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Lionel Messi and Argentina rejoice in their greatest national team of all time

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Lionel Messi and Argentina rejoice in their greatest national team of all time

Follow live coverage of Uruguay vs Colombia in the Copa America 2024 semifinal today

Lionel Messi was all smiles. Argentina had just seen off Canada to force passage into another major final, their team’s relentless form of the past five years maintained and conviction bolstered that they will retain the Copa America title won four years ago.

“This is so beautiful, and it’s something we should value,” Messi said. “I’ve been saying that to play in another final, to play in four straight finals… what this group of players is doing is something to be proud of. We should value it and recognize it.”

There is little doubt now that this group of players — led by Messi, their venerable captain — are the best Argentina team of all time.

The Copa’s defending champions have lost just twice in 61 matches, a sequence stretching back half a decade. In that time they have won the 2021 Copa America, the 2022 World Cup and the inaugural Finalissima against European champions Italy in 2023. Beating Canada 2-0 on Tuesday night at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, already confirmed as the venue for the 2026 World Cup final, leaves Argentina 90 minutes away from another major tournament trophy.

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MetLife Stadium witnesses Argentina’s greatest-ever team (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Messi has now led his national team to seven finals. But before lifting the Copa America trophy in 2021, he had only suffered crushing defeats on the grandest stages, which clouded his legacy with Argentina.

The 2014 team that lost to Germany in a World Cup final that went to extra time featured many of the same players who then lost the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals. In recent years, Messi has made an effort to honor the teams and players deemed losers by Argentina’s fanatical footballing culture. Today, Argentina’s players are national heroes who have shown an unrelenting hunger to win. 

The stadiums in which they have played in the United States over the three weeks of this tournament so far have been filled to the brim with fans clad in blue and white. Back in Buenos Aires, the country is eager to celebrate another title. There is a belief that this team have fortune on their side, unlike those sides who faltered in their biggest moments before 2021. 

“We’ve done this before and it wasn’t valued, maybe because we weren’t lucky enough to win,” said Messi. “Those teams also played in Copa America and World Cup finals. But now we need to enjoy this moment. 


Messi was all smiles in New Jersey on Tuesday night (Elsa/Getty Images)

“The people (of Argentina) deserve to stick their chests out and enjoy this Argentina national team and all its accomplishments. We’re in another final and we’re still competing.”

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Messi scored Argentina’s second goal against Canada, taking his tally at international level to 109 — the second-most of all time behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s 130 for Portugal. It was actually his first goal of the tournament, a reflection that this has been a nondescript Copa America for Argentina’s talisman. 

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An adductor (groin) injury suffered in Argentina’s second game of the group stage forced him to miss one match. Argentina, though, carried on without him, easily winning their group. That is what makes this Argentina team special. They are deep in nearly every position.

A player such as Julian Alvarez can be swapped with Serie A’s leading goalscorer Lautaro Martinez if necessary. The back line is as stout as any group of defenders in the world, led by Tottenham’s Cristian Romero. They have full-backs with different profiles; Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna are sure-footed defenders, while Gonzalo Montiel and Nicolas Tagliafico are man-marking bulldogs.

Argentina’s midfield is the strength of the team. Rodrigo De Paul, in tears after the final whistle due to the physical sacrifice the Canada match required, plays alongside two Premier League No 8s in Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernandez. Both players attack and defend persistently, which allows Messi and Angel Di Maria to pick their moments to press and focus on chance creation. 

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Di Maria will retire after this tournament (Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Since head coach Lionel Scaloni took over in 2019, Argentina has been defined by their depth and tactical flexibility, while maintaining an identity centered on dominating possession and controlling matches from beginning to end. Di Maria has said publicly that he will retire from international football after this Copa America. The 36-year-old will now have a unique opportunity to walk away after winning yet another trophy.

“I don’t think I’d be able to have dreamt this,” Di Maria said. “I’m so grateful to this generation of players, because it’s thanks to them I’ve been able to accomplish all of this. It’s thanks to them that my last game with the national team will be a final.

“There have been some bad times — sometimes you have to get walked over. But this is how it had to end. With me lifting the (World Cup) trophy and playing in another final with this shirt.”

