Nick Saban, who is widely considered the greatest college football coach because of his run guiding storied programs against the fiercest possible competition, is retiring after a 17-year-run at Alabama in which he delivered six national championships, he announced Wednesday night.
Saban called the university “a very special place” to him and his wife in a school-issued statement, adding that his legacy and the team’s process of sustained success is what was most important to him, not the number of wins or losses.
“The goal was always to help players create more value for their future, be the best player they could be and be more successful in life because they were part of the program,” he said. “Hopefully, we have done that, and we will always consider Alabama our home.”
His final championship in 2020 gave Saban seven national titles — he won one previously at LSU — and boosted him past another Alabama great, Bear Bryant, as the coach with the most championships, stamping a legacy defined by reaching the sport’s highest pinnacles.
BREAKING: Nick Saban is retiring, per source. The 72-year-old Alabama coach has won SEVEN national titles, six with the Tide. Chris Low first reported the news.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 10, 2024
Saban, 72, leaves his post with 292 career wins, fifth all time and the most among any active coach. He won 12 conference championships, more than 80 percent of his games and earned 17 total coach of the year honors nationally and in conference.
He led the Crimson Tide to winning seasons every year since 2008 and delivered something to Alabama that no other coach before him did: the Heisman Trophy, with four winners during his run, most recently Bryce Young in 2021.
Saban’s latest Alabama team went 12-2 and finished the 2023 season with a 27-20 overtime loss to Michigan — the eventual national champion — in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
Before joining Alabama in 2007, Saban had college stints with LSU (2000-04), Michigan State (1995-99) and Toledo (1990), and he coached the Miami Dolphins in the NFL (2005-06). He has a 292-71-1 record at the collegiate level, with five wins vacated by the NCAA as punishment for players wrongly getting free textbooks for other students. Saban won 11 SEC titles — two at LSU and nine at Alabama — and made bowl appearances every year with the programs. His bowl record at Alabama was 16-7.
Saban was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. He’s a five-time SEC Coach of the Year, two-time Walter Camp Coach of the Year, two-time AP College Football Coach of the Year and two-time Paul “Bear” Bryant Award winner, among numerous other accolades.
Saban was a high school quarterback turned defensive back in college, and the defensive back group remained his baby through his tenure at Alabama. Yet his versatility in coaching each position was one of his less visible specialties. Since his Alabama tenure began in 2007, no school had more first-round NFL Draft picks than Alabama (44), and that number is set to increase in April at the 2024 draft. Overall, 123 players under Saban at Alabama have been selected to NFL teams, and his four Heisman winners include players at three different positions with quarterback Young, running backs Mark Ingram II in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015 and wide receiver Devonta Smith in 2020.
Saban has coached more Heisman winners than anyone else.
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne called Saban one of the best all time in any sport. “What an honor it has been for us to have a front-row seat to one of the best to ever do it,” Byrne said.
In 2022, Saban signed his last contract with the Crimson Tide, worth $93.6 million in total for a deal that had been scheduled to run over eight years, through 2030.
There was no more perfect pairing than Saban, the biggest figure in the sport, and Alabama, arguably the most recognizable college football brand in America. As the game progresses, there will be coaches that approach his win totals and, perhaps, his championships. But the aura of Saban and Alabama together might not be matched again.
Alabama fans held him in the highest regard, opposing fans feared him and his teams while maintaining a respect for the level of success he sustained. And in spite of all those sentiments of love, hate or something in between, Saban and his teams were the must-see draws of the sport and the ultimate measuring stick for opposing programs.
Saban’s retirement immediately prompted a question of who could coach Alabama next.
The job is widely considered among the best — if not the best — in college football, given the longest stretch of sustained success in the modern era of the sport. With that will come immense resources, the highest of expectations and no shortage of interest. Potential coaches to watch for the post include Oregon coach Dan Lanning, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, Florida State coach Mike Norvell, among others.
Alabama after Nick Saban: Pluses, drawbacks and candidates for the job
And as the program seeks a new leader, its players could be on the move. Before Saban’s retirement, the window for Alabama’s players to transfer had closed. But that opened up again for another 30 days with Saban’s move. To date, Alabama has 17 transfer portal entries between scholarship players and walk-ons.
