Alabama football coach Nick Saban has hired assistants in recent seasons with head-coaching experience, but nobody arrived with more accolades than Bill O'Brien.
The Crimson Tide's new offensive coordinator won the Bear Bryant Award as college football's top coach during his first season at Penn State in 2012, which happened to be the year Saban won his third of what are now six national titles in Tuscaloosa. O'Brien vaulted to the NFL in 2014 and led the Houston Texans to five winning records in his six full seasons that included four AFC South titles and playoff appearances.
On Sunday, during his first Zoom call as Alabama's play caller, O'Brien expressed the same appreciation as Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and others who came before him.
"Alabama quite obviously has proven to be a very special place to play and coach," O'Brien said. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity that Coach Saban has given me. To work and learn from someone like Coach Saban — I'm going into my 29th year of coaching, but I've already been here for seven months, and I've learned a ton."
O'Brien explained his love for college football, pointing out his 16-12 edge in years of coaching college versus pro, and he doesn't look at this opportunity as any kind of rehab assignment before relaunching his career. Kiffin and Sarkisian arrived in Tuscaloosa having been fired at Southern California but used their stints under Saban to help attain their current head-coaching jobs — Kiffin at Ole Miss and Sarkisian at Texas.
"I don't really think about that," O'Brien said. "I think about what's best for my family. When this opportunity came up, my wife, Colleen, and I sat down and talked about it. We have two teenage sons, and we felt it was a decision that was best for our family. I've enjoyed my time here and am very focused on what we're doing on offense in meetings and out in practice, and that's really what it's all about.
"That's the way it is here at Alabama. You've got to understand the culture when you get here and learn fast. I'm just like any rookie player or rookie coach who's been here in the past."
O'Brien this time last year was head coach and general manager of the Texans, but he was fired after Houston lost its first four games. Another new Tide assistant, offensive line coach Doug Marrone, was Syracuse's head coach from 2009-12, Buffalo Bills head coach in 2013-14 and Jacksonville Jaguars head coach from 2017-20. Marrone led Syracuse to a pair of Pinstripe Bowl wins and guided Jacksonville to the AFC championship during the 2017 season.
Saban wasn't so quick to hire former head coaches earlier in his career, with defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs (2001) and Bobby Williams (2004) serving as rare examples during his time at LSU. Williams had worked under Saban at Michigan State, but Saban has stated in recent years that assistants who have been head coaches bring a dynamic and value that allowed them to ascend to the top of their profession.
"One of the first steps in us being a team is that everybody has to buy in to the principles and values of the team," Saban said. "There is a level of commitment and a standard that we want to try and achieve, so everybody has to buy in to making a commitment to those things. So far that has not been a problem, and those coaches have worked out very, very well.
"I wouldn't think that any players would really recognize anything different from at least the mindset of how we try and do things and how we hold people accountable."
O'Brien worked in the NFL with Tom Brady as a New England Patriots assistant and with Deshaun Watson at Houston, but his quarterback now is sophomore Bryce Young, a five-star member of the 2020 class who played sparingly last season behind former starter Mac Jones. O'Brien described Young as being well coached in high school and during his first year in Tuscaloosa, adding that he's "a really good teammate."
With O'Brien as the Patriots' offensive coordinator in 2011, they went 13-3 in the regular season before reaching the Super Bowl and losing to the New York Giants. The last seven months include several instances of O'Brien getting stopped and asked to compare being an employee of Saban and Bill Belichick.
"They are two very different people," O'Brien said. "They're both great football coaches who care about their organizations."
Saban had plenty of praise for former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who died Sunday at the age of 91.
"This guy was probably the greatest ambassador or one of the greatest ambassadors of all time," Saban said. "He had success coaching, but he was also one of the greatest people and set an outstanding example for everyone in our profession in terms of you don't have to dislike somebody or discredit somebody that you're competing against."
Fifth-year senior defensive lineman LaBryan Ray will miss the first couple weeks of camp due to a groin injury sustained at the end of summer workouts. ... Saban said redshirt sophomore running back Trey Sanders, who suffered a hip injury in an auto accident last November, and sophomore defensive back Malachi Moore, who didn't play in the College Football Playoff due to a back injury, are participating on a daily basis.