Are All The Analysts Saban Hired Really Coaches in Waiting?
By: Larry Burton
As of this week, there are eight men listing on the University of Alabama Athletic Department website whose job listing is Football Department Analyst. In case you haven’t kept up with all of them, they are Dean Altobelli, Shea Tierney, Brendan Farrell, Chris Weinke, Wes Neighbors, William Vlachos, Garrett Cox and Dan Werner.
In 2010, Alabama had just three analysts, they doubled that number the next year to six before going to 10 for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The number then went down to eight for a few years now. But that’s not a number written in stone by any means.
An analyst may not recruit, may not serve as an on field coach and may not directly instruct or coach players at practice. They can offer advice develop study programs or film guides to help them and they can work with coaches to develop game strategy and other needed items. Some schools refer to them as quality control specialists, but whatever you call them, they are serving their teams in important ways.
In 2015 preparing for the first National Championship against Clemson, Saban told the press, “The fact that we can have a few extra guys now to be analysts, to break down film, to do quality control-type work, I think as an entry level that is beneficial to some guys that can move on maybe to be graduate assistants, get on the field and get some coaching experience.” The work they did on breaking down Clemson’s tendencies from film studies proved to be a big help and was something the regular coaches just didn’t have the time to do with all their other duties.
So far, Alabama has had analysts come and go and move on to bigger and better things and one, Steve Sarkisian, slid right from the analyst position to a major on field position coaching spot at the end of last season. Does Alabama have coaches who could do that this season if the need arises again? Let’s take a look at this group and break them down.
While two of these names, Wes Neighbors and William Vlachos should jump out at you since they are both former players from the Nick Saban era, the rest, except for Chris Weinke, may not. So let us get you familiar with them and judge whether they have the ability to be a coach in waiting or not.
Dean Altobelli is perhaps one of the more interesting ones in this group. He started out at Michigan State playing running back in his freshman season before becoming a little used defensive back for the rest of playing career. Yes, he was a player for Saban while Saban was coaching there, so there’s that tie.
But Altobelli went from player to lawyer in one of Michigan’s oldest and most prestigious law firms, even owning a piece of it before dabbling in politics and then asking his firm for leave to pursue his coaching dreams. That has been an ugly legal battle ever since over his partnership, but that’s another story.
Most would ask why he would leave a lucrative job with a bright future for the just over $45,000 a year job of analyst, but for Altobelli, it was something he felt he had to do. You see, with the NCAA limiting each team to nine coaches and four graduate assistants, there just isn’t enough room on the staff for all who want to be active coaches. But having such a job as analyst, especially an analyst under Nick Saban, is a launching pad for other jobs with higher salaries down the road.
With a lack of both starting experience as a player and prior coaching experience, Altobelli seems like he has a small chance of becoming a “coach in waiting” at Tuscaloosa, but other teams would want to give him a try hoping that some of the “Saban Magic” has rubbed off. Clearly he’s here in a role to learn and be in a support role rather than being a key contributor. Altobelli has been a Tide analyst since 2010.
Shea Tierney on the other hand, brings knowledge and experience to the staff. Starting his second year in this role with the Tide, Tierney has had jobs with the the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles as a front office person, intern coach and coach. He’s picked up a lot in that time and as an offensive analyst. Prior to his four years with the Eagles, there’s little to learned about him and his past exploits aren’t easy to find. It’s hard to think of him as someone who could step in and be a coach here, but he could land elsewhere.
He interacted with both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian and used his time to pick up much from them. This is a guy that may not be ready for an Alabama job, but he is a tempting target for someone else and has proven to be very good in giving advice and doing good film analysis.
Brendan Ferrell joined the Tide in 2013 after serving as the Northwestern State tight ends / special teams coordinator / assistant head coach. Farrell played linebacker and safety at Notre Dame from 1996-99 and began his coaching career at Wayne State from 2002-04 (running backs coach, special teams coordinator) as a graduate assistant. He has good experience as a player and college coach and works well college age players.
Should the NCAA allow a tenth coach, Ferrell would be a good choice to get the special teams coach. Saban has long thought the NCAA should allow this. In any case, he could be plugged into a coaching job here and would probably do a fine job. He is ready to help more than is doing right now and will make a fine coach.
Garret Cox is a graduate from Georgia with a degree in education, but with a passion for football. Though he didn’t play his years at Georgia, he did work there as a student assistant for the defensive staff 2006 before moving to Georgia Southern University as video coordinator in 2007.
