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Statcast at 10: From MLB's secret project to inescapable part of modern baseball

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Statcast at 10: From MLB's secret project to inescapable part of modern baseball

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Rustin Dodd and Eno Sarris

The email landed in Cláudio Silva’s inbox on the evening of Dec. 6, 2011. One of the first things he noticed was the three letters in the subject line: MLB.

Baseball?

Silva was an NYU professor who specialized in data science and computer graphics. He had once worked at AT&T Labs and IBM Research. Those were initials he understood. But MLB? Silva grew up in Fortaleza, Brazil, a coastal city where baseball had little relevance. When he got his doctorate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he never bothered to learn the rules.

The email was written by Dirk Van Dall, who was working with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the league’s digital arm. It was forwarded to Silva by Yann LeCun, another NYU professor and one of the world’s foremost experts on machine learning. Silva read the first few lines. It concerned a secret project in the works. “MLBAM is working with a vendor on technology to identify and track the position and path of all 18 players on the field,” Van Dall wrote. The problem, he continued, was that the resulting firehose of data would need to be compressed, coded and organized on the fly for use by broadcasters, analysts and coaches.

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Van Dall didn’t mention the project could revolutionize the sport, transforming the way teams evaluate players or how fans watch games. Nor did he use the project’s eventual name: Statcast.

Silva wasn’t sold. Sharing the email with Carlos Dietrich, another Brazilian graphics expert, Silva said, “It seems interesting. But it has no academic value.”

Still, Major League Baseball wasn’t a brand to brush off. Plus, compared to other corporate pursuits, this project seemed unusually laid back. When Silva and Dietrich agreed to consult, the league gave them no non-disclosure agreements or legalese, just a CD containing player-tracking data from a game earlier that year — Aug. 2, 2011: Kansas City Royals 8, Baltimore Orioles 2. That, Dietrich would say, was the day “Statcast actually started.”

That data set spawned years of research, testing and technological innovation. Two Brazilians who barely understood baseball created a data engine — code name “black box,” because no one else knew how it worked — upon which would be built the structural bones of Statcast, the tracking system that turbo-charged another wave of the sabermetric revolution.

It’s been 10 years since a primitive version of Statcast debuted at the 2014 Home Run Derby. The “Statcast era” has been one of profound change. New stats have been developed and popularized as a result, and the modern baseball vernacular has swelled, with phrases like exit velocity and launch angle entering common parlance. The firehose of data has swelled analytics staffs, transformed scouting and player development, and punctured cherished beliefs. (You thought you knew how power was produced? Think again.) Statcast is everywhere — produced and promoted by the league — but not for everyone. It enthralls analytically inclined fans and irks others.

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Billions of data points have been distilled into insights that have made baseball a smarter game. But a better one? That’s up for debate.

“Something of the old school feels lost,” Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly said.

“The old-school game is the past,” countered Mets designated hitter J.D. Martinez. “We can’t play this game like that anymore.”


Ten years before the email, on a Saturday night in Oakland, Derek Jeter ranged across the diamond to field an errant relay throw and flipped the ball to catcher Jorge Posada in time to tag Jeremy Giambi and preserve the New York Yankees’ lead in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. At MLB’s Park Avenue offices the next morning, debate raged. What if Paul O’Neill had been in right field instead of Shane Spencer? What if Spencer’s throw had hit either cut-off man? What if A’s manager Art Howe had pinch-run Eric Byrnes for Giambi? Where had Jeter come from?

And why, asked one league executive, can’t we measure all of that?

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The seed for the Statcast project was planted.


Statcast’s red and blue circles have become familiar to a large subset of baseball fans.

“We wanted to get into the DNA of what allows plays to happen,” said Cory Schwartz, now MLB’s vice president of data operations. “But before you run, you have to walk. You have to start with the pitch, the origin of the action.”

That part became possible in the late 2000s when PITCHf/x — a system of cameras tracking pitch velocity and movement — was installed in each big-league ballpark, inundating clubs with data and ultimately spurring a pitching revolution. Conversation inside the former Oreo cookie factory in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood that served as MLBAM headquarters turned to the next frontier: a full-field tracking system.

“The holy grail has always been if you know where the players were,” said Joe Inzerillo, who led MLB’s multimedia efforts at the time. “Knowing where the ball is in baseball is great. But knowing where the players are and where the ball is unlocks all of this other data you can start to look at.”