Messi, who turned 37 last month, referred to this moment in his career, and that of Di Maria and veteran defender Nicolas Otamendi, also 36, as “our last battles”. On Tuesday, he stressed that the road to continued success has been difficult. Argentina is not a team that routs its opponents. Every match is filled with tension and anxiety, followed by a celebratory roar when Argentina’s goals find the opponents’ net. 

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At the other end of the field, Argentina has a goalkeeper who has become nearly impossible to beat. Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez gives the current world champions an edge that makes them easy to dislike. Villainy in sport is a sign of success. But as he grinned widely in the bowels of the MetLife Stadium post-match, Martinez seemed in awe of his team’s ascendancy. 

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe this,” he said. “You have to believe but keep your feet on the ground, with the mentality that all of this is possible.” 

Asked if he felt Argentina was the tournament’s best team, Martinez shook his head humbly. “There are a lot of good teams,” said Martinez. “Look at Brazil (out in the quarterfinals). The pitches (being used for this Copa) are f***ed and any team can challenge you. Uruguay looks really good and Colombia hasn’t lost in almost 30 games. (Those two sides meet in the second semifinal on Wednesday night). It’s going to be tough.” 

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Scaloni himself has teetered on the edge of despair even as Argentina continued to win. He nearly walked away from the national team last November, after a historic World Cup qualifying win over Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. “I need to stop the ball and start thinking — I have a lot of things to think about during this time,” Scaloni said then. 

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After last night’s win over Canada, Scaloni looked like a coach who had regained his purpose. He was visibly elated. “We’re coming from a lot of success and that makes everything more difficult — it costs so much more,” he said. Scaloni deflected all questions about Argentina’s impressive run of three consecutive finals wins. “We’re focused on winning this final.”


Scaloni has been re-energised (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Scaloni told reporters that Messi’s future will be determined by the player. He and his staff will never close the door on the veteran. In fact, Scaloni stressed Messi can remain a part of the national team for as long as he wishes. “I’ll take him with me if I go somewhere else,” Scaloni said. “He’d be a great help to me, but it’ll be up to him.”

A few steps away, surrounded by hordes of reporters from around the world, Messi continued to enjoy the limelight.

It must be incredibly hard for him to consider walking away from this. He adores this group of players and they, in turn, idolize him. A win in the Copa America final on Sunday (early Monday UK time) in Miami, where he now plays his club football with Inter Miami of MLS, could be the catalyst that prolongs Messi’s international career through to the 2026 World Cup, co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico. Alternatively, a fourth straight trophy might prompt him to hang up his boots as a hero. 

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For now, Messi is as happy as he has ever been, and so is the country of Argentina.

“Argentines are crazy about this national team and crazy about football,” Messi added. “This group (of players) has been fostering that relationship for a long time now. We’ve won important things and these players continue to compete game after game. We don’t always play well, but our willingness to compete is spectacular.

“Let’s enjoy this moment, but also appreciate what began eight years ago.”

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(Top photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

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Exploring the Nick Saban butterfly effect, 400-plus job changes later

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Exploring the Nick Saban butterfly effect, 400-plus job changes later

At approximately 3:53 p.m. CT on Jan. 10, Nick Saban sized up what had been another busy day inside the Alabama football office. He and his staff had spent much of their day interviewing three prospective assistants: two wide receivers coaches and a special teams coach. The third of the interviews, with Washington receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard, had just concluded.

“I think the guy from Washington is probably our best hire,” Saban told the Alabama coaches. “Let’s keep doing our due diligence, and then we’ll talk about it in the morning.’”

At 4 p.m., Saban and the group would reconvene for a team meeting. Within 10 minutes, he would inform everyone in the room – some 150 players and staffers – he was retiring, ending a coaching career that included seven national titles, 11 SEC championships and saw 27 assistants go on to become FBS head coaches and 10 more get NFL head coaching jobs.

“Man, it was a weird day, like ‘Twilight Zone’ weird,” said Zach Mettenberger, then an Alabama analyst. “Like two minutes into the meeting, not even, he just dropped a friggin’ nuke on all of us. He just kinda dropped the mic and walked out.”

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Saban had two speeches written: one to retire and one to keep going. “I kept vacillating back and forth,” Saban later told ESPN. At 3:55, he was sitting in his chair, looking at the clock. “You have five minutes to decide which speech you’re gonna give.”

