How Nick Saban's legendary 2015 Alabama coaching staff changed the game

How Nick Saban's 2015 Alabama coaching staff changed the college landscape (3:27)

Take a look at how how Nick Saban's 2015 Alabama coaching tree planted its roots throughout college football. (3:27)

WHEN DAN LANNING walks out onto the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where his Oregon Ducks will face Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, it'll be hard to forget from where he came: a $1,200-a-month job under Nick Saban just seven years ago.

Lanning remembers the eyebrows that were raised when he gave up a titled coaching role at then-FCS Sam Houston State for that graduate assistant job at Alabama in 2015. But the opportunity to sit next to Saban was too great to pass up, breaking down defensive pressures, helping coach outside linebackers, running the scout team and breaking down game film as part of one of the most legendary coaching staffs of all time.

Six of Saban's 2015 assistants are current Power 5 head coaches, making nearly $50 million combined in 2022. The defensive and offensive coordinators from that staff, Smart and Lane Kiffin, are guiding No. 3 Georgia and No. 21 Ole Miss, respectively. Secondary coach Mel Tucker is now one of the highest paid men in the sport at No. 15 Michigan State. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal now leads No. 16 Miami. And after 40 wins in four seasons at Louisiana, wide receivers coach Billy Napier is tasked with leading a rebuild at Florida.

Lanning, who takes over for Cristobal at No. 11 Oregon this season, was part of a stable of entry-level employees on that 2015 Alabama team who've gone on to make an impact on the game, even if they don't yet run their own programs: Doug Belk, an acclaimed defensive coordinator at Houston, and Maryland safeties coach Wes Neighbors, among them.

"It forever changed college football," Lanning says now of Saban's approach to staff building. "It's the education to coaches. He's made this profession real special for coaches, where you've created opportunities. These analyst roles that have been created or graduate-assistant roles that he's helped created for people. It's going to get your doctorate as a young coach. Maybe even also as an older coach, you get a chance to go learn a new way to skin a cat.

"I think he's done a good job of bringing people on board, giving them his philosophy and then people taking that and running it and adapting to their personality."

For all the reverence, it shouldn't be lost on anyone that Saban's 2015 assistants -- who have won nearly 65% of their games as head coaches -- now are his biggest threats.

Lanning is now helming a ranked team. Smart, who declined an interview for this story, in July signed a 10-year, $112.5 million extension that made him the highest-paid coach in the sport -- until Saban passed him a month later. Napier, who was coaching in the Sun Belt last season (and winning coach of the year for the second time), is now guiding an SEC foe, with SEC money. One of his first orders of business? Adding numerous positions to form a Saban-like staff.

Sure, there is some precedent here: Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa in the 1980s, Jimmy Johnson's at Miami in the late 80s and Dennis Erickson's at the same school a few years later. They produced several head coaches with varying degrees of success.

The difference at Alabama? The success of Saban's staffs has been over a period of nearly two decades, in many cases replacing a coach who has gotten a head job with another who will in a few years.

"One thing about it is: seeing successful people come before you," says Shaun Dion Hamilton, a linebacker who played in every game in 2015 as a sophomore.

"And from a coaching standpoint, every coach comes to Alabama [wanting to] see what this position coach did that helped put a running back or a linebacker in the first round. It's just everybody feeding off one another."

Cristobal calls that 2015 staff a "think tank" that forced him to bring his "A game." But the Alabama way, the Saban way, is to never get comfortable. And in 2015, that helped hone a legendary lineup of coaching talent.

AFTER TUCKER WAS hired by Saban in January 2015, he saw a familiar face: Linda Leoni, Saban's administrative assistant. Tucker had known Leoni from when they both were with the Cleveland Browns. Leoni has seen a lot of wins, having worked for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick before Saban.

Leoni looked at Tucker, who had spent the past 10 seasons in the NFL, and said, "Now, you know it's the national championship or bust in here?"

Tucker didn't hesitate, knowing that that standard extends to the weight room trainer.

"Of course, that's why I'm here," he said.

A year later, Tucker found himself in the national championship game, those expectations still ringing in his ears. But ahead of that game, Tucker had been hired as the defensive coordinator at Georgia, where Smart had recently taken over as its head coach. Even Lanning, the graduate assistant, was leaving to work on Memphis' defensive staff.

The game against Clemson would be the last before the staff turned over.

Tosh Lupoi, then Saban's outside linebackers coach, remembers some practices early in that championship week that weren't sharp. So, a few days before the game, Lupoi remembers Saban gathering his players and staff at the game site in Glendale, Arizona. The coach wanted his team to focus on its mental approach, which would help the players get physically right.

