With Steve Sarkisian off to take the head coach job at Texas, Alabama will reportedly be replacing him with a former NFL head coach. Such is life in Tuscaloosa these days.
Alabama is finalizing a deal with former Houston Texans head coach (and general manager) Bill O’Brien to be the next offensive coordinator under Nick Saban, according to ESPN. O’Brien reportedly spent Wednesday at Alabama’s facilities, and spent time with the team leading into the College Football Playoff championship game.
The deal comes three months after O’Brien was relieved of his duties with the Texans, setting him up to be the latest fallen coach to burnish his reputation under Saban.
Bill O’Brien returns to college football
Until a few years ago, O’Brien was well-regarded as a coach. He spent more than a decade as an assistant coach at various colleges before rising through the ranks to offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. He then took over a Penn State program devastated by sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to winning records in both of his seasons at the helm despite limited scholarships and several transfers.
That success earned him a promotion to the NFL, where he inherited a strong but underperforming roster in Houston. In seven seasons with Houston, O’Brien held a 52-48 record and led the team to four division titles.
Where O’Brien faltered, however, was a venture into the team’s front office. After the firing of general manager Brian Gaine, O’Brien gained control of the team’s personnel decisions, and the results are already infamous.
A Laremy Tunsil trade that ended up costing the Texans the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. A DeAndre Hopkins trade that laid bare O’Brien’s collapsed relationship with one of the NFL’s best receivers. An overall situation that has star quarterback Deshaun Watson thinking about demanding a trade.
O’Brien only formally became general manager in 2020, but he had been the team’s de facto GM since June 2019, and his influence can still be felt through Jack Easterby, the former Patriots chaplain O’Brien hired to be an executive despite a near-total lack of applicable experience.
Saban is well aware of this history, and seems to be betting that O’Brien remains a strong coach, just not a good executive.
More from Saban on O'Brien: "Based on the body of work up until (becoming GM), I think he's an outstanding coach and a really good person. He's got a good family and I think he'll do a good job with our players here."
— Brandon Kyle Scott (@brandonkscott) January 13, 2021
Those kind of bets have certainly worked out for Saban in the past.
Nick Saban’s coaching school gets a new pupil
Here’s a fun fact: the last time Alabama had an offensive coordinator that didn’t have prior NFL coordinating experience was Doug Nussmeier in 2013.
Since then, it has been Lane Kiffin, who went on to the head coaching job at Ole Miss; Brian Daboll, who is currently offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and a hot name on the NFL head coach market; and Sarkisian, who just took over at Texas.
From former “analysts” like Butch Jones to coordinators, Saban has provided a relaunching pad for many coaches, and O’Brien is well-primed to continue that tradition.
Alabama remains stacked
Sure, Alabama is set to lose Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith, starting quarterback Mac Jones (should he declare), Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris, Outland Trophy winner Alex Leatherwood, Rimington Trophy winner Landon Dickerson and more to the NFL draft.
They’ll be fine. It’s Alabama.
The Crimson Tide has plenty of former blue-chip recruits waiting in the wings, not least of all Bryce Young, Rivals’ top-ranked dual-threat quarterback of the Class of 2020. O’Brien has quite an act to follow up after what might have been the best college football team of all time, but the nice thing about Alabama is that he will definitely have the resources to do it.
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