The speech he gave rocked the football world, particularly the lives of 423 coaches and staffers whose jobs would be impacted by the coaching dominoes that would begin to fall from his retirement.

Five more major college football programs needed new head coaches as a result of Alabama’s hire. The impact ultimately spread to 38 Power 5 schools, 25 Group of 5 schools, 34 lower-level programs, more than a dozen high schools and 10 NFL organizations.


The Crimson Tide’s head nutritionist since 2010, Amy Bragg won five national titles with Saban. Only head trainer Jeff Allen and Dr. Ginger Gilmore, the Tide’s director of behavioral medicine, worked with Saban longer.

Alabama had built up one of the largest coaching and support staffs in the country, with more than 75 staffers listed in its 2023 directory. Saban’s decision left each of them – even his closest allies – wondering whether they’d have a role in the powerhouse program moving forward.

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“We were all probably unprepared even though we knew that day was coming when it would be over,” Bragg said. “As it sunk in, I thought a lot about Coach Saban’s quotes: Control what you can control. Play the next play.”

Clint Trickett was in Tampa at Jon Gruden’s “Fired Football Coaches of America” headquarters when he heard the Saban news. Trickett’s dad, Rick, was a colleague of Saban’s in the 1970s at West Virginia and was on Saban’s first LSU staff.

“I was like, ‘F—!’” said Trickett, who was looking for work after getting released as Marshall’s offensive coordinator. “I was disappointed because one of my career goals was to work under him as a position coach. I’d been a (graduate assistant) for him for a short period of time — for eight work days — and when I left him to go work for Lane (Kiffin), it was a big deal. I really wanted to work for Nick Saban. It was a sad, sad day.”

Kane Wommack, the head coach at South Alabama, was preparing steaks as he and assistant head coach Matt Shadeed planned spring practices. Before the steaks hit the grill, Shadeed blurted out, “Oh my gosh! Nick Saban has retired.”

Wommack immediately felt a pit in his stomach. “I remember thinking, ‘I just hope nothing changes with my program,’” he said.

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The next morning, Kalen DeBoer called Wommack. The two coaches were assistants at Indiana in 2019, when the Hoosiers cracked the Top 25 for the first time in 25 years. DeBoer had just led Washington to the national championship game in his second season as head coach, a turnaround that had gotten the attention of Alabama brass.

He wanted Wommack’s insights about the Tide’s program. Would he be a good fit?

When the offer was on the table, DeBoer asked: Is this something you would want to be a part of? Wommack had led South Alabama to its first two winning seasons and bowl victory as an FBS program, but sustaining success, he felt, was much harder at the Group of 5 level than it was when he took the job in 2021 because of the evolution of NIL and the transfer portal. When you’re the defensive coordinator at Alabama, he reasoned, you can succeed every year.

“It just wasn’t an opportunity I was gonna turn down,” Wommack said. “It happened fast.”

Everything did.

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After Saban left the Wednesday team meeting, Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne told the Tide that he would have a new head coach in place within 72 hours. Byrne made the hire in 49 hours, naming DeBoer as Saban’s successor. On Monday afternoon, DeBoer shook up the coaching carousel again, hiring Wommack.

Four days after it played for a national title, Washington needed a new leader.


“What a week!” Jedd Fisch said as he walked down the halls of the Arizona football office the day Saban retired.

One of his mentors, Pete Carroll, had stepped down from the Seahawks the previous day after 14 seasons. Fisch expected his former boss Bill Belichick to part ways with New England the next day. Fisch didn’t think the Saban news would impact him. When Alabama hired DeBoer on Friday, Fisch figured Washington would go with DeBoer’s longtime assistant, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, as his successor.

Washington athletic director Troy Dannen had only been in Seattle for three months. Locking DeBoer into a long-term extension was imperative. The Huskies were 5-0 when he arrived and just kept winning. Dannen made a strong offer the week of Thanksgiving starting at $8.5 million per year, an unprecedented figure for UW. When that was rejected, Dannen spent much of December preparing a list of candidates.

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Fisch wasn’t atop that initial list despite achieving a remarkable flip in Tucson, taking over a program on a 12-game losing streak and winning 10 games by Year 3. But when the job opened in January and Dannen started making calls, he was quickly won over.

Their first conversation, a half-hour call, took place around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. By 10 p.m., Dannen was ready to offer him the job.

The Huskies’ impending move to the Big Ten in 2024 was, for Fisch, the No. 1 factor.

Fisch said it was clear Washington was willing to make a “huge” commitment to football. Arizona’s salary pool for its football assistants was $4.3 million in 2023. Washington almost doubled that to $7.3 million. He offered jobs at Washington to 21 Arizona staffers and all 21 accepted. But he still had room for a few new faces.

Steve Belichick watched how Fisch transformed Arizona. The two coached together on his father’s staff in New England. Belichick, 37, had spent all 12 of his years in coaching with the Patriots, the last four as New England’s defensive play caller. If someone had told him a month before his father left the Patriots that he would become a college coach, he says he’d have rolled his eyes.

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“I don’t think I would’ve believed it,” said Belichick, now the Huskies’ defensive coordinator, “but things happen.”


Over at South Alabama, Wommack’s sudden departure was a stunner. The Jaguars had just earned their first bowl victory in program history. Players didn’t see the change coming and needed continuity.

“They were, to use a boxing example, catching a flurry and on the ropes,” said Major Applewhite, Wommack’s offensive coordinator.

Applewhite was quickly promoted to take over at South Alabama. He has Saban to thank for that and much more. He was Saban’s first OC at Alabama in 2007 and rebooted his career in Tuscaloosa as an analyst in 2019 after his abrupt firing as Houston’s head coach.

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“He’s always helped me whenever I’ve asked,” Applewhite said. “I don’t try to abuse that or be a nuisance. But there’s been times where I’ve called him since I’ve gotten this head job and asked him questions.”

He could’ve left for more high-profile OC jobs during his time with Wommack, but Applewhite and his family like Mobile, Ala., and were tired of moving. He didn’t want to ask his daughter to switch high schools.


Major Applewhite was promoted to head coach at South Alabama after Kane Wommack departed for Alabama. (Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

Applewhite had to rebuild his staff, hiring five new assistant coaches while promoting two more. After losing DC Corey Batoon to Missouri, he brought back Will Windham, who’d been fired by Wommack in December and had just accepted a job at Arkansas State.

Windham spent one week recruiting for the Red Wolves but hadn’t signed a contract. He had already put the family home on the market and had three showings. On the Friday morning that Applewhite called, his wife was en route to Arkansas to go house hunting.

“It was a crazy three-hour span of, ‘We’re moving to Jonesboro, Ark.,’” Windham said, “to, ‘Holy smokes, get the house off the market, I’m gonna be the defensive coordinator at South Alabama.’”

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A coach’s fortune can change in an instant. Pete Lembo was recruiting in New Jersey when he learned Buffalo head coach Maurice Linguist was leaving after a 3-9 season to become Alabama’s co-DC. Lembo had a 112-65 career record in 15 years as a Division I coach, but the South Carolina special teams coordinator hadn’t run his own program in almost a decade. The 54-year-old was beginning to doubt he’d get another shot.

“I remember getting a call from a search firm guy,” Lembo said. “He said, ‘You would be a great candidate for this job, but you guys were 5-7 this year. If it was last year when you were 8-4, you’d probably be getting an interview right now.’ Those are things you can’t control. You say to yourself, ‘I’m the same guy I was when we were 8-4.’”

The New York native said he had an “aha moment” when Buffalo opened. He was the right man for the job, an experienced former MAC coach who could ensure a smooth transition. The process moved quickly with AD Mark Alnutt, and it needed to with the start of the semester fast approaching. In his first week on the job, Lembo held meetings with all 87 players.

“It was real important for me to come in and be very steady and even-keeled,” Lembo said, “and let everybody know this is gonna be OK.”

Applewhite hired Paul Petrino to coach South Alabama’s receivers. Central Michigan replaced him with B.T. Sherman from Morgan State, who then brought in Apollo Wright as its new offensive coordinator.

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And that meant Mike Woodard needed to find a new head coach for the Fernandina Beach Pirates.

