TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Three years ago, Nick Saban stood in front of reporters and introduced one of the biggest risks of his career: Lane Kiffin, the recently fired USC head coach and longtime lightning rod for drama, would be his offensive coordinator.
It was unexpected. It was bold. It worked.
For three seasons, college football’s version of The Odd Couple helped set a slew of school records on offense, the team won a national championship and Derrick Henry took home the Heisman Trophy. Kiffin transformed Alabama's conservative-leaning offense into a big-play, uptempo machine.
But when it came time to replace Kiffin, after the drama returned and their relationship ran its course, Saban had to adjust. After being burned by Steve Sarkisian’s decision to leave for the Falcons after less than a month on the job, Saban went back to the drawing board. Rather than swing for the fences once more with a big name such as Chip Kelly, he came back with something entirely different: a former graduate assistant of his whom very few people outside of coaching circles had ever heard of.
It had been nearly two decades since Brian Daboll coached in college, and even then he was on the defensive side of the ball. But suddenly, after nine years in the NFL as a position coach and three failed stints as a coordinator, he was given the keys to the offense of college football’s No. 1-ranked team.
Daboll might not have been a sexy hire, but maybe that wasn't the point. If Saban was looking for a coach who would hue to his way of thinking, Daboll might have been the perfect fit. Not only does Daboll come with the backing of future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick, but he’s also essentially the polar opposite of his predecessor.
Because for all of Kiffin’s strengths as a playcaller, his personality was a challenge. He would abandon the run inexplicably or call for jet sweeps inside the 10-yard line. There were times, one former staffer said, when he would get a wild hair and draw up a play in the dirt; no one had practiced it, but it would suddenly be part of the game plan. That, of course, didn’t mesh well with Saban’s methodical, process-driven philosophy, and the two butted heads. The now infamous “chewing” incident caught on TV last season was the most memorable sideline dust-up, but it was hardly the only such occurrence. Even before Kiffin got the job at Florida Atlantic, there was the sense within the program that it was time for a change.
But if anything, Daboll should be accustomed to Saban’s process. He was brought up on it, working with Saban at Michigan State as a 23-year-old G.A. Plus, Saban's is the same general philosophy that Daboll learned under Belichick in New England for 11 seasons.
Saban and Belichick are friends, and they share a common trait. They’re both, in a word, demanding.
Daboll, who credits his grandparents’ “old-school” approach for his ability to handle that kind of tough love, has no problem with a challenge. After suffering a career-ending injury as a defensive back at the University of Rochester, he became a student assistant and set out on this life of a football coach. Without much money or support after college, he sent letter after letter until William and Mary put him on staff in 1997.
A year later, he linked up with Saban. Two years after that, when Saban left Michigan State for LSU, Daboll was off to the NFL and Belichick.
Between those two, he said he learned the value of “hierarchy” and leadership.
“They’ve been great mentors," Daboll said. "And I appreciate the way they do things. They make it easy to work for them. There’s a standard, you know the standard. You’ve got to meet it every day. And if you don’t, there’s consequences.
“I think it’s very fair, demanding, but I like the work environment from those guys.”
Unlike Kiffin’s gift of creativity, Daboll’s greatest assets appear to be his organization and attention to detail. It’s a fact that didn’t take long for players and coaches to pick up on. Senior center Ross Pierschbacher recalled the first meeting with the offense in which Daboll began highlighting “everything.” There was no mistaking the so-called “main points” and “objectives” Pierschbacher said he was trying to get across.
“It’s been much more organized and smooth,” he said.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts has responded well to the more hands-on approach of Daboll, too, and he said the team has welcomed the new O.C. “with open arms.”
After a stretch with three different coordinators in three weeks, that has to be music to Saban’s ears.
“We have a better understanding,” Saban said. “We have a better system. We’ve gotten back to some of the things that we did a few years ago when AJ [McCarron] was here. So I like it better. I think it creates more balance.”
With Calvin Ridley back at receiver and a stable of talented running backs, including Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, spreading the ball around will be a necessity. How Daboll develops Hurts in his second season on campus could make or break Alabama’s chance of returning to the playoff.
If some of the offense he runs looks familiar in the season opener against Florida State on Sept. 2, don’t be surprised, though. Kiffin’s influence isn’t gone entirely. The hurry-up and run-pass options that were so effective the past few seasons aren’t going anywhere.
But in Kiffin’s place is a new kind of coordinator who won’t be so apt to throw a curveball in the red zone or cavalierly throw up the touchdown sign while the ball is still in the air.
Daboll might be more by-the-book, but when that book was written by Saban and Belichick, maybe that isn't such a bad thing.