TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Coach long enough and enjoy a certain degree of success, and your family tree will grow branches.
Such is the case for Nick Saban.
And by Saturday evening, one limb from the past will intersect with the present in a big way.
An assistant a combined seven seasons under Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, Derek Dooley will stand on the opposite sideline at 7 p.m. in Knoxville when No. 7 Alabama visits Tennessee. It’s not uncommon to see a former employee as an opposing assistant or a coordinator, but Saban hasn’t seen many as the man in charge on game day.
“I still get to talk to him on occasion, but I haven’t talked to him in a couple of weeks,” Saban said. “You have personal relationships with people and you have professional relationships with them. You have to compete against them, but that doesn’t mean you have to dislike them or you can’t appreciate or respect all that they’ve done for the years that they worked with you and the relationships you have with them and their family and everybody else.”
The Saban model certainly has taken hold in Tennessee and at Florida State, where another former assistant, Jimbo Fisher, was promoted to the head job before this season. Both have brought some of their former boss’ philosophies and lingo to their first head coaching position. Though not unique to the Alabama coach, Dooley used a favorite Sabanism on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference when he said putting man coverage on Georgia star wide receiver A.J. Green is like “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Dooley also has tightened media policies, among other tricks he learned from Saban.
“Philosophically, I’ve always believed in what he believes in,” Dooley said. “That’s a starting point. A lot of our organizational structure is very similar. But we’re very different personalities. We have a lot of respect for each other, and we’re friends. But it’s like any coach: You believe in some things philosophically the same, but everybody’s personality’s a little different and how you put it on the program.”
Inheriting a Tennessee program dealing with an NCAA investigation, multiple player arrests and general unrest after going through three coaches in as many years, the task has been tough for the son of Georgia coaching legend Vince Dooley.
That means dealing with issues Saban hasn’t faced in a while as the Vols enter with a 2-4 record and without an SEC win in three attempts. In six games, Dooley came just seconds from upsetting LSU on the road but also allowed UAB (2-4) to mount a second-half comeback to force overtime in a 32-29 Tennessee win Sept. 25.
A fan of continuity at quarterback like Saban, Dooley is exploring the option of using a second one against the Tide. He said Monday that true freshman Tyler Bray would play in the first half in an attempt to jump-start a Tennessee offense that ranks 11th in scoring among SEC teams.
“Nobody likes going down this path, where you get a little instability at quarterback as far as who is playing,” Dooley said. “Obviously, everybody wants one guy and have continuity over time. We’re not in that situation right now, so we’re going to have to navigate through the waters as they come. I can’t really predict what’ll happen. I don’t know how it will shake out. Only time will tell.”
It’s the life of a first-year coach at a program accustomed to success but coming off a rough patch filled with varying degrees of unrest.
“In my experiences, the first year is very, very difficult in terms of your staff, everybody getting on board, getting players to buy in,” he said. “And it looks like, from the way they play, that they’ve really done that. And I don’t think you can just look, especially in the first year’s record and results. But is the foundation being built for what you need to do in the future so that you have a chance to be successful and build on what you have? It seems to me that that’s happening there.”