Everyone who isn’t an Alabama fan keeps trying to imagine a day when Nick Saban isn’t dominating the sport, and you have questions …
When Alabama hired Nick Saban it almost was a botched hire (RichRod was offered, as I recall, and people printed T-shirts that said “No, I do not want to coach your legendary football team”). Does Saban’s incredible run make it easier on Bama to hire his replacement, or does Saban’s success make it harder? How do you see it playing out?
Rich Rodriguez was indeed offered, and his wife Rita bought a crimson dress for the introductory press conference. But Rodriguez got cold feet and decided to stay at West Virginia, and the late Alabama athletic director Mal Moore all but stood in Nick Saban’s driveway in south Florida like John Cusack with the boom box in “Say Anything.” Six national titles later, that hire has worked out pretty well.
Buck asks a great question, because how does one plan to replace the greatest of all time? Do not take my answering it as a guess at when Saban will hang it up. He turns 71 on Halloween, but he doesn’t seem to be affected as much by time or by shifting industry conditions as the rest of us. He could coach into his 80s if he wanted, and he’d probably still be coaching at a very high level.
But at some point someone else will have to coach Alabama, and how that plays out will be fascinating. Without knowing exactly when Saban will choose to wrap his career, it’s tough to pinpoint specific candidates. But I think we can easily eliminate two obvious names.
For years, some have assumed Alabama alumnus Dabo Swinney would be the obvious choice. I’ve always been of the mind that Swinney wouldn’t leave Clemson for anywhere, and now I’ll double down on that and say that the 52-year-old Swinney is even less likely to do anything other than retire at Clemson. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the way the sport is changing. Who knows? Maybe he pulls a Bob Stoops and retires at 56?
As the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator from 2007-15, Kirby Smart helped Saban build Alabama into what it is now. But as Georgia’s head coach, Smart is in position to make the Bulldogs the Alabama of the post-Saban era. Smart already has the infrastructure in place, and geographically, Georgia probably is the easier job.
Now that logic has eliminated the two most obvious candidates, it’s less a question of which specific coach and more a question of what direction Alabama’s administration would choose. Would Alabama leaders want to hire the closest facsimile to Saban they could find to take advantage of the infrastructure he put in place? Or would they choose to go in a different direction philosophically? Would a different look and feel give that coach a chance to operate without such a long shadow hovering overhead?
My guess is that the shadow will be enormous no matter who Alabama hires. So it might be best to try to continue the philosophy that produced the most dominant run in the history of the sport.
But that’s exactly what Alabama tried to do following the retirement of Bear Bryant following the 1982 season, and the result was a former Bryant player (Ray Perkins) who returned to Tuscaloosa from the NFL coaching ranks. Perkins had a 32-15-1 record in four seasons, but because that didn’t compare to Bryant’s record, he faced fierce criticism. He wound up taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job, which in the mid-’80s absolutely was considered a downward move. Next came Bill Curry, who played in the NFL for Vince Lombardi and Don Shula before becoming a coach. He was successful against pretty much everyone but Auburn — against whom he was 0-3 — but decamped for Kentucky after three seasons following a contract negotiation that resulted in a deal probably meant to chase him elsewhere. Then another Bryant disciple (Gene Stallings) finally broke through and brought Alabama back to the top of the sport (but not for nearly as long as Bryant had or Saban would).