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Nick Saban and the coaching search ripple effect

Saban is the most accomplished coach in College Football, and replacing him is hard, but whomever Alabama picks could cause a big ripple effect across football.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Alabama at Michigan Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, did you see the news?

Alabama head coach Nick Saban announced he was retiring on Wednesday, sending a shockwave through the college football news and coaching landscape.

No name in college sports looms larger than Nick Saban. His stranglehold over the SEC and College Football during a boom in sports marketing and mass media has given Saban a unique reputation. He’s beloved and feared, but outside of a subsection of people in Alabama who specifically live in Auburn, he’s not really hated.

Alabama is one of College Football’s blue blood programs. They have won 15 National Championships, which is an impressive number, then you realize that two of those were in the mid 1920s when I’m not sure you can really count any championship. Then six of them were from 1961-1979, the Bear Bryant years. From 1979 to 2007 they won just one National Championship in 1992 under Gene Stallings. If you’re counting that’s 9, which leaves 6 championships they have won since 2007 under Nick Saban.

In the 17 years Saban has been at Alabama, SEC schools have won 12 National Titles. In a lot of ways Alabama’s being elite has forced the rest of the league to follow suit. In the previous 17 years, the league had won just 5 titles.

“Chasing Saban” has proven to be a double-edged sword, as it’s caused a nearly unprecedented amount of turnover at the head coaching position, and a race of arms within the league. The SEC has always been willing to spend both within and outside the lines, but Saban saw schools employ 55 different head coaches during his tenure at Bama. with both Tennessee and Arkansas leading the way at six each, and Georgia having the fewest with two. That’s an average of more than four coaches, or one every four years.

Think about this as well, when Nick Saban was hired at Alabama he signed an 8-year contract worth $32 million, which is an annual average value of $4 million dollars. Last season he was making $11.4 million while 12 programs were paying their coach $6 million or more. And we know Eli Drinkwitz was 12th last season, he also got a raise to $9 million next season which puts him in line with 5 other coaches in the SEC. That also doesn’t even cover the buyouts schools are paying coaches. Texas A&M is going to pay Jimbo Fisher $76 million, Auburn was willing to pay Gus Malzahn $21.5 million, LSU sent Ed Orgeron packing for $16.9 million. Among others.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Alabama Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Saban’s excellence made college coaches millions, both to coach and to go away. All in an effort to challenge his place atop the college football mountain.

The flip side here is what sort of impact Saban leaving has not just on College Football, but the carousel which follows. The Vegas odds favorite to get hired at Alabama is a 37-year-old and North Kansas City native and graduate of William Jewel College in Dan Lanning. Lanning is the current head coach at Oregon. He’s been a head coach for all of 2 seasons, following three years as Kirby Smart’s defensive coordinator at Georgia. Lanning announced he was not leaving Oregon in a team meeting this morning.

Lanning going from Oregon to Alabama wouldn’t necessarily cause a giant ripple effect, as the job in Eugene isn’t the easiest of the top-level programs. It’s not in a prime location and it’s on the west coast without the lure of being near a major metropolitan area. Eugene is beautiful, no doubt, but It’s not USC or UCLA or even Washington (which is located in Seattle). Oregon has the Nike money, which is what makes it attractive. And the move to the Big 10 next season does put it in a better league but an uncertain future in the fit.

But Oregon hired Lanning after losing Mario Cristobal to Miami.

  • They hired Cristobal after Willie Taggert left for Florida State.
  • Taggert was hired away from South Florida and to replace Mark Helfrich who was fired after a 4-8 season in 2016.
  • Helfrich was promoted from Offensive Coordinator when Chip Kelly left for the NFL in 2012.
  • Kelly was promoted from Offensive Coordinator when Mike Bellotti retired.

Oregon rarely hunts for big fish and usually pursues creative-minded coordinators or in-house options. Lanning also had a huge buyout, not that Bama couldn’t afford it if they wanted to but a big buyout on a coach with 2 years experience is a lot to ask.