Fernandina Beach, Fla., is tucked away in northeast Florida next to the Georgia border, a tourist destination on Amelia Island. Their high school program has good support, an indoor practice facility and a renovated weight room but one playoff win in school history. Wright, a college assistant for 20-plus years, went 7-13 over his two seasons. Woodard, their AD and dean of students, knew Wright wanted to give college one more shot.

Bobby Dan McGlohorn, who had head coaching experience in North Florida and was an assistant across the state line at Camden County in Kingsland, Ga., accepted the job but backed out a few weeks later. Woodard turned to Blake Willis.

The 33-year-old has been the Pirates’ defensive coordinator and strength coach for five years while also teaching PE weight lifting classes. He grew up and went to school there. Fernandina Beach’s last consecutive winning seasons were his junior and senior year.

There was a time when Willis considered working at the college level. He interned with South Carolina’s strength and conditioning staff in the summer of 2018 and worked for UCF’s staff in 2018-19 while pursuing his master’s degree. While he learned so much from coaches now at Tennessee and other Power 5 schools, he was reluctant to go down that road.

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“I didn’t know if I wanted to move around a whole lot, because that’s kind of the deal,” Willis said. “Every few years, you’re probably having to find a new job.”

Willis never thought he would become a head coach this quickly. Woodard has reservations, too, but talked him into applying. When the AD interrupted a team workout to announce the new coach, his players celebrated.

“I’m trying to build it up to where I think it should be,” Willis said. “This is where I’m from. I want this place to be the best it can be.”

The coaching moves set off by Saban’s retirement rippled out to high schools in nine other states, too. Mettenberger, the Alabama analyst and former LSU and NFL quarterback, accepted an OC role at Father Ryan High School, a private school in Nashville. The process of looking for another coaching job late in the cycle was daunting, and the 32-year-old coach didn’t have an agent.

“We planned on moving back to Nashville, because it was more conducive to my wife’s work and I was just gonna figure it out, whether it be selling insurance for the next year until the next coaching cycle,” Mettenberger said. “The coordinator at Father Ryan left for a job in Georgia, and with my prior experience there and my situation moving back, it happened organically. I was real lucky.”

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Clint Trickett was fortunate, too. Three months after being let go by Marshall, he was hired to coach inside receivers and tight ends at Georgia Southern. That spot came open after DeBoer hired Georgia Southern OC Bryan Ellis as Alabama’s tight ends coach. Ryan Aplin, who had the job Trickett was taking, got promoted to replace Ellis, who got looped in at Alabama by his old buddy from his Western Kentucky days, JaMarcus Shephard, DeBoer’s receivers coach at Washington that Saban had interviewed 10 minutes before he retired. Shepherd ended up in Tuscaloosa after all, as the Tide’s wide receivers coach.

Willis and Woodard chuckled upon learning their connection to Alabama. “It’s definitely insane,” Willis said. “I would’ve never thought.” How would Woodard like to be in Byrne’s shoes, tasked with selecting Saban’s successor?

“You know, everyone has their own speed bumps and potholes,” Woodard said. “I’m perfectly fine right now just covering mine with beach sand.”

Arizona hired Brent Brennan and San Jose State hired Ken Niumatalolo to replace him. Coincidentally, he’d already met his new team four weeks earlier.

The veteran coach was back home in Hawaii in December. His good friend Joe Seumalo, San Jose State’s defensive line coach, was in town and wanted to catch up. He asked if he could watch a practice as the Spartans prepped for the Hawaii Bowl.

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“Brent Brennan is a good dude and was like, ‘Ken, do you wanna speak to the team?’ I said sure,” Niumatalolo said. “I talked about how I was impressed with how close their team was. It was evident Coach had done a really good job of creating a family atmosphere. I wished them the best of luck.

“I’m a very spiritual person. Things are sometimes meant to be.”

Niumatalolo was fired in the locker room after Navy’s double overtime loss to rival Army in 2022, an abrupt end to a successful 15-year tenure. Plenty of friends offered him jobs, but could he go back to being an assistant? Niumatalolo joked that he wasn’t quite ready to grind like the countless fired coaches who became Alabama analysts under Saban.

