Nearly two weeks have passed since Nick Saban announced his retirement from college football, sending shockwaves through the sport. This event led to Kalen Deboer’s swift appointment as the head football coach of the University of Alabama within 48 hours of Saban’s retirement. Concurrently, Alabama and Washington are witnessing a mass exodus of players entering the transfer portal. Saban, widely regarded as the greatest coach of his generation, if not of all time, left the college football community in shock. His extraordinary career accomplishments include:
–292 wins, the most among active coaches
-7 national championships
-11 SEC championships
-Four Heisman Trophy winners
-49 first-round draft picks
-Alabama’s 260 consecutive weeks in the AP top-25
-Over ten wins and a top-10 finish in his final 16 seasons
-A national championship for every player who stayed four years under his tutelage at Alabama.
The immediate impact of Saban’s departure on Alabama has been severe, with their depth chart significantly weakened as more than 20 five-star and four-star players have entered the portal.
Saban’s retirement in 2024 is particularly noteworthy, given the recent transformations in college football, such as NIL and the Transfer Portal. Despite sustained success on the field and continuing to recruit top-tier classes, Saban stepped down. In an ESPN interview, he claimed these new aspects of college football such as NIL and the Transfer Portal did not affect his decision, attributing his retirement to the relentless “grind” of coaching. His decision came despite forgoing a six-year, $72 million contract during a period of significant change in college football, initiated in part by his own arrival at Alabama in 2007.
Saban’s arrival in Alabama heralded a complete overhaul of college football. Coming from the NFL, where he spent two seasons with the Dolphins, he transformed Alabama into a professional-caliber team. The university’s substantial investments in sports science and state-of-the-art facilities, along with bringing in NFL-level coaching staff, were pivotal. Saban’s unique approach, focusing on the importance of each individual play, influenced many, including Mario Cristobal, Kirby Smart, and Jimbo Fisher two of which won National Championships at Georgia and FSU, while Cristobal built Oregon into one of the better teams of the PAC-12 during his tenure in Oregon. He built Bama like a professional team, and in the pre-NIL era, he received resources that most coaches couldn’t even dream about. Saban’s recruiting pitches were legendary, to the point that once the Alabama machine started rolling, Alabama was recruiting top players not just with donors and resources but also through Saban’s record of championships and NFL draft picks:
However, this raises a question: was Saban’s success primarily due to his coaching skills or the unparalleled resources at his disposal?
To answer that question, we must shift to the NFL when Saban coached the Dolphins. Nick Saban’s head coaching record was 15-17 in the NFL when he came to coach the Dolphins. A significant difference between the NFL and college football is talent acquisition. In college football, depending on your recruiting ground and the resources your university offers, the playing field can be very uneven. Places like Texas, OSU, Alabama, and Ohio State regard football almost as a second religion. The coaches there receive vastly more resources than teams lacking fertile recruiting grounds, a loyal booster network, or university support. The NFL is different. Most NFL teams have similar resources, the talent level is more evenly distributed, and the success of a team depends more on the coach and talent development, including making the right draft picks, compared to college football. When the playing field was even, Nick Saban’s winning average in the NFL was just 47%.
The introduction of NIL has further transformed college football, allowing players to legally receive compensation and enabling a broader range of teams to compete for top talent. For example, schools like Missouri, Ole Miss, Miami, Louisville, and Michigan State are now attracting elite recruits. Texas, with its strong NIL platform, has been particularly successful in recruiting and retaining blue-chip caliber players.
Despite Alabama’s playoff appearance this year and consistently top-three recruiting, Saban began losing elite recruits to schools like Miami and other teams, due in part to their strong recruiting and NIL capabilities. Additionally, the Transfer Portal has allowed talented players to seek better opportunities, much like free agency in the NFL. This new dynamic requires coaches to perpetually recruit and retain talent, adding complexity to roster management.
Saban has not won a national championship since 2020, even though Alabama continues to be a top team evident by their victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship game this year. Despite this victory, some argued that Georgia, was still the best team in the country. Georgia has a strong recruiter and program builder in the mold of Nick Saban and Georgia also has a strong competitive NIL program. Meanwhile Alabama has fallen behind in terms of adapting to this new phase of college football. The evolving landscape of college football, with its leveling of the playing field and increased competition, likely influenced his decision to step down at a high point in his career.
Even internally, Bama reporters on their recruiting service websites have been raising concerns that Alabama was not keeping pace with the new model of college football. I believe that more than the grind or health issues stated by Saban, it was the changing landscape of college football that prompted Saban to retire, to quit while he was ahead. With NIL becoming more prominent and without the clear advantage he once had, Saban decided to retire before his coaching legacy could be tarnished. Now that the playing field is more even, the questions and whispers about his coaching acumen would inevitably arise. Nick Saban witnessed and jump started this evolution of college football, a model that was compelled to change and adapt to what Alabama was doing.
As more teams began to emulate the Alabama model of a ‘pro team’ investment and as the money pumped into college football continued to increase, the last natural step was compensation for the players and a form of free agency. When the advantage was lost and college football began to mirror the NFL, Nick Saban decided to retire. His process and success were directly responsible for the changes occurring today. Now that he is gone, his legacy is secure and his achievements set in stone, but the biggest unknown and change in his legacy will be the new era of college football, an era that looks more like a pro league than college athletics, an era that he unwittingly birthed in 2007.
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