With seven new assistants and as many early departures, Alabama's 2019 'rebuild' is off and running
The end to the 2018 season was rough for the Crimson Tide, and the offseason has already seen upheaval
Nick Saban blames himself.
He said as much in the moments following his biggest loss as Alabama's coach last month -- a four-touchdown beat down by Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
The result and response seemed to signal something more urgent than the typical, "We'll get 'em next year." There seemed to be genuine concern.
"I just have a feeling that I didn't do a very good job for our team, with our team, giving them the best opportunity to be successful," Saban said in the moments following that 44-16 loss. "I always feel that way, even sometimes when we win. I think there's things we could do better or that I could have done better. But in this particular case, [I] never really ever got comfortable with what we needed to do to win this game."
The best coaches always blame themselves after losses and praise the players after wins. But the way it happened has to be cause for concern. Saban basically said so last month.
"We're looking forward to, sort of, rebuilding the program," Saban said.
If the No. 1 story of the offseason is Clemson's ascendance to Alabama's level, the No. 2 narrative has to be that Bama "rebuild."
For now, that word has to be placed in quotes. There's no one who really believes the Tide are going away anytime soon. Five times Alabama has ended a season with a loss under Saban. Three times the Tide came back to win a national championship the next year.
There's that No. 1 recruiting class that suggests the best coach of this age isn't slowing down.
But has there ever been more angst surrounding a 14-1 team? Well, yes, but only at Alabama since the same thing happened a three seasons ago. Following that heartbreaking loss to Clemson, it rebounded to win it all in 2017.
Now what? Tua Tagovailoa returns after guiding the highest-scoring Alabama offense in almost 75 years. He'll join the nation's best group of receivers, who basically return intact. There are 14 returning starters in all, including four first- or second-team All-SEC performers.
In fact, until further notice, Bama and Clemson remain together on higher planes than the rest of the field.
But something has to be fixed in T-Town. More than pride was wounded last month. This might be heresy, but the great Saban almost looked like he was outcoached that night in Santa Clara, California.
Yes, anything can happen in a one-game situation. But Dabo Swinney is now 2-1 against Saban in championship games, 2-2 overall. Only two other active coaches have multiple wins over Saban -- Les Miles and Hugh Freeze.
"I was at Miami [from 2006-10] when it started to fall," said former Alabama running backs coach Joe Pannunzio. "One of the things that happened to us at Miami was we weren't able to replace kids who left early for the draft with the same type of kids."
That has seldom been a problem with Saban. But the recent losses have been so significant they are worth mentioning.
There are seven new assistant coaches making it 13 new assistants coaches in the last two seasons. To summarize:
- Oklahoma has Saban's backup and former starting quarterback (Jalen Hurts).
- The Cleveland Browns have his best recruiter and defensive coordinator (Tosh Lupoi).
- Maryland has his offensive coordinator (Mike Locksley).
- Offensive line coach Brent Key left for Georgia Tech (in what was maybe a lateral move).
At what point does all this turnover make a difference?
"Coach does such a great job of being such a great leader maybe that overrides everything," Pannunzio said. "He's able to affect kids, then you throw into that coaches that he loses every year."
The whole program has been one big incubator. Pannunzio recently left Alabama for the second time (to once again join the Philadelphia Eagles). Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is back for a second go-round.
For the most part,. From 2009-15, only three of 20 Alabama's early entrants were drafted below the second round.
"The philosophy of who we are doesn't end," Locksley said before departing to be the Terps' coach. "It starts and ends with Coach Saban. It's about six coaches coming in [before last season] and learning and understanding the Alabama way. If you know coach, he's not big into change. Ultimately, his philosophy you can feel it through the whole program."
It can be argued that without his time as an analyst and assistant at Alabama, the 49-year-old Locksley would have never been a head coach again.
He is 3-31 in the top job at New Mexico and Maryland. His career looked to be petering out after a 1-5 finish with the Terps in 2015.
Locksley still carries baggage from New Mexico (2009-11) where he fought an assistant. A former administrative assistant at New Mexico also made charges of sex and age discrimination against the coach. The complaints were eventually dropped.
"The first time you're a head coach, I kind of equate it to having your first child," Locksley said. "You can read every baby book you want to prepare you for having a baby, but until that thing comes out kicking and screaming and crying, then you just kind of react."
Locksley never lost his touch as one of the best recruiters and play callers in the country. In 2018, he may have built his career all the way back. Locksley was named winner of the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant in the country.
"I came with the idea of wanting to get behind the curtain of the Alabama football program," he said. "[Being here] is like taking a sabbatical studying to become better. … Very few times will you catch an Alabama team not prepared for a situation."
Locksley went into his sabbatical in 2016 filling up notebooks with what he learned standing in the back of the staff room during meetings. Lane Kiffin had reached out after the 2015 season to ask whether Locksley had interest in joining Alabama as an analyst.
By 2017, Locksley was a co-offensive coordinator. Last season, his offense set records for the Crimson Tide.
For however long he was there, Locksley was determined to endear himself to the Bama culture. In 2018, it became a Thursday-night custom for Crimson Tide offensive players to drop by for burgers.
The gathering started as a group of about a dozen, according to the Washington Post. It grew to the point there were 40 players there, even some from the defensive side.
"It's like an upper level course where you go away as a professor and study your craft," Locksley said of his three years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. "I have a pretty good idea what it looks like, what it smells like and how it should be done."
Under Locksley's watch, Alabama finished the season in the top four nationally in every meaningful passing category. Yes, it helps to have the Heisman Trophy runner-up in Tagovailoa, but there is something to be said for helping turn around an aircraft carrier.
It wasn't too long ago that Alabama was a run-and-play defense group that bullied opponents. They're still bullying -- in a flashier way.
"I've seen our entire offense develop the last couple of years," former running back Damien Harris said. "This year, we've taken a big leap in our offense."
Sarkisian now takes over that offense. Sark was Locklsey before Locksley at Alabama. After being disgraced himself following a 2015 firing at USC, Sark rose from analyst to offensive coordinator at Bama.
Even if it was only one game -- that 35-31 loss to Clemson in the 2017 CFP National Championship -- his rehiring speaks to his value.
How the new coaches assimilate seems less important than the specific work to be done.
The secondary was viewed as the weak point, at least going into the Clemson game. Five of the top six performers in 2017 did not return. The number of peripheral stats reflected that. The 22 touchdown passes surrendered in 2018 were the most in at least a decade.
The number of "long" plays allowed by the Bama defense (167 of at least 10 yards) were the most since 2014 -- almost one in five plays (17 percent) went for 10+ yards against the Tide last season. That was an overall increase of 36 such plays from 2017 -- an average of 2.4 per game.
If history means anything, that will get fixed. The secondary is Saban's baby. He played defensive back at Kent State.
If history means anything, this is also just a blip on the Alabama radar. At least we think.
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