Chip Kelly got creative and offered him a new advisory role: UCLA’s director of leadership. No coaching, no recruiting. Niumatalolo sat in on meetings, watched practice and took copious notes on how to run a Power 5 program. The 59-year-old coach shared an apartment with his son Ali’i, UCLA’s offensive line GA.

“It was a way for me to stay in the game and learn from Chip,” Niumatalolo said. “It turned out it was a perfect job for me. … I didn’t realize I needed that to decompress. It allowed me to touch every part of that program and see it for myself.”

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He spent the year putting together a plan with the hopes he’d get a call at the end of the season. Niumatalolo knew he needed to move away from Navy’s option offense and studied passing attacks. He filled up his iPad with ideas for his next program. When a job didn’t emerge, he agreed to coach UCLA’s tight ends. And then Saban retired.

“The way this happened was weird, because it was so late,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t know if that will ever happen again. None of us have ever seen that, how all these different dominoes fell.”

He’d been involved in quite a few searches in past years, so he knew how fast they were filled. When Brennan landed his dream job at Arizona, Niumatalolo got a call from his agent, then a Zoom meeting, then an in-person interview the next day. “You better be prepared,” Niumatalolo said.

He landed Texas State’s Craig Stutzmann and his “Spread and Shred” system on offense, retained DC Derrick Odum and brought Nu’u Tafisi from UCLA as his strength coach. He trusted them to fill out their staffs while he took more of a CEO approach, building relationships with donors to boost NIL funding.

“I can’t do a lot of things well, but I know how to be a head coach,” he said. “I can’t use a hammer. I suck at computers. I don’t know how to fix a tire. But I know how to lead people.”

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When Lembo brought one of his former grad assistants, Brian Dougherty, to Buffalo as his safeties coach, Mike Caputo was out of a job.

The 31-year-old assistant, a three-year starter and All-American at Wisconsin, had worked at five schools in seven years. Caputo lived out of his Dodge Charger for six months after landing a GA job at LSU in 2017. He put in two years there with Dave Aranda before reuniting with Gary Andersen as safeties coach at Utah State. Caputo took a pay cut to join Aranda’s Baylor staff as a quality control coach in 2020. He accepted another off-field role at his alma mater in 2022 and watched Paul Chryst get fired at midseason.

“I tried to develop as many relationships as possible, didn’t burn any bridges and just always chased opportunity and not money,” he said.

Caputo could’ve stayed with Wisconsin but felt ready for his next step. He got on at Buffalo as safeties coach and special teams coordinator. His wife, Lauren, was pregnant with their second child but signed off on the move. Their daughter, Vera, arrived 11 days after they landed in Buffalo.

Nine months later, Caputo was in an airport bar trying to rebook a flight canceled by a snowstorm when he learned Linguist was leaving. There weren’t many jobs available by late January. He exhausted all his connections.

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In April, the Caputos moved to Pittsburgh. Mike came home to join his father’s commercial insurance agency. This isn’t a hiatus. He’s decided to get out of coaching.

“I’m not sour about it,” he said. “Shoot, it’s been a blessing.”

Caputo believes he’s out for good. He was already becoming frustrated by how much assistant jobs have changed. “Now you’re only coaching 20 percent of the time,” he said. “The majority is recruiting. That’s not why I got in. I got in to coach and develop young men.” For Caputo, it was validating to hear Saban make similar observations upon retiring.

Dozens of coaches and staffers impacted by Saban’s decision found themselves in similar predicaments. These newly hired head coaches had to make difficult decisions about who to bring, who to keep and who’s out. At Alabama, DeBoer brought Washington nutritionist Ali VandenBerghe and moved on from Bragg, ending her 14-season tenure. She’s now in the consulting business, relying on her two decades of leading college football nutrition programs.

Daniel Bush, Alabama’s recruiting director since 2018, wasn’t retained and wasn’t looking to move his family across the country. He stayed in Tuscaloosa and has launched a recruiting service to help high school prospects. Bush proudly said he didn’t miss a single Little League game this spring. He won’t miss the 85-hour work weeks from August through December.

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“At the end of the day, winning takes what it takes,” Bush said. “We were all willing to invest what it took to get it done.”


Just before spring break, Cisco College defensive coordinator Charlie Rizzio was on his way out of the office when he got stopped by his head coach.

