Alabama coach Nick Saban turns 70 this year and signed an extension that runs through the 2028 season.
Saban became the second-oldest head coach in the FBS behind North Carolina’s Mack Brown, who is two months older, when Frank Solich retired at Ohio last week. Saban was asked what is the leading factor in that longevity at SEC Media Days on Wednesday.
“That’s simple,” Saban replied. “You have to win. What does it take to win? That answers the question better than anything. I think you have to have culture in your organization.”
“Culture” remains the eternal buzzword of media days across the FBS; a phrase almost every coach uses to describe what they are trying to build. Saban, however, means what he says.
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The culture is established in Tuscaloosa. It’s why fans waited in the parking lot to greet Saban at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham just to get a two-second wave from the head coach. It’s why Alabama has won six national championships since 2007. It’s why Alabama can still expect another national championship despite losing six first-round picks and 10 players to the 2021 NFL Draft off arguably the greatest college football team of all time.
“Nothing really has changed from a culture standpoint for us,” Saban said. “We’re about helping our players be more successful in life because they’re involved in the program.”
It’s also why Saban will be able to adjust and adapt to the new world order of college football that includes Name, Image and Likeness. That is the next test for Saban, and perhaps a reason why he said new quarterback Bryce Young is approaching “seven figures” in NIL deals before taking his first snap as the starter.
Talk about demonstrating value.
“All we’ve done is create an opportunity for players to work,” Saban said. “The only question is because it’s not going to be equal — and everything we’ve done in college athletics in the past has always been equal; everybody has had equal scholarships and equal opportunities — now that’s probably not going to be the case.
“How that’s going to impact your team, our team, the players on the team I really can’t answer,” he said. “We don’t have any precedent for it.”
There is Saban’s next challenge. Will Alabama dominate the NIL era like it did the BCS era in the past and the College Football Playoff era in the present?
Saban adjusted in the BCS era between stops at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama. He compiled a 135-42 record from 1998-2013 with four SEC championships and four national titles. Most coaches could retire on that legacy and be considered an all-time great.
The difference is Saban has obliterated the CFP era. Alabama is 91-8 with five SEC championships and three national titles since 2014. Ohio State (82-9) is the only other program with a winning percentage better than 90%.
In 2020, the Crimson Tide forged through a season impacted by COVID-19 where Saban missed the Iron Bowl after testing positive. Alabama finished 13-0, averaged 48.5 points per game with arguably its most-individually decorated team of all time. It might have been the most-finest adaptation yet under Saban, but it also leaves a new challenge for 2021.
“It’s a penalty for success,” Saban said. “You had a lot of good players, good coaches. We lost six first-round picks, 10 guys to the draft and lost some coaches. You have to rebuild with new players that have lesser experience.”
Then Saban used a phrase that isn’t used to describe Alabama often.
“We’ll be a work in progress,” he said.
It’s almost like Saban wants it that way. New offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien replaces Steve Sarkisian, who took the job at Texas. Young follows first-round pick Mac Jones at quarterback, and that comes with “seven-figure” pressure to deliver. The Crimson Tide still are loaded with four- and five-star talent, and that will be tested in the opener against Miami, a school that has jumped head-first into NIL looking to recapture its past glory.
“I’ve been pleased so far with the way our players have embraced their new roles and new responsibilities and how the new faces on our team have worked hard to develop in a way they can have consistency in their performance to have success,” Saban said.
In other words, “The Process” evolves. As long as Saban continues to recruit and develop first-round NFL talent, those standards won’t change. The transfer portal, NIL and the talk of a 12-team College Football Playoff are simply the next set of challenges for Saban, who made it clear that “90 percent” of Alabama players have been vaccinated heading into the season.
The 2020 season was unprecedented. The same could be said for 2021. How will Saban adjust?
“We want to focus on what we need to do to adapt on a day-to-day basis and try to help our players manage through these opportunities and circumstances the best we can,” Saban said.
And win, of course. It’s that simple.