He actively started coaching as assistant linebacker coach in Georgia at the high school level for one year in 2008 before moving on to administrative assistant for the linebacker coaches at Auburn University for a year and then moving to Fort Scott Community College where he was a linebacker coach. Next he joined the Texas Southern football program as a grad assistant coach in 2010 before becoming the permanent linebacker coach. From there, he’s been at Alabama.
With a big smile and red hair, he looks like he could be Greg McElroy’s older brother and he would love to be on the field as a coach. Should Alabama lose a linebacker coach prior to playoff time, look for Cox to slide into that role at least in the interim. He has an energy that the players and recruits would like. While he doesn’t have the experience that Saban would like for a full time on field position, another school is probably looking him over right now and ready to make a move to take him.
Chris Weinke is well known. He was the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at FSU who went on the the NFL. Weinke was always a different bird. He played professional baseball for a time and didn’t become a college football player until the age of 26, making him the oldest starting quarterback of any NCAA powerhouse team. Despite his age and football rust, he went on to win the Heisman and carve out a seven year career in the NFL.
Since then he worked with Cam Newton to develop himself into a more pro style passer at the IMG Academy, an institute that taught football fundamentals. He then did two years with the St. Louis Rams as a quarterback coach before coming to Alabama this year as an offensive analyst.
Weinke has the experience and savvy to slide right into a coaching job if needed and would make any team, including Alabama, a wonderful quarterback coach. Saban knows that with him learning more than just quarterback coaching duties and being involved in game prep, offensive strategies and offensive coordination will up his stock and his usefulness to Alabama and future suitors. His hire was a win / win for both parties and good things could come of this hire. He would be a hit with recruits as well. This could happen if Daboll’s time at Alabama is short.
Dan Werner is a longtime coach with a resume that assures he won’t be an analyst for long. It a resume packed with success as an offensive coordinator / quarterback coach. In many aspects he would have been as good a hire for the offensive coordinator’s job as Brian Daboll. His record is just that good. With great stints at the University of Miami and Ole Miss he is someone lots of schools would love to have, but even at a school where prospects are harder to come across, like Murray State, Werner took what he had there and made that school’s offense a national leading powerhouse finishing the year as the nation’s 11th best offense.
I could list many paragraphs of other accomplishments so it’s easy to see if Daboll gets a killer job before playoff time as Kiffin did, that Alabama wouldn’t suffer a lot having Werner take the reigns.
Now for the two native sons, Wes Neighbors and William Vlachos. Vlachos has been back with the Tide since 2013 after failing to make a career in the NFL after a stellar career at center for Alabama. Ryan Kelley, former Alabama center, now in the NFL and current center Bradley Bozeman praise the help and advice they’ve gotten from Vlachos and Saban knows he has a man that is well respected by the players as well as the other coaches.
Vlachos was a superman in a small body for the Tide, a superstar in the weight room that both encouraged and shamed others into working harder and was known for having a keen eye to spot defensive tells that made his line calling even more valuable. Again, Vlachos would be a great end of the season fill in, but he’s going to have to go and pay his dues elsewhere as a coach before being handed the keys to an on the field coaching assignment at Alabama.
Lastly Wesley Neighbors is part of an Alabama football royal family. The Neighbors have been sending their sons to Tuscaloosa for generations and they’ve all done well in building more glory. His grandfather was in “Bear” Bryant’s first class and his father was in Bryant’s last freshman class. He was a defensive back at Alabama until suffering a career ending injury in 2011. He graduated in 2012.
Neighbors was a gritty hard hitting safety at Alabama, but has little to no applicable coaching experience. He is clearly here in a learning and support capacity but will certainly have some opportunities down the road for the work he’s doing here and all that he’s learning. In the meantime, he’ll help break down film and come up with schemes, scouting reports and game plans for the defensive coaches to look over.
That’s the analysts that are at Alabama right now. Each has a coach they mainly work with and each can sit in on coaches meetings, planning sessions and so forth. While Saban may have initially been criticized for “stepping up the game” in hiring additional “coaches”, it is a common practice now that all teams use.
And while all teams now may do it, you can bet that Saban may just do it better.
The other thing Saban that makes Saban want to do to this is to “pay it forward” and help guys get jobs as he got his. It’s a great way to help these men get ahead in a career that’s tough to break into and you can bet that Saban’s getting his money’s worth from them while they’re here, so it’s a win – win situation even if they don’t wind up as a big time college or pro coach.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter