Inside the hardest job in college football, Nick Saban's defensive backs coach

by Ricardo Gutierrez - Saban knows everything there is to know about coverages and DB technique and even coaches the position some during practice. Saban even calls himself a GA to the DB coach, sitting in on meetings.

The hardest job in college football? Nick Saban's defensive backs coach 8:00 AM ET Alex ScarboroughESPN Staff Writer Close Covers the SEC. Joined ESPN in 2012. Graduate of Auburn University. Alabama coach Nick Saban's demanding style of leadership isn't for everyone. He's prone to the occasional outburst, as the college football world saw firsthand in 2016 when he ripped off his headset and screamed at then-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin during the waning moments of a 28-point win over Western Kentucky . Afterward, Saban corrected a reporter's description of it being an argument. "There are no arguments," Saban said. "Those are called ass-chewings." A former player said Saban required perfection from everyone, including non-coaching members of staff. There was a trainer, the player recalled with a hint of pity, and "Saban would rip him a new one every day." Coaches must accept that life under the thumb of the most successful coach of this generation comes at a cost. On game days, offensive coordinators have it particularly hard, a source said, with Saban constantly chirping on the headsets. But Saban leaves the offensive staff alone for much of practice, directing his attention to the defense -- and one position in particular. Which is why another source said the assistant at LSU he thought got it worst of all was the defensive backs coach. "Kirby [Smart] got dog-cussed constantly," the source said. As Saban's DB coach, there's nowhere to hide from his critical eye. He knows the position inside and out, having played safety at Kent State and coached the secondary every season since 1978, even as he moved up to defensive coordinator and head coach. Even now, at 70 years old, he's hands-on at practice, running around and throwing the football as he leads DB drills. He's basically attached at the hip to his DB coach, regularly sitting in on position meetings and providing notes, making it one of the most challenging jobs in college football. "I really feel sorry for those guys," said Phil Parker, who coached DBs for Saban during his first season as a head coach at Toledo in 1990. Parker paused for a moment and reconsidered. "Maybe I don't feel bad for them," he continued. "They're getting some knowledge and Nick is what he is. ... After you go through the regimen of what he expects of you, most of those guys go on and do a good job. "But it's a hard job." ESPN spoke to a handful of Saban's former DB coaches to better understand the job's pressures as well as its rewards. Together, they help to explain how Saban has maintained a vice grip on the sport for so long. As Nick Saban's DB coach, there's nowhere to hide from his critical eye. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images THE FIRST THING to understand, former Alabama DB coach Derrick Ansley said, is there are no breaks. While offensive coaches might interact with Saban 2-3 hours a day, as DB coach, "You're with him every single day, every single minute." Ansley said that means staff meetings, defensive meetings, position meetings, install meetings and review meetings, plus practice and recruiting trips. "You have to know what you're getting into," said Ansley, who is in his second season coaching DBs for the Los Angeles Chargers . "Coach is gonna be involved. He's gonna be out there watching individual [drills] and he's gonna take the corners and the nickel backs when you split up. "So, you know, it's a partnership." Saban likes to describe his role as that of the graduate assistant assigned to the DB coach. But no GA in the country is paid $9.5 million a year or has the power to silence the coach running the meeting. "He may correct you in front of the players," said Ansley, who was an actual GA at Alabama in 2010 and returned to coach DBs from 2016-17. "You gotta take that as a learning example and move on and get better. You can't fight it because there is no getting around Nick Saban being in a secondary room. ... If Coach wants to say something, let me shut up and let Coach get his point across." Ansley said the most impressive quality he witnessed from Saban was his attention to detail -- even if that led to conflict. Ansley was thinking of a specific moment. It was the spring of 2016, he said, and "We had a bunch of dudes" in the secondary, name-dropping future pros Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick . But one of those dudes -- a freshman he didn't want to single out -- happened to have his shirt tail untucked at the start of practice while Ansley was busy talking to safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. about some adjustments they