Craig Kuligowski walked into Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday and felt at home. It makes sense, considering it virtually was his home for the last two football seasons.
His return comes under different circumstances, though. He has the same job as a defensive line coach, but the UM orange and green has been swapped for Alabama crimson and white. And his appearance comes with the top-ranked Crimson Tide set to face No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Saturday for a spot in the College Football Playoff championship game.
It has been nine months since Kuligowski left the Hurricanes to coach under Nick Saban at Alabama, but the guy players affectionately call “Coach Kool” does not take his time in Coral Gables for granted.
“First of all, I was always greatly appreciative of coach [Mark] Richt for bringing me on staff at the University of Miami,” Kuligowski said during Alabama’s media day appearance at Hard Rock Stadium. “I became good friends with Manny Diaz and most of the coaches on staff. I really enjoyed being here. There are a lot of things about Miami you can’t get anywhere else, but as a coach, you have to focus on your career. ... I enjoyed being here. I enjoyed the fans. I loved being here. It’s a great university and it’s a great place. I’ve gotten such warm welcomes from just about everybody.”
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During his two seasons with Miami, Kuligowski helped the Hurricanes revive their defense, especially at the line of scrimmage. Miami finished among the top 10 teams in the country in both years in tackles for loss.
The Hurricanes’ defensive line is holding up just fine under new coach Jess Simpson. Heading into Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl matchup in New York against Wisconsin, Miami has three defensive linemen with at least 14.5 tackles for loss this year, led by Gerald Willis at 17 and joined by Jon Garvin (16) and Joe Jackson (14.5).
But Kuligowski has a pretty good defensive line of his own as Alabama. The Crimson Tide ranks tied for sixth nationally in sacks (42) and tied for 11th in tackles for loss (97).
He’s had some challenges along the way, quickly learning Alabama’s new scheme and adjusting to coaching a 3-4 defense instead of a 4-3, but Kuligowski said that’s only going help him down the road.
“It has helped me evolve and become a better coach,” Kuligowski said. “... I think that what we do on defense has been consistent for a long time, which makes it easy to adapt when it’s a set plan.”