Saban hires ex-Auburn coach

Published 7:59 am Thursday, January 22, 2009

TUSCALOOSA — Alabama coach Nick Saban has hired James Willis, a top assistant and recruiter at cross-state rival Auburn, to be the Crimson Tide’s linebackers coach and to bolster the recruiting team.

Saban also said that he has hired Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Sal Sunseri, a college star at Pittsburgh, to join Willis in coaching linebackers.

Willis, an All-Southeastern Conference linebacker at Auburn who played seven seasons in the NFL, has been with Auburn since 2006. He will be an associate head coach at Alabama and fill the vacancy created when another Tide rival, Tennessee, hired Lance Thompson, a key Alabama recruiter and linebackers coach.

“We tried to go out and hire the best possible coaches when this process started, and I’m confident we’ve done that,” Saban said in a statement Wednesday. “James has everything you would want in terms of finding an outstanding coach and an outstanding recruiter.”

Willis, a Huntsville native, said Saban is “one of the best defensive coaches in the game, and this is a chance to gain some great experience and learn from the best.”

“You don’t get many chances like that in the coaching business. When you combine that opportunity with the history and tradition at Alabama, it was a decision that was best for me,” he said.

Auburn’s new head coach, Gene Chizik, retained Willis last month as his first assistant coach following Tommy Tuberville’s departure. At the time, Chizik called Willis “a tremendous coach and an outstanding recruiter.”

Sunseri, who has coached the Panthers defensive line since 2003, worked for Saban at LSU in 2000. He also once coached at Alabama A&M.

“When I was in the state coaching at Alabama A&M in Huntsville about 10 years ago, I remember thinking the only thing that could possibly be better would be to coach a few miles down the road at Alabama,” Sunseri said.