wanted to make during the individual period. "Coach walks back and forth, up and down the stretch lines," Ansley recalled. "You've seen him pacing. Offense is on one side and defense on one side. And he spots it. So he walks down and doesn't say anything and comes back up. He's trying to see if I'm gonna confront the kid. I never see it. So he goes back there and chews the kid's butt out and walks right past me and doesn't say anything." Ansley thought he dodged a bullet: "I'm good." Practice passed without incident, but when the staff met later that night, the first words out of Saban's mouth were, "Hey, D.A.! You know we got a standard around here." Ansley mimicked Saban's hoarse voice as he recounted the tongue-lashing: "We got guys out here with their shirt tails untucked and nobody's addressing it. Why do I gotta be the bad guy? Are you scared of the guy?" Ansley wasn't sure if he should answer. "And [Saban's] like, 'Are you afraid of the guy? I mean, are the players telling you what to do now? If the guy's got his shirt tail untucked, make the guy get his shirttail tucked in. I mean, are you the coach or not?'" Ansley recalled. "So he goes on this long rant and I'm just sitting there like the smallest person in the room." Ansley was also the youngest assistant on staff -- an experienced staff that included former head coaches Kiffin, Mario Cristobal, Steve Sarkisian and Mike Locksley. Ansley looked across the table to receivers coach Billy Napier, helpless. "And I'm like, This is f---ing crazy," he said. Derrick Ansley said as Saban's DB coach, "You're with him every single day, every single minute." Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports KARL SCOTT, WHO coached DBs at Alabama from 2018-20 and is now with the Seattle Seahawks in the same role, chuckled as he listened to Ansley's story. Something similar happened to him, he said, when he was leading a bag drill and inadvertently had everyone facing the wrong direction. First, Scott noticed Saban's body language turn sour, and then, after a moment of pacing, Saban voiced his frustration. "Coach was not happy," Scott recalled. "Just the organization and the details. He comes and he lets you know about it." Scott was confused, though, because this didn't happen at a practice with the Crimson Tide. This was during a summer youth camp for kids ages 8-13. Scott fixed his mistake, but Saban brought it up again during the staff meeting that night ... because of course Saban debriefs following youth camp. Scott became acquainted with Saban's thorough nature and his many pet peeves while at Alabama, the most memorable being his aversion to wasted time, which played out in painstaking fashion during a recruiting trip the two took to Houston. Scott drove to North Shore High School, and the visit went well. They eventually signed the four-star offensive tackle. But coming back from the east side of town, with the major airports to the north and south and unsure which was theirs, Scott chose incorrectly. Then he rerouted and got stuck in traffic. Saban was fuming. Scott eventually found his exit, but since he was unfamiliar with flying private from a large, international airport, he missed their turn along the one-way road that circled the entire airport. "He has this spider-like sense," Scott said of Saban. "His head is down because the whole time in the car he's not shooting the s--- with you. He's doing something productive. But he happened to notice -- I don't know how -- and said, 'Hey, did we just pass the [hangar]?'" Scott was reluctant to answer. But Saban asked again and Scott answered, "Yes, sir." "He was like, 'What are you doing?! We gotta do this and that and blah, blah, blah. We're gonna be late,'" Scott said. "He's going on this whole tangent and I'm like, screw me. I could be doing anything and here I am with Coach complaining about my services as a driver." Scott made a quick right into a parking lot. "So as I'm coming back out, I have a decision to make," he said. "If I go all the way around, the right way, I'm going to have to hear his mouth the whoooole time. But if I make this left and go the wrong way on a one-way street, I'm going to get there a lot quicker and I don't have to hear any of that stuff. So I bust the left and as I do that he's like, 'Hey! What the hell are you doing?!' And I'm like, 'Coach, I'm gonna get there.' He's pissed off and like, 'Man, these young guys have no regard for life.' "But as we're pulling into the parking lot, I think he appreciated my sense of urgency." Scott burst out laughing. The man is a machine, he said. Saban had major hip surgery in the spring of 2019. A day or two later, Scott saw him walking into his office. "He works every day, whether that's recruiting, whether that's strategizing, whether that's developing players," Scott said. "He's involved, man. If you didn't know, you would think he's an assistant coach, like somebody hasn't told him he's