Having edited video for the Chicago White Sox in the 1980s, Inzerillo understood the value of automating work that was usually being done manually by clubs, like creating spray charts to position fielders and craft pitching plans. But the technology to do so was in a nascent stage. Sportvision, which ran PITCHf/x, had an expensive camera array that yielded unreliable results. European soccer clubs were using various machine vision setups, but in baseball the ratio between the size of the playing surface, the players and the ball made it challenging to capture minute movements accurately.

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“We didn’t want to do something people would historically look at and say, ‘Oh my God. What were they thinking?’” said Inzerillo, now an executive vice president and chief product and technology officer at SiriusXM. “If we couldn’t measure it accurately, if it wasn’t scientific, we didn’t want to put it out.”

The solution for Statcast came from a pairing of two European companies. The Swedish company Hego had a 4K camera setup that would provide a stereoscopic view of the field. (When it was clear the project was too large for Hego’s two-person operation, Hego merged with graphics giant Chyron.) Trackman, a Danish golf company that broke into baseball with a ball-tracking device engineered by a man who’d used radar to track missiles, agreed to assemble a large array of radar panels for each stadium.

In 2013, Salt River Stadium in Scottsdale Ariz., was the testing ground for the next generation of baseball tech: Sportvision and ChyronHego cameras alongside Trackman radar. The Statcast system would need to work day or night, in weather conditions ranging from downpour to sun glare to dense fog. Silva and Dietrich installed extra equipment to validate the vendors’ output. They found that Sportvision’s results were rife with errors because it smoothed curves and made assumptions for missing data.

ChyronHego amassed a war chest of data and presented it to MLB executives in New York. They built a baseball diamond in a spreadsheet and showed how, when they input a line of data, players appeared, in position, on the screen. “At that moment,” former Hego CEO Kevin Prince said, “baseball management rocked back on their chairs and said: F— me.”

MLB had its holy grail: radar to track the ball, cameras to track players.

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As data began to trickle in during Statcast’s experimental stage, then-MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman and his staff began writing down everything that could be quantified in a single baseball play. They listed more than 100 ideas. They then whittled it to about 20 “golden” metrics that would comprise Phase One of the public Statcast rollout, everything from exit velocity to sprint speed to secondary leads to fielder range.

“So much of baseball record-keeping is (an) accounting of what happened,” Schwartz said. “So and so hit 30 home runs or had 200 strikeouts. That’s backwards looking. But skills analysis enables you to look forward and look at whose skills will potentially lead to better results. That’s what baseball scouts and talent evaluators have been trying to do since before our dads were here.”

Statcast would measure process — evaluating a player’s skills with more accuracy than the eye test.

Constructing each metric took careful consideration, plus a little bit of a sniff test. The initial leader for catcher pop time — how long it takes a catcher to receive a pitch and get it to second base — was Los Angeles Angels backup Hank Conger. “No offense to Hank Conger,” Schwartz said. “We knew that wasn’t right.” MLBAM intern Ezra Wise, now an analyst for the Minnesota Twins, was dispatched to watch Conger. Wise learned Conger short-hopped most throws, and the pop-time “stopwatch” halted as soon as the ball hit any object, grass or glove. Once the metric was adjusted to measure the throw to the center of second base, Conger slid to the bottom of the leaderboard and J.T. Realmuto popped to the top.

Statcast had no name when it was introduced by Bowman at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March 2014. The system was in alpha testing that season, active in just three stadiums — Citi Field in New York, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minneapolis. It was also installed in Kansas City and San Francisco ahead of the 2014 World Series. In Game 7, Giants second baseman Joe Panik made a diving stop and turned a game-defining double play. Statcast not only concluded that Panik had a slightly negative reaction time — he was moving toward the ball’s eventual path 10 feet before it met Eric Hosmer’s bat — but that Hosmer would have been safe if he hadn’t slid into first base.

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By 2015, with the Trackman-ChyronHego set up in all 30 MLB ballparks, Statcast insights began infiltrating broadcasts and game coverage, where data like launch angle could be used to explain a home run explosion during that season’s second half. Yet the data wasn’t available anywhere fans could find it until MLB contacted Daren Willman, a software architect at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston. Willman had created a site called Baseball Savant that provided pitcher matchups, leaderboards and an advanced-stats search function. MLBAM hired Willman and acquired his site before the 2016 season, then added writer Mike Petriello and statistician Tom Tango, who had extensive experience developing baseball metrics.

