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Clemson’s stability contrasts with Nick Saban’s churn, but both work well

The two programs that now go halfsies on national championships have had way different assistant coaching situations. Neither’s automatically better than the other.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the topics du jour in the wake of Clemson’s National Championship destruction of Alabama is the different manners in which the programs have gone about staffing.

Bama’s staffing is a frequent national discussion point. It heated up again when Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow implied after the game that Alabama was breaching NCAA limits on official “assistant coaches” who are allowed to instruct players at practice and make recruiting trips. The Tide are famous for bringing on legions of coaches as “analysts” — ex-Tennessee coach Butch Jones in 2018, ex-USC coach Steve Sarkisian in 2016, and ex-Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley also in ‘16, for example.

Alabama has cycled through actual assistant coaches like sweatshirts.

The staff talk continued when Alabama QBs coach Dan Enos left on Friday to become the offensive coordinator at Miami. A month before that, Nick Saban was planning to promote him to be Bama’s coordinator. That was because Bama’s then-coordinator, Locksley, had just taken the head coaching job at Maryland. The Tide are losing two other assistants (so far) from their 2018 staff: offensive line coach Brent Key to Georgia Tech and receivers coach Josh Gattis to Michigan. Those are among likely non-coaching staff losses, too.

The Tide have just one assistant left from the 2016 season, defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi. Add tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio, and the Tide have two left from 2017.

Bama is in stark contrast with Clemson, which has had stunningly little assistant turnover for an elite program.

DC Brent Venables has stayed in his job since 2012, passing up numerous chances to be a head coach elsewhere. (Venables’ son now plays for him, and he’s so firmly considered a Clemson guy that we barely talk about him leaving for other jobs any more.)

Co-OCs Tony Elliott (eight seasons on staff) and Jeff Scott (11 seasons) have worked their way up the program ladder and hung around, too. So has 11-year tight ends coach Danny Pearman. Offensive line coach and former Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell’s been around for eight years. QBs coach Brandon Streeter is the newest member of the Clemson offensive staff, having been there for three years. He’d be the longest-tenured assistant on Bama’s staff.

Venables’ position assistants on defense have mostly joined the staff over the last two years. The exception there is corners coach Mike Reed, who’s been around for six. When your biggest source of turnover is non-coordinator position coaches, you have little turnover.

Obviously, Clemson’s long assistant tenures have been a huge asset.

For one thing, just take it from the Alabama-born receiver who signed with Clemson and then torched the Tide in the championship game:

For another thing, a coaching staff is like any other workplace, albeit with longer hours, more money, and more pressure than most. The longer people work together, the more time they have to build a rapport, and the better their collaborations can become.

It seems like it’s been especially key at Clemson. Dabo Swinney had literally been working in real estate when Clemson hired him as receivers coach for the 2003 season. He’d spent just one year as a coordinator when the school put him in charge for 2009.

Swinney surrounded himself with great assistants, and Clemson’s kept them around with a few carrots. One is that Swinney is famously hands-off, treating his job as head coach like a CEO position and giving his coaches room to operate. Another is that Clemson pays its assistants really well. Also, they’ve won together.

But Saban’s way of doing things has worked out just fine for him, too.

He’s fashioned Alabama as a rehab center for injured coaching careers. He’s hired tons of coaches who got fired elsewhere and mixed them into his staff alongside rising candidates. Saban is famously demanding, and his teams have been so good that his assistants have often been in demand for jobs elsewhere. So, they’ve left. It has never appeared like assistant losses really bother Saban, who beats anyone who leaves him and then plays him.

“I’m pleased and happy that a lot of guys that have been in our organization with us and done a phenomenal job,” Saban told reporters before the National Championship. “But they did a phenomenal job, and they were motivated because they had personal goals and aspirations for things they wanted to accomplish, whether it was go from an assistant to being a coordinator to being a head coach some day.”

It has its drawbacks. Saban repeatedly takes Alabama on Playoff runs with lame-duck coordinators who necessarily spend time thinking about the jobs they’ve taken elsewhere. Some recruits, like Ross, are turned off by constant staff turnover, preferring to know with some certainty who they’ll be playing for over three or four years.

And yet Bama’s signed the No. 1 class eight of the last nine years, including 2019, and never missed a Playoff. Saban’s continual churn might be attractive to ultra-talented coaches looking for a steppingstone. If they need wooing, they can just look at Kirby Smart, Jeremy Pruitt, Locksley, or any number of other head coaches who have come through Bama.

Doing things differently is OK.

And because they’ve done things that have worked for them, there’s a great chance Saban and Swinney will face each other in more title games down the line.