Nick Saban’s coaching tree yields a promising acorn at Elon

In all the post-game hoopla following the University of Alabama’s stunning 26-23 overtime victory over SEC rival Georgia in the FBS national title game Monday night, I took note of an on-field TV interview with Crimson Tide head football coach Nick Saban. He had just tied legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most national major college football titles with six, five of those coming at Alabama over the past nine years. By any standard it’s a remarkable achievement in sports, one also noteworthy because the Tide was one play away from winning in 2016, too.

After the Georgia game, won when a true freshman quarterback pushed into the game to replace the starting QB in a major gamble by his coach, Saban made a couple of observations. First he noted the “resiliency” of this particular team — the ability of its players to overcome adversity. And second he mentioned last year’s defeat by Clemson in the championship game, lost on a touchdown pass by Deshaun Watson as the game ended. Saban said Alabama failed to “finish” that game and throughout the season he implored his players this season to “finish.”

Cignetti celebrates

Elon coach Curt Cignetti in a photo by AL.com during his Alabama days with coach Nick Saban.

As I watched Saban’s interview I could also hear the voice of Elon University’s first-year head football coach Curt Cignetti. I spoke to Cignetti in December for a story I was asked to write about Elon’s turnaround season under Cignetti in 2017 for the Elon University alumni magazine. The day he was hired, Elon was coming off its sixth straight losing season. In the fall of 2017 the team posted a six-game turnaround in terms of wins, an eight-game winning streak, four victories over top 20 FCS opponents, a national ranking in the top 10 and final rankings of 20 and 21, a battle for the conference championship with No. 1 ranked powerhouse James Madison, and the first FCS playoff berth for Elon since 2009. By any standard that was a remarkable one-season achievement in sports, also noteworthy because Cignetti was on Saban’s Alabama coaching staff in 2009 when the Tide won the first of this current run of national crowns.

From the start at Elon, Cignetti’s tie to Saban and Alabama has been pointed out in nearly every story written about the coach. He’s from the mighty Saban coaching tree, as is Kirby Smart, the University of Georgia coach on the short end of Monday’s title game in his first season coaching in Athens. Cignetti and Smart were on Saban’s staff together in 2009.

Cignetti smart and Saban

Cignetti, KIrby Smart and Saban in a file photo from AL.com

I don’t want to give away anything from the Magazine of Elon story, which will be published in the winter edition, but it’s not revealing too much to say that two of Cignetti’s points of emphasis for his Elon team are resiliency and finishing. In fact, the latter — FINISH! — is posted on a sign above the exit of the Phoenix football locker room. It’s the last thing players see as they exit for the day.

I had a great discussion with the coach that morning in his Alumni Field House office. During the interview he talked about some of the things he learned from Saban at Alabama. Several stuck with me but one made a real impression immediately — even though it didn’t make it into the MOE story. He talked about being detailed during practice in order to maximize time.

“Time is a precious commodity. It’s important to everyone,” Cignetti said. “People appreciate you investing their time and not wasting their time.”

At that moment it dawned on me that the interview was heading toward one hour in length. I was aware a college football coach in the final days before the new early signing date for recruits has to be very busy indeed. I noted how much time I was taking away from other pressing matters and the coach was gracious, told me to take as much time as I needed and asked me to call if I needed anything else.

In the last few questions we discussed what his experience meant to Elon’s returning players when he arrived on campus in January of 2017. “The Alabama background gives you credibility but you have to back it up,” Cignetti said.

So far, he has.

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