For Arkansas to ascend from the bottom to the summit of the SEC West, it needs to see Nick Saban’s ironclad hold on the conference loosen.
That may already be happening. In the wake of Alabama’s crushing defeat to Clemson, five assistants have left Nick Saban’s staff — including former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
Enos served as Alabama’s quarterbacks coach this season. He had been expected to step in as Alabama’s offensive coordinator next season, but instead he’ll hold that position for Miami. It’s expected he’ll also bring a quarterback along with him. Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts, who will be transferring, was considered a long shot to go to Arkansas before Enos’ move.
Now that it’s possible Enos will get Hurts to move with him, the chances of Hurts ending up in Fayetteville are even smaller.
But the good news for Razorback fans is that Saban is suffering from the kind of coaching turnover that would make even Bret Bielema blush. Last year Saban lost six assistants off of his staff. That trend is continuing this year. Most alarming for Saban, most of his assistants aren’t leaving for head coaching jobs. They are instead making lateral moves and staying as assistants.
Already this churn is allowing other teams to poach major talent from Alabama that formerly would have gone to the Crimson Tide. Exhibit A is Justyn Ross, the Clemson superstar wide receiver who cited Clemson’s staff continuity as a major reason he chose the Tigers.
The turnover is a major concern for Nick Saban, since he — like most head coaches — preaches “family” when recruiting elite players. That matters a lot more when you’re staying on campus at least three years, as opposed to the one year most five-star basketball recruits stay.
“I think that is an issue he’ll have to face now,” longtime broadcaster Tim Brando told Paul Finebaum. “Particularly with how long Clemson’s staff has been together and the fact that [defensive coordinator] Brent Venables never considered taking the K-State job — he’s an alum there – because he’s making $2.2 million dollars and he loves raising his family in Clemson, South Carolina.”
“I don’t want to get all syrupy here, but what’s going at Clemson is real — and it smacks of ‘covenant.’ That’s a very strong spiritual and faithful word, and it matters a great deal…. Alabama’s still great, and Nick is the greatest of all time,” Brando added.
“But he has to long look in the mirror and hold to consistency and stability with that staff. Because what’s going on down the road at Clemson is pretty special.”
“Those guys seem not only to be together, but to want to be together.”
Brando then mentioned the continuity of Clemson co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, disciples of Arkansas coach Chad Morris. Morris worked at Clemson in the early 2010s and built the foundation for the offensive monster it has become. After he left to take SMU’s head coaching gig in 2014, Elliott and Scott stepped in to replace Morris. By that point, though, Elliott and Scott had already been on the staff for years. That continuity in taking the baton from Morris was critical to making sure the program’s upward trend kept accelerating.
As Jeff Scott told Sports Illustrated:
“Chad [Morris] comes in and installs this offense, and right out of the gate we start 8–0 [in 2011]. We win the ACC for the first time in 20 years. Chad’s name was already at that point getting floated around as a potential head coach candidate. We knew early on that it was just a matter of time. He was going to leave and become a head coach. So, as a young coach, you want to learn as much as you possibly can about the offense.
Each year, Tony and I would meet with coach Swinney to go through our review. He never would tell us, ‘This is what I’m going to do one day,’ but he would always encourage us to be sure that we were learning this offense as well as we possibly could. Because one day when coach Morris got the opportunity to be a head coach, we were going to run this offense at Clemson.”
Tim Brando said such staff continuity, almost a decade long now, has fueled the superstar levels of play from Tiger quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.
“I don’t think it’s surprising to see how quickly a guy like Trevor Lawrence can get it when there’s that kind of consistency on the staff.”
CHAD MORRIS & THE BEGINNING OF THE END FOR SABAN
Nick Saban’s coaching turnover heralds the possibility that Alabama could fall from its SEC West perch in the coming years. That’s good news for all other SEC teams — especially Arkansas given Chad Morris’ ties to the Clemson program and the school’s proximity to talent-rich Texas.
Nick Saban is 67 years old and faces a slew of hungry, much younger coaches like Morris who have ties to either Clemson or served as assistants to Saban himself. In the latter camp is Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Georgia’s Kirby Smart.
The situation shares similarities to the twilight of the career of Arkansan native Bear Bryant, who alongside Saban is widely considered the greatest college coach of all time. On his radio show, Paul Finebaum made this comparison. He said Pat Dye, a Bryant disciple, began poaching players away from an elderly Bryant and a similar trend may soon gain speed with Saban’s former disciples.
Chad Morris won’t steal many of Saban’s recruits until the Hogs start winning at a much higher level. But through that process, the main question remains: Can he develop the same kind of staff consistency that Dabo Swinney has? So far, so good in that the turnover which plagued Bret Bielema didn’t occur after Year 1 of the Morris era.
The key for Morris will be choosing not only the right assistants* (i.e. guys who have head coaching potential), but also choosing the right GAs and position coaches who could step in to replace those who leave. Fortunately, he has Swinney as a friend to get advice on such matters.
And he is the coaching successor of arguably the greatest in the business at doing just that: Frank Broyles.
For more of the above interview, listen to The Paul Finebaum Show here.
*Don’t expect Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis to leave to take a big promotion any time soon. The 62-year-old has worked as an assistant and coordinator on SEC defenses since 1989, but hasn’t yet taken a head coaching job.