The most intriguing prospects are players who just finished their freshman seasons and the 2024 early enrollees, many of whom were drawn to the allure of playing for Saban. A five-star recruit, wideout Ryan Williams, decommitted quickly after Saban’s exit Wednesday.
Still, Alabama has one of the most attractive rosters in college football, with the No. 1 roster talent composition according to the 247Sports Composite. Alabama’s coaching search is the top priority, but a primary job of that coach is attracting and retaining talent.
As Saban leaves Alabama as its winningest coach, he is forever intertwined with Bryant, whose 25-year-run at the school came mainly during the 1960s and 70s. Bryant took Alabama to new heights during his time, and while Alabama continued winning after him, it did not see another run that could compare until Saban arrived.
And Saban even surpassed that.
Saban’s wife, in a statement on Facebook through the Nick’s Kids Foundation, said that she hoped the Saban legacy would be one of helping others in their lives and winning on the field. The foundation began in 1998, while Saban was at Michigan State, but its greatest impact has been in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he and his wife Terry have resided since 2007 and donated more than $11 million to various organizations and causes to improve quality of life in the area.
“The rules for the game of football may change, but the ‘process’ will never go out of style: hard work, discipline, the relentless pursuit of a worthy goal, not cutting corners, and doing things the right way for the sake of constant personal improvement,” she said. “Not for the scoreboard.”
Saban has few contemporaries in winning, but also has long moved the needle with his every thought and opinion. That showed in recent years as the industry of college sports ballooned with ever-increasing TV deals, wrangling over football’s postseason structure, the transfer rules and the emergence of legal endorsements for athletes through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals.
“We have no contracts in college and we have no competitive balance. There is no salary cap, all right,” Saban said in November during his weekly call-in radio show. “Whoever wants to raise the most money and pay the player the most, they have the best opportunity to have the best team.
“In other words, just because School A over here has a bigger collective and is willing to pay guys more money, that gives them a better opportunity than School (B) over here that doesn’t have those same resources, so you’re not creating a competitive balance. So the haves are going to get further over here and the have-nots are going to get further over here,” he said.
Saban has supported players using NIL to create more value for themselves, and eventually Alabama got its own NIL collective up and running.
It was another indication of Saban’s ability to adapt and continue winning through every change in college football, including the rules for student-athletes and the shift from the BCS to the College Football Playoff. He won national titles in the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s, and used the shifts in the sport to extend his dominance.
Alabama’s initial offenses under Saban were designed around one-back running schemes and powerful offensive lines. By the end of his tenure, Alabama became innovators in the offensive space with the use of spread formations and run-pass option schemes.
In fitting fashion, Saban went out on perhaps his best coaching job ever, which ironically did not result in a national championship. The 2023 Alabama roster had a number of heralded prospects and players facing high expectations, like any other Saban team, but battled back from a loss to Texas, its biggest non-conference home loss since 2007, and a quarterback controversy that became one of the biggest talking points in the sport. Alabama was at a crossroads just three weeks into its season.
What happened next was one of Saban’s best psychological jobs to date, publicly coming out and endorsing quarterback Jalen Milroe, acknowledging the outside criticisms about his team and using them as internal fuel while resorting to never-before-used tricks to inspire his team. When Alabama needed a win over Kentucky to clinch the SEC West, Saban had mouse traps placed throughout the football facility and locker room to alert players to not fall for a “trap game.”
The highlight of the season was a win over No. 1 ranked Georgia, the winner of 29 straight games, to earn one last College Football Playoff appearance. Though Alabama fell short to Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Saban said after the game that it was one of the greatest seasons in Alabama history and a team he will never forget — a team that saw a different side to Saban that other teams didn’t.
“I wouldn’t say more lenient, I would say he’s more open to us,” safety Malachi Moore, a senior, said. “He talks to us a lot. I think this year he’s made more jokes than I’ve ever heard him make before. So it’s just good to see that we brought that side out of him. I kind of credit to us a little bit.”
Now, Alabama and the sport as a whole is forced to turn the page, with an impossible question — Who will replace Saban.
The answer seems complicated but is really quite simple. There is no replacing Nick Saban.
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Chris Vannini, Bruce Feldman and Alex Andrejev also contributed to this story.
(Photo: Justin Ford / Getty Images)