’t really talk to any coaches.
“It was just one of those games.”
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