Lupoi says he believed they won that game that night, in that room. "It was powerful," he says now. Saban had done this type of thing before, but this instance stood out to Lupoi.

But they still had to do it on the field. With 10:34 left in that title game against Clemson, culminating the 2015 season, Saban had to make perhaps the toughest call of his career.

The Tide had just knotted the game at 24 on a 33-yard field goal by Adam Griffith. Saban loves to lean on his defense, a unit that had just shut out Michigan State in the CFP semifinal 12 days earlier, but it was tired from chasing Deshaun Watson around the field all game long.

The game, and the season, were at an inflection point. All the preparation, the practices, the attention to every detail wouldn't matter if the Tide couldn't stave off the Tigers, an emerging power in the college football world. Championship or bust, right?

So Saban did what Saban has done throughout his career -- he did it his way. He called for an onside kick. Cristobal remembers that special teams coach Bobby Williams, a former head coach at Michigan State, and special teams analyst Brendan Farrell, now with the Miami Dolphins, thought it would work during the week. Lanning said it was discussed pregame -- but it was Saban who made the executive decision.

"I didn't know [until] I heard on the headset," Kiffin says.

The Tide recovered and scored two plays later, on a 53-yard pass from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard. They led the rest of the way and held off Watson for a 45-40 victory. After the game, Kiffin was talking to reporters about the victory when he noticed Alabama's team buses pulling away without him.

He rode home with Saban instead.

WHEN THE COLLEGE Football Playoff Selection Committee revealed its first ranking last November, three of Saban's former assistants -- Michigan State's Tucker, Cristobal, then at Oregon, and Georgia's Smart -- joined Saban in the Top 4. About two months later, Saban embraced at midfield his former defensive coordinator, Smart, who emerged victorious in the CFP's championship game to win Georgia's first national title in four decades.

The next time you'll see Saban on the sideline, against Utah State in Saturday's season opener, his team will be No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, just like it has been seven times during the venerable coach's tenure.

That success is unprecedented, but it is born out of something purposeful. When Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, he came directly from a failed stint with the Dolphins, whom he guided to a 15-17 record over two seasons before an unceremonious exit. But Saban brought the idea of an NFL organization, bloated with assistants to the assistants, from Miami to Tuscaloosa.

Beyond the on-field assistants, the Crimson Tide's support staff slowly grew. By 2010, the program employed "analysts," who aren't titled as coaches but are involved in much of the behind-the-scenes grind crucial to success, for the first time. By the 2011, one of them was Napier, who had parted ways with Clemson, where he was the offensive coordinator. Lupoi, who Saban actually called an intern, was also an analyst for one season before he was promoted to coach outside linebackers in 2015. He had been a prominent assistant coach in the Pac-12 before his arrival.

"The great thing about that place ... everybody's role matters, right?" Napier says now. "Down to the student equipment manager, to the video people, to the graduate assistant, to the head coach secretary, right?

"She's a piece of the puzzle."

And so was Troy Finney, who was the director of sports technology at Alabama for 13 years. Finney was charged with maintaining a digestible database, then called XOS, with data -- field position, formations, personnel -- inputted by graduate assistants like Lanning. The coaches used it to prepare for games. Finney's role was invaluable.

"You all have to either buy in or you don't," Finney says. "And that's true from my position in the sports technology world, all the way up to the defensive coordinator and the head coach. Everybody in that organization was bought in, and they all spent an exorbitant amount of time working to succeed and supporting each other.

"It's unlike any other job that I could ever imagine."

Finney, who now works at Best Buy's corporate office in Minneapolis, says that Alabama was the first program to give players iPads to use for study on plane rides. He also remembers the program dabbling in virtual reality in 2015, allowing players additional practice reps, to see what they would do on the field when they're away from it.

The idea was signed off on by Saban ("Anything that will allow our players to get additional experience? Always something he's open to," Finney says), who has historically shunned even email, after being introduced by Kiffin.

That's no wonder since Saban hired Kiffin prior to the 2014 season, telling him that he wanted to evolve. Kiffin then introduced spread offense concepts, run-pass options and sideline cards that help communication when teams don't huddle. It was an example of value added through a diverse coaching staff.

By 2019, Touchdown Alabama Magazine published a story titled, "Do you know the 12 analysts Alabama has on the staff for football?" They included former Tennessee coach Butch Jones and Major Applewhite, who had been the head coach at Houston.