Stephen Lee told Rizzio that he was about to accept an offer to coach tight ends at FCS program Tarleton State and that he would recommend Cisco hire Rizzio as his successor. It’s his first college head coaching gig.

“I guess I’ve got ole’ Nick to thank for that,” Rizzio joked when he learned of his six degrees of separation from Saban.

Rizzio, a former Division II running back at Assumption College, has spent his adult life coaching at places the average fan has never heard of.

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At 30, with six years of high school coaching experience to his name, Rizzio wanted to try the college level. But his connections were sparse, so in 2014 he emailed his resume to every college he could think of. When Division II West Texas A&M responded it needed a running backs coach, Rizzio jumped in his Hyundai on a Friday and drove 1,800 miles cross-country to Canyon, Texas.

When he arrived at the football offices Monday morning, he beat all but one coach there: Lee, who was then the offensive coordinator there. Nobody there had a clue who Rizzio was. The head coach had forgotten they had spoken. But he hired Rizzio as a graduate assistant on the spot.

That kicked off a decade-long coaching journey for Rizzio at schools like Eastern New Mexico, Southern Connecticut State and Missouri Western. He has driven thousands of miles, blown two car engines, and didn’t make enough money to pay off his student loans until he was 36.

When Lee was announced last year as the new head coach at Cisco, Rizzio was one of his first calls as defensive coordinator. “He’s a problem solver,” Lee said. “He looks around to figure out what needs to be done.”

Rizzio, then substitute teaching in Connecticut, had only three requests for his next gig: health insurance, enough salary to live without a roommate and enrollment in the Texas Teacher Retirement System, a statewide pension program for school employees.

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“I told him, ‘If you can check those three boxes, I don’t care where it is,’” Rizzio said.

The Wranglers went 4-4 in Lee’s and Rizzio’s first year together and were encouraged by the potential. Cisco, roughly 100 miles west of Fort Worth in a town of 4,000, doesn’t have the resources that other programs in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference have. But the coaches made it work.

In January, DeBoer hired Baylor offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic to the same job at Alabama. Baylor coach Dave Aranda recruited Mason Miller from Tarleton State to fill the void. Tarleton coach Todd Whitten made two moves to fill the vacancy left by Miller, his offensive coordinator and tight end coach: He promoted quarterbacks coach Adam Austin to OC and called Lee from Cisco to be the tight ends coach.

The funding and ambition at Tarleton was too attractive to pass up for Lee. And he knew Cisco would be in good hands with Rizzio.

The first-time head coach has plenty of work ahead of him. In junior college football, the coaching staff sizes and facilities may as well be on a different planet when compared to what Saban had at Alabama.

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“You’re gonna have to wash some jock straps and you can’t be too prideful to do that,” Rizzio said. “You’re gonna have to clean the dorms, take the trash out, do grade checks, do breakfast checks, run the weight room.”

But he’s not complaining. He loves coaching and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He knows there are coaches paid exponentially more who are “miserable.” He’s the opposite.

Rizzio appreciates the small-town community and says the people of Cisco are “amazing.” He tells his team to imagine they’re not waking up in Cisco, but in Tuscaloosa, preparing for the Iron Bowl.

“You can find happiness anywhere,” Rizzio said. “Everyone’s got problems. Even Nick Saban has problems. He’s just got Mercedes-Benz problems, and we have Hyundai problems.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; graphics: John Bradford, Drew Jordan / The Athletic; photo: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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Benches clear between Yankees and Orioles after batter gets hit in head with 96 mph pitch

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Benches clear between Yankees and Orioles after batter gets hit in head with 96 mph pitch

An old AL East rivalry was reheated Friday night as the benches cleared between the Yankees and Orioles in the bottom of the ninth.

Yankees closer Clay Holmes hit Heston Kjerstad in the head with a 96.8 mph sinker, which didn’t do much sinking, on an 0-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Kjerstad was quickly tended to by trainers and his manager, Brandon Hyde, but, given the frightening situation, Hyde was red-hot and had some words with Holmes and catcher Austin Wells.

Benches clear after Heston Kjerstad #13 of the Baltimore Orioles is hit by a pitch in the ninth inning during a baseball game against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 12, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland.   (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

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Third baseman Oswaldo Cabrera and an umpire held Holmes back before anything could happen, but only temporarily.