the head coach of a major power program, let alone one of the best." FALLING SHORT OF Saban's high standard can be painful. But weather the storm and Scott believes there are lessons to be learned. "The golden nuggets are when you get to know why," he said. "It was groundbreaking to understand the man behind the man." Take Scott's mess-up during youth camp. Saban later told him about a recruiting visit he made to the home of a prospect in Louisiana and how he noticed a picture on one of the walls. It was Saban shaking hands with an eighth-grader at one of those camps. Saban promises, in writing, "As a camper, you will receive the same expert coaching that every Alabama player receives." And Scott said that Saban backs it up. Editor's Picks Saban: 'I didn't say anybody did anything wrong' 37d Alex Scarborough 2 Related No one knew then that the eighth-grader in the photo, Landon Collins , would develop into a five-star prospect, sign with Alabama and be named to three Pro Bowls. "You don't know the impression we have on these kids," Scott said. Saban may be a stickler for time, as Scott learned on that turbulent recruiting trip, but he walks the walk, too. Scott couldn't help but notice how Saban always wore the same sleeveless vest in the summer, the same slacks in the fall and the same sweater every winter. Every year, every practice, it was the same outfit. So Scott eventually got up the nerve to ask him about it. Scott said the answer told him a lot about Saban, who explained that he allotted only 10 minutes between meetings and the start of practice because it created a sense of urgency among the players. But it meant coaches were on the clock, too. According to Scott, Saban gave himself five minutes to get changed. "I don't have time to be worried about what I'm wearing to practice," Saban told him. "I can spend that [remaining] five minutes on something more important." Speaking of getting dressed, what about Ansley enduring Saban's wrath for one of the DBs having their shirt untucked? Ansley said that was his fault because the dress code was spelled out clearly in the team manual. "But guess what?" he added, "Those guys never had their shirt tails untucked again, I'll tell ya that." Ansley believes Saban gets a bad rap because he's prone to the occasional outburst. "One thing Coach does," he said, "is he defines your job early in the process and he holds you to your standard. Just tell me what you want me to do, Coach. OK, I gotta do B, C, D, and I gotta do it at this time? Every day I'm gonna do B, C, D. "The people that cannot sustain doing that job at a high level are the people that complain, 'Oh, Coach is hard to work for.'" JEREMY PRUITT MIGHT have Scott and Ansley beat in the storytelling department. He spent eight years with Saban at Alabama, including coaching DBs from 2010-12. Pruitt said there was one time he was about to drive their car onto a main road when Saban screamed, "Stop!" as an 18-wheeler buzzed by. If he hadn't slammed on the breaks, Pruitt said Saban might have died and "I couldn't live in the state of Alabama for the rest of my life." There was another time, Pruitt said, when they were on a donor's plane and suddenly all the instruments stopped working and they went into free-fall for what felt like two minutes. "It scared the crap out of both of us," Pruitt said. But then, everything was working again. "We landed and [Saban] called whoever the recruiting guy was at the time and said, 'Get us a better plane over here. I ain't getting back on that one.'" When they got back from the local high school, a different plane was ready. Pruitt, who was most recently the head coach at Tennessee, could tell stories like that for hours, but what he said people overlook about Saban is his football knowledge. He didn't just invent the so-called "Process," which has become a shorthand for the standards and systems that guide Saban's teams and are mimicked by many of his assistants who have gone on to head coaching jobs. Saban also helped invent a new style of defense that blends zone and man-to-man concepts. A defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, he and then-head coach Bill Belichick are credited with creating what's called "pattern matching." Pruitt said Saban's goal is to create the smallest throwing lanes possible and avoid defensive backs getting stuck "guarding grass." So instead of playing a simplified zone where defensive backs drop into their assigned areas of the field and remain there, Saban teaches players to drop back, use their eyes to diagnose and "match the pattern" of receivers. If a receiver streaks upfield into no-man's land, a defensive back can then leave the underneath zone, shift into man coverage and follow. "He wants to be able, if you only got one guy in your zone, to match him and create tighter windows for the quarterback," Pruitt said. Pruitt and other DB coaches were expected to have everything set up in