With a site, a savant, a statistician and a sportswriter dedicated to Statcast, the league was ready to take Phase One public.

It didn’t take long to see their work impacting the game on the field. One day, MLBAM staff passed around an article in which an MLB hitter mentioned he was working on his launch angle.

“We were like, OK, now Statcast is in the canon,” Inzerillo said.


The Statcast era was born in the same manner that Hemingway described bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. As the system churned, front offices leveraged the data to turbo-charge their analytics departments. Hitters revamped their swings to put the ball in the air. The numbers on batted balls and defensive positioning confirmed the value of defensive shifts, which only increased their use. In the early years of Statcast, Dietrich, the NYU engineer, recalled sending teams charts and data on defensive formations. “You could see clearly the defensive formations changing through the years,” he said. “I don’t know if it was in response to the data we were providing, but probably (it was) because they never had that data before.”

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The defensive shift had been around since Ted Williams in the 1940s. But for decades, it remained an undervalued tool. As teams turned to the tactic, Statcast’s cameras offered a level of new precision. In 2016, left-handed batters were shifted 30.3 percent of the time in bases-empty situations. That rate more than doubled over the next six seasons, to 61.8 percent. As singles disappeared, baseball moved to stop the tactic in 2023, mandating that two infielders had to be on each side of second base when a pitch was released.

If there was any doubt about the growing influence of Statcast, one only had to consider that exit velocity, launch angle and shifting were the parts that were public. So much remained proprietary — still invisible and underground — where teams were free to take the numbers and build their own models.

“It’s completely changed the game,” said one assistant general manager, under the condition of anonymity. “For a long time, we had very little capability of quantifying what our eyes told us to be true.”

From a technical standpoint, Statcast remains a marvel, a shorthand for the broader proliferation of bat-tracking technology and biomechanics that are changing player development. When MLB introduced bat speed metrics earlier this year, Martinez, the analytically inclined veteran hitter, looked at the numbers and questioned the accuracy of the data. Others just questioned the point.

“I would argue that swinging as hard as you can to hit the ball as hard as you can to get the miles per hour promotes more swing and miss,” Roberts said, “which doesn’t help me win a baseball game.”

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Few major leaguers made better use of baseball’s newest analytical tools than J.D. Martinez. (Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images)

For some players, there is only so much utility in the Statcast leaderboards. Blue Jays outfielder George Springer came up in an Astros organization that embraced technology. But he never gravitated toward the metrics. They can show bits and pieces, he said, but often they don’t show “the true measure of a player.”

Spend time in major-league clubhouses, and it’s not unusual to see players poking around Baseball Savant. Dodgers starter Tyler Glasnow looks at Statcast regularly, using the numbers as a second point of validation: There is how he felt on the mound, and then there is the underlying data. But across the room, fellow starter James Paxton offered a pithy rejoinder: “I can tell you if it sucked or if it was a good pitch just by looking at it,” he said. “I don’t need the computer for that.”

Some players are neither Statcast boosters nor cynics. They’re just baseball fans. Kevin Kiermaier, Toronto’s four-time Gold Glove outfielder, doesn’t use Statcast as a roadmap to self-improvement. He sees it as an avenue to learn cool stuff.

“You sit here and watch Shohei Ohtani and Oneil Cruz hitting the ball 119 mph,” Kiermaier said. “That’s incredible. I’m glad we are able to know that. Like, ‘How hard do you think he hit that?!’ ‘I don’t know!’ Now we know.”

What once felt radical is now commonplace. When Statcast debuted in 2015, Padres All-Star outfielder Jackson Merrill was 11 years old. Once upon a time, ESPN could air an alternate Statcast broadcast and it could feel like programming from the future. Now, ESPN’s David Cone can fluently discuss barrels and predictive metrics on Sunday Night Baseball, the network’s flagship broadcast.

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“The stuff that we did in 2016 that was so new is just mainstream now,” said Petriello, a commentator on the Statcast broadcasts. “You can turn on any broadcast and hear people talking about Barrels and win probability, and that’s wild.”


In 2020, Statcast’s Trackman-ChyonHego setup was replaced by an optical tracking system from Hawk-Eye Innovations, a company best known for automating line calls in tennis replay. Hawk-Eye initially installed in each stadium 12 cameras running at 50 or 100 frames per second, then, in 2023, replaced five of those with 300 frames per second cameras, which allowed for the bat and biomechanics tracking.

