Nick Saban’s sudden exit, unlike Coach K’s 12-month goodbye, did not do Alabama any favors

The headline presented by one American publication that need not be named read, “Alabama coach Nick Saban retiring in college football stunner.” Saban was born Oct. 31, 1951, which means he will turn 73 at his next birthday. Did everyone expect him to coach until he was 104? Did they figure after a decade of earning seven or eight-figure salaries he might need another couple years in the factory to fund his 401(k)?

The language was more restrained in the spring of 2021, when Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski announced he would be retiring after the subsequent season. The headlines were simple, declarative, lacking emotion or urgency. “Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski to retire at end of upcoming season,” said the News and Observer of Raleigh.

And maybe the difference was as simple as this: Coach K gave us a warning.

We could brace ourselves for the change.

Saban coached the season, added another dozen victories to climb to No. 6 on the FBS career list – behind names that have been imprinted upon the game for the past century – and then allowed news to leak that he was finished. This is not how it usually is done among the legends. Bo Schembechler, Tom Osborne and Vince Dooley all announced their decisions in December, then coached one last time in a bowl game.

MORE: Five candidates to watch in Alabama’s search

It was inevitable Saban would be leaving Alabama and college football at some point soon. Bear Bryant retired from coaching the Tide at 70. Red Berenson was 77 when he hung up his skaes and left Michigan’s hockey team. Grambling legend Eddie Robinson finished up at 78. It’s a job that consumes ever more of one’s life, and that rapid erosion of free time began long before the transfer portal and Name/Image/Likeness payments revolutionized the construction and maintenance of college sports rosters.

Saban’s decision not to announce his impending retirement in advance of the season – giving him the opportunity at a sort of victory lap and allowing Alabama to publicly plan for his replacement – impacts not only those who cover the sport or follow his team. It also will matter in the process of finding his successor.

It is possible Saban informed his bosses so they could construct a plan for the future. There’s no doubt, given athletic director Greg Byrne’s skill as an administrator, he has been planning for this moment for years – even if the effort seemed misspent as Saban continued to lay waste to the Southeastern Conference, with 37 league victories and only five defeats over the past five seasons.

MORE: Winners and losers from Nick Saban’s retirement

A few months after Krzyzewski made his intentions known, he explained to The Sporting News he wanted his successor – and he definitely wanted current coach Jon Scheyer to be that successor, although he was not granted the power to name him – to have a full summer and fall of scouting and recruiting to locate the next generation of Blue Devils. That led to the signing of such talents as Kyle Filipowski, Tyrese Proctor, Mark Mitchell and Dereck Lively II, which positioned Duke to win the ACC Championship in Scheyer’s first season.

“To do something you love doesn’t mean you love everything you do to do what you love,” Krzyzewski said then. “For me, the time – how much time do you have? There’s got to be something more that I’d like to do with my time.”

When it was time for Gene Keady to leave coaching after 27 years and 839 victories, Purdue planned for the occasion by hiring Matt Painter away from Southern Illinois for a position on the coaching staff for a year. He was able to recruit, primarily, and laid the foundation for the 2007 “Baby Boilers” recruiting class that featured JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel.

Nick Saban

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Saban’s successor will not have the luxury, if it can be called that, made available to Scheyer and Painter. That person will need to recruit with the specter looming of Bryant and Saban, and with the power of the brand one built and the other reinvigorated, but also without the time to make clear the vision for the future. The window for current Alabama players to enter the transfer portal just got extended.

There is nothing more daunting in college sports than replacing a legend. In-house successors such as Gary Moeller at Michigan (following Bo Schembechler) and Ray Goff at Georgia (after Dooley) have been largely disappointing. But going outside “the family”, or hiring someone working elsewhere but with program connections as Ohio State did in choosing Earle Bruce to replace Woody Hayes, or Florida did with Ron Zook to follow Steve Spurrier, hasn’t been regularly successful.

Think about how long it took Alabama to get it truly right with Saban. After Bryant coached his final game in the 1982 Liberty Bowl, ending a period in which the Tide won the SEC nine times in 11 years and finished 1978 and 1979 at No. 1 in the AP poll, they entered a period of 24 years in which they had as many head coaches (seven) as seasons with double-digit victories. Only Gene Stallings, who won a national championship in 1992, lasted longer than four years. Mike Price, in 2003, didn’t even make it to his first game before being fired for “questionable conduct”.

Saban quickly escorted the Tide from this quarter-century of (mostly) misery. He was an established figure in the game, though, after winning the 2003 national championship at LSU. Saban was available because he’d chosen to leave the Tigers to seek success in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins; he did not find it. He was an obvious candidate for Alabama in 2007.

MORE: Saban’s career by the numbers

That seems so long ago because he’s accomplished so much in the years since: 16 consecutive double-digit victory seasons and an average of 12 wins per year, nine SEC Championships, six times finishing No. 1 in the AP poll.

When Krzyzewski followed his course toward retirement, giving the sports world a chance to celebrate his achievements throughout the 2021-22 season all the way to the Final Four in New Orleans, fans of rival teams (guess who) frequently harangued him in public forums for needing to spend that winter in the spotlight. There was a method to his approach, though, and the transition became successful in the most important area of college athletics: talent acquisition.

And yeah, it was cathartic for those who love the game to see him at work a few dozen times more.

Alabama eventually may wish Saban had another year in him, or that he’d made it clear sooner he was out of time.

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