"I think it's a shock for a lot of individuals," says Lupoi, who's entering his first season as defensive coordinator at Oregon, working for Lanning, his old Alabama colleague. "[To see] the way they operate, have all the attention to detail and organization, to be able to experience that."

Hamilton, the former Tide linebacker, said that it's hard to recognize how unique that situation was, surrounded by a stable of future head coaches, while immersed in the process. But he can appreciate it now.

"It makes sense why we beat the crap out of everybody," he says.

But along with that incredible tutelage comes pressure.

"If you're scared," Hamilton says, pausing to find the words. "Alabama isn't the place for you."

Speaking ahead of his debut season at his alma mater, Cristobal admits the key is to make sure to learn from Saban but not try to mimic him. Cristobal can take logistics -- how meetings are run, how the duties are split, but put his own spin on it all.

Cristobal grew accustomed to daily pressure as a Hurricanes player, so he was drawn to Alabama. College rosters may see more than 100 players throughout the course of a season, meaning there's extra pressure on coaches to keep them all organized and motivated.

"It's the consistent fight of human nature," he says. "So if that step isn't at the proper angle and that placement isn't correct ... you're going to be asked why. Because if it's on film, you are either coaching it or you're allowing it to happen."

Tucker, coming off an 11-win season with the Spartans, has known Saban for most of his life. As the head coach at Toledo, Saban recruited Tucker and then gave him his first job in coaching as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997. Three years later, Tucker was hired as a defensive backs coach during Saban's first season at LSU, where he'll never forget Saban telling an assistant: "Your job is to make me happy; my job isn't to make you happy."

Tucker repeats the themes that many Saban disciples do when describing their old boss: urgency, accountability, discipline. He doesn't let problems fester. He meets with players one-on-one. He ranks potential recruits. He writes up scouting reports. Tucker has implemented that into his coaching style but, when people see him wear Saban's customary straw hat during his own early-season practices, he reminds them it's hot out and he's bald.

"There's only one Saban," Tucker says.

But according to Tucker, amid all that, Saban is hyper-focused on making sure the voices inside the building are louder than those outside. Essentially, it's his job to be the CEO of an organization made up of employees who want to be CEOs themselves someday.

"It's really very simple," Tucker says. "You have to check your ego at the door."

IT'S EARLY AUGUST, weeks before Nick Saban's 50th season on a football sideline, and the perpetually perturbed Alabama head coach stands at another podium and answers another question. For someone who looks like he despises this part of the job, Saban knows how to command a room. His guiding principle: There is a joy in the mundane order of operations, the process performed by those often unseen.

Not only does Saban like practice; he likes getting ready for practice.

Saban, 70, wearing a gray vest and an even tan, fields a question about new-age tight ends like incoming freshman Amari Niblack. Suddenly, he's back in 1989, when he was a defensive backs coach for Jerry Glanville's Houston Oilers. Tight ends then, he says, put their hands in the dirt. Tight ends were guys like Ozzie Newsome, born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But tight ends now? They do it the old way sometimes, but they also flex out like wide receivers and lead the way like fullbacks. But the position has evolved, like the sport itself.

And Saban has, too. He is entering his 16th season at Alabama, where he has won six national championships. His seven overall titles (he won another at LSU) are the most of any Division I football coach. At Alabama, his program has been both a haven for wayward ex-head coaches and a breeding ground for the next crop, a revolving door that has helped the program reinvent itself regularly.

Before the news conference concludes, ESPN asks Saban about the success of that 2015 staff.

He talks about how those bold-faced names bonded with his players, prepared them to play; he says they're bright men and great leaders, all deserving of the opportunities; he's happy for them.

"It's not about me," Saban says, placing both hands on his chest.

Then Saban pauses a beat.

"And we have some very good coaches on the coaching staff now," he says.

Saban takes one more question. When he's finished with his answer, he grabs his water bottle.

"I'm supposed to smile," he says, sarcastically, "and say thank you."

Then Saban is gone, disappearing into the process that has led him to all those championships, one that has helped him keep his proteges at bay. Saban has lost just twice ever in 27 games against all his former assistants. But with the 2015 staff populating the nation's powerhouse programs, Saban -- whose new contract will take him until he's 78 years old -- can't retire now. He'll take the challenge head on.

"The iPhone back when it first came out was the best thing since sliced bread," Tucker says. "But now the iPhone has evolved, but it still leads the pack.

"He's going to adjust, and he's going to refine it and he's going to try to perfect it, and just keep going. It never stops."

The legacy, then, of the 2015 Alabama coaching staff is still to be written.

"I'm sure that we'll cross paths," Cristobal says of his colleagues from that season, "on opposite sides of the field."