After Kjerstad reached first (he was pinch-ran for), Hyde walked back toward the field and was yelling in the direction of the Yankees dugout — it appeared he was yelling at third base coach Luis Rojas, who was snapping right back.

Wells did his best to hold Hyde back, but he couldn’t do much, as both teams met right near home plate, and the bullpens came sprinting from the outfield.

Heston Kjerstad

Heston Kjerstad #13 of the Baltimore Orioles is on the ground after getting hit by a pitch in the ninth inning during a baseball game against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 12, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland.   (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

There was some light pushing and shoving that ensued, but no player was ejected (other than Hyde), and no punches were thrown — so, it wasn’t quite their brawl from 1998.

COMEDIAN NIKKI GLASER POKES FUN AT SCOTTIE SCHEFFLER’S ARREST, SHOHEI OHTANI’S INTERPRETER AT ESPYS

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Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he understood why Hyde was upset, noting that Hyde should have his players’ backs — Hyde, though, said the Yankees bench was “waving” and “yelling” at him, which he “didn’t appreciate.”

Hyde said he “heard some stuff” when he was walking back to the dugout, which led to his reaction.

He added Hjerstad was getting tested. “We’re hoping for the best,” he said.

This has been brewing for quite a bit, though — the Yankees have hit Orioles batters 10 times this season, while the O’s have done so just three times.

The Yankees, who own MLB’s worst record since June 13, held on to the much-needed 4-1 win, cutting their deficit for the division lead to just two games — the O’s are now 3-5 against the Yanks this season.

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Reigning Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole had his best start of this season as he tossed six strong innings of one-run, five-hit, seven-strikeout ball.

Brandon Hyde and Austin Wells

Catcher Austin Wells #28 of the New York Yankees holds back Brandon Hyde #18 of the Baltimore Orioles after a bench clearing in the ninth inning during a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles at the Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 12, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

The division race seems to be between these two teams for the rest of the season, and judging by Friday night, it’s going to be fun the rest of the way.

They’ll be back in action at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

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Dalton Knecht's 25 points not enough in Lakers' loss to Rockets

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Dalton Knecht's 25 points not enough in Lakers' loss to Rockets

The volume of the crowd moved quickly toward 10 as Bronny James gathered to take his first shot of NBA Summer League, collectively sighing after the three-pointer rolled out.

But before the disappointment could naturally fade, the offensive rebound swung back to him and he flew toward the basket, scoring on a layup while the nearly full Thomas & Mack Center roared.

If summer league is about seeing tomorrow’s stars today — the marketing might behind one of the NBA’s signature events — James represents a bit of a shift.

He’s already a star.

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James, the No. 55 pick in the 2024 draft, has been a fixture on the event’s marketing signage despite his meager college stats because of his celebrity. And paired with the “Lakers” across his chest, he was one of the marquee players despite sharing the court Friday with one — Reed Sheppard — selected 52 spots ahead of him.

“Just the atmosphere,” James said of his Vegas debut. “A lot of people coming out and coming to support us and stuff like that.”

While James was some good but more bad (sort of the expectation for a guard picked No. 55), the first-round picks on the court, Sheppard and the Lakers’ Dalton Knecht, showed plenty of pop.

Sheppard scored 23 points in the Rockets’ 99-80 win, keeping the Lakers winless this summer after losing three times in the California Classic.

James scored six of his eight points in his first shift and finished with eight points, five rebounds and two steals, but he missed all eight of his three-point shots. He finished three-for-14 shooting from the field with three turnovers and no assists.

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“I’m just going to the film and I’m looking at things that I always do,” James said. “There’s things that I should focus on and make sure I’m going over and stuff like that. Yeah, just always focusing on playing as hard as I can on the defensive end and whatever open looks I get on the offensive end, take it.”

Knecht had 25 points, six rebounds and four assists in his Vegas debut, heating up in the second half while showcasing the shooting touch that had the Lakers thrilled about his slip from a potential lottery pick to No. 17 on draft night.

“I always stay confident in my shot and I know my teammates got my back. So does the coaching staff,” he said. “So no matter what, I’m just going to let it fly.”

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