The bat-tracking metrics — including each hitter’s swing speed and length — were once among the 100 ideas MLBAM listed more than a decade ago. As technology improves, more measurements have become possible. Limb tracking is likely next.

“There’s kind of a natural evolution,” said Ben Jedlovec, who worked in data quality for MLB for six years, “from what happened — the guy hit a home run — to how it happened — a fastball on the outside corner, a (certain) swing speed — to how the player made that happen. How did their body have them throw 99 mph? How did the hitter’s body mechanics help him time that pitch?”

Along with the three-dimensional visualizations Statcast already has, and the advent of virtual reality, there are also visualizations made possible by the advent of limb tracking. A full-field tracking system can inform comprehensive models that help us tackle questions that at first do not seem possible.

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“Let’s go back to Jeter,” Schwartz said.

Today we’d be able to measure exactly how much ground he covered. We’d know exactly how strong Spencer’s arm was compared to O’Neill’s. We’d calculate the probability of Byrnes scoring from first based on his foot speed, Spencer’s arm strength and accuracy, and each fielder’s positioning. We could produce an entire other reality and see what would’ve happened to that play if any of the circumstances were just a little different.

“You can start to tinker around with things,” Schwartz said, “and see what kind of outcomes you might have gotten.”

Instead of virtual reality, these alternate realities could help the analytically-inclined fan better appreciate what they did see in that game, and the probability of an extraordinary outcome on the field. Players might be able to use limb tracking to improve their mechanics to achieve better outcomes. We’re all likely to hear and read more about how these athletes move through space in the coming years. How that knowledge filters down to us can be customized to our preferences.

If alternate reality simulations sound … out there, it’s worth connecting them to where this started. A decade later, the creation of Statcast stands as a triumph for the league and a fulcrum for the sport. But for those who worked on Statcast, it remains a brilliant accident, a random confluence of fledgling companies, novel tech and part-time engineers.

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“Picture a situation where you are my manager,” Dietrich said. “I walk into your office and say, ‘Man, I have this idea. I’ll create a tracking system with this huge set of 3D cameras and a radar to capture the ball. The company that will make the 3D cameras doesn’t exist yet. The other company that will implement the radar works with golf. We’ll call these two guys that never worked with anything related to sports, and they’ll implement this metrics engine, and after a few years, we’ll have this multi-million dollar tracking system that will give us results we never saw.

“I think I would be real lucky if I had the job by the end of the day. Because it makes no sense at all.”

(Top Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Top photos: Patrick Smith / Getty Images; Darren Carroll / Getty Images; Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

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MLS fines Galaxy $100,000 for 'serious misconduct' by fans at Rose Bowl

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MLS fines Galaxy $100,000 for 'serious misconduct' by fans at Rose Bowl

Major League Soccer announced Friday it fined the Galaxy $100,000 and will subject its supporter management process to league oversight following “serious misconduct” during the team’s match against LAFC at the Rose Bowl on July 4.

In the second half of the game, fans in the Galaxy supporters’ section lit multiple flares, actions the league said violated safety protocols.

“Supporter privileges for all LA Galaxy supporter groups, inclusive of home and away matches, are indefinitely suspended pending the completion of MLS and the LA Galaxy’s comprehensive review,” the league said in a statement.

The Galaxy also issued its own statement.

“The LA Galaxy agree to work in coordination with MLS to conduct a full investigation of the incident that took place July 4, 2024. The club prioritizes working closely with our supporter groups, which includes ensuring that they abide by the MLS Fan Code of Conduct.”

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The penalties are similar to sanctions levied against LAFC’s main supporters’ group, the 3252, which set off flares at BMO Stadium during the Western Conference final in December. Those flares created so much smoke that the game had to be halted. Following that incident, MLS fined the team $100,000 and the 3252’s supporter group privileges were suspended.

Spokespersons for MLS and the Galaxy had said earlier in the week that the league would be taking no further action against the team and its fans after the Galaxy banned the use of drums and capo stands in the Victoria Block during last weekend’s win over Minnesota United at Dignity Health Sports Park.

The Galaxy have also agreed to conduct a full investigation of the incident and violators will be subject to further penalties, indefinite bans and all appropriate legal action. The comprehensive review will focus on improving security and supporter management processes moving forward, the league said.

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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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