time for position meetings -- the tape queued for review, the install plan laid out and correction notes ready for players. Then Saban would add in notes of his own. "He's a really good teacher," Pruitt said. "Heck, he's got 40 or 50 years of experience. It's really good for a lot of young coaches to sit in there and listen." Ansley remembered Saban demonstrating the "kick-slide" technique, which is a way for DBs to shuffle their feet laterally and stay in front of a receiver. "He's got slacks on, coins in his pocket, his nice sweater on before he changes to go to practice," Ansley said. Saban gets in front of the room wearing penny loafers and executes it perfectly. "He's like, 'Look at my old ass. I can get up here and kick-slide better than any of you guys.' ... And that resonates with the players. They're like, 'Well, s---. If Coach can do it, hell, I can do it.'" Pay attention, Scott said, and "You'll get your PhD in defensive football and defensive back play." There's a reason most of Saban's DB coaches stay with him for only a few years before moving on. Some of that attrition can be attributed to the intense workload, but there's no denying what that job does for a coach's resume. Ansley and Scott went straight from Alabama to the NFL. Pruitt, Smart, Mark Dantonio and Mel Tucker all became head coaches. And they all, to varying degrees, stayed involved with defensive backs like their former boss. Jeremy Pruitt spent eight years with Saban at Alabama, including coaching DBs from 2010-12. Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports WHEN TUCKER GOT the head job at Michigan State in 2020, he had to step back from coaching defensive backs to set the foundation for the football program -- everything from the evaluation of players and staff to the strength and conditioning program to the way they manage the roster through high school recruiting and the transfer portal. "Because no matter what I do with the corners or how well I coach them, if we don't have those other things firmly in place then it's all for naught," he said. But once he felt those building blocks were in place -- after going 11-2 in his second season and signing a 10-year, $95 million extension -- Tucker was eager to jump back in, having missed the grind of running position meetings and camping out in the defensive staff room. Cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman accepted a job at Georgia Tech in December, and Tucker chose not to replace him, instead teaming up with secondary coach Harlon Barnett to coach the DBs. "That's what drew me into the profession was to be hands-on coaching players and helping them get better," he said. "I've heard head coaches say this quite a bit: 'The one thing about being a head coach is I don't get a chance to coach.' But I have a really good role model with Nick Saban because he's always actively coached in the secondary, so I know what that looks like." With Saban, Tucker said, "You have to check your ego at the door." But because he'd known him since he was 17 years old, because his first job was a GA on Saban's staff at Michigan State, transitioning to being his DB coach at LSU in 2000 was seamless. "It's not some rose-colored glasses, happy-go-lucky situation," he said. "It's not that. But he taught me how to coach." Tucker also worked with Smart at Georgia . "I do it a little differently," he said, "but I know that it's very doable. You just have to be relentlessly organized and efficient with your time." So Tucker does all he can with the DBs and delegates what he can't handle to Barnett and the support staff. And he accepts that he can't be everywhere at once during practice. Tucker harkens back to something Saban used to say: "Some people see life through a straw and some people see life from 10,000 feet." As a head coach working with a specific position, they have to do both. The most difficult part, Tucker explained, is finding the right balance. "The challenge is worth the reward," he said. "When I was with [Saban], some of the most happy times I saw him was in the meeting rooms with the defensive backs, with the guys -- I mean, behind-the-scenes stuff that no one sees. And it's the same with me." Tucker said there's nothing like getting to know players on that level while coaching a position, interacting with them every day and seeing them develop. There's a camaraderie that develops -- inside jokes and all the things that make being part of a team special. Why has Saban coached this long? Why hasn't he drifted toward more of a CEO role in his later years like Mack Brown, Frank Beamer or Bobby Bowden? Maybe it's that simple. Ansley thinks football is embedded in Saban's DNA. Scott thinks he lives for competition. But Tucker believes there's something that comes from him staying involved with the defensive backs. "It keeps you engaged," he said. "I think it does keep you young. "You always have something to look forward to."