Lane Kiffin has the next-best odds. He’s been a whirling dervish in the transfer portal after he complained about his NIL support following Ole Miss getting throttled by Georgia this past fall. Boosters bought in and Kiffin’s NIL budget ballooned and they’ve been active. Would Kiffin walk away from all that he’s just built in Oxford? It’s hard to say, but he left Tennessee pretty quickly for USC, and spent time under Saban when they won 2 Championships. Kiffin is different and would be a hard pivot to the personality and style Saban cultivated in T-Town.

If it’s Kiffin, Ole Miss has a unique hiring approach. Matt Luke preceeded Kiffin who was hired from Florida Atlantic, and Luke was the offensive coordinator for Hugh Freeze before Freeze was fired. Luke was an alum and a safe hire after Freeze left in disgrace, he’s also the only in house hire they’ve made in a while. Freeze was hired as a Gus Malzahn disciple after a successful season at Arkansas State. Freeze followed Houston Nutt, who was hired from Arkansas. Were Kiffin to bolt, I would look for Ole Miss to respond by making a splash hire with the money they’ve been throwing around in the transfer portal, and the money they were already paying Kiffin (over $9 million).

Dabo Swinney might be next? Swinney has won national championships, but Clemson has flatlined a bit over the last few years in an easier ACC. His significant buyout does have an Alabama clause which would lower the cost, and Swinney is an Alabama native and alumnus. Still, Bama fans were chanting “anyone but Dabo” last night so I’m not sure that would be a super popular move.

Clemson is also a difficult job to determine since Swinney has been the head coach there since 2009. He took over mid-season from Tommy Bowden in 2008. And Clemson is a good head coaching job, but situated in the ACC where the undefeated league champion got left out of the playoff this year might make some current head coaches think twice.

Kalen Deboer is another odds-winner. A South Dakota native, DeBoer spent most of his time in the Midwest and West Coast. This one feels like a longer shot than the odds give it, but DeBoer can coach. Washington has been very hot and cold in recent seasons and DeBoer looks to have solidified the footing there. It’s similar to Oregon in that the Pacific Northwest doesn’t get a high level of media coverage, and the move to a new league next year presents some interesting and new challenges. If there’s a drawback it’s DeBoer’s lack of exposure to the southeast. He won three NAIA championships in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and made his name as an offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan, Fresno State, and Indiana. The farthest south he’s coached has been Carbondale, Illinois.

The last go ‘round, Alabama hired the best guy possible. It was as sure of a bet as there is. Saban had won a title at LSU and wasn’t happy in the NFL. This time around there isn’t anyone who is as sure of a bet as Saban was. The guy who fits that bill the most is DeBoer. He’s won everywhere. He isn’t a cultural or regional fit, but neither was Saban, who was born in West Virginia, played at Kent State, and never coached south of the Mason-Dixon line* until he took the job at LSU.

We’re seeing a changing of the guard. Without Saban, only Smart, Jim Harbough, Dabo Swinney, and Mack Brown have won a National Championship. And Harbough might find himself in the NFL next season. Since College Football expanded to the playoff in 2014, only Brian Kelly, Lincoln Riley, Sonny Dykes, Kalen DeBoer, and Steve Sarkisian get added to the list of current head coaches who have coached in the playoff. I would also point out that over the last three seasons the number of coaches that have won a game over Kirby Smart’s Georgia team is exactly 1— Nick Saban.

Being a head coach now requires far more than it used to. Coaches must manage their current roster, recruiting high school players and recruiting the transfer portal... all of those things plus their NIL budgets.

I think the expectations of the job changing drastically is changing the face of college athletics in a huge way. Gone now are some of the coaching giants in both Football and Men’s Basketball.

Missouri seems well positioned in this aspect. I don’t think Missouri is at risk of losing their head coach this year. I’ll never be surprised by coaching moves, but Mizzou just rewarded their coach with a big extension and a pay raise. Drinkwitz has worked hard to cultivate the culture he wants in Columbia, as well as build the level of fan interest and financial support he has right now. Most of the programs Drinkwitz would potentially find interest from are mostly lateral moves at best. I think he would have taken the Auburn job last year if offered, and I don’t think Alabama is coming calling (if they are, that’s probably a sign their search has gone off the rails — and I don’t say that as any disrespect to Drink).

But whoever replaces Saban will have sky high expectations with one of the best setups for success in all of college football.

* Saban spent one season as the Houston Oilers DB coach in the late 1980s.