Alabama’s Nick Saban Retires as College Football’s Greatest of All Time; Who Will Replace Him?

Alabama’s Nick Saban Retires as College Football’s Greatest of All Time; Who Will Replace Him? article feature image

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  • Alabama head coach Nick Saban will retire ahead of the 2024 college football season.
  • Action Network's Brett McMurphy broke down Saban's past successes, stories and who could be his replacement at Alabama.
  • Read on for McMurphy's full story on Saban's retirement.

It was Christmas morning about a dozen years ago when then-Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s cell phone started buzzing.

“Hey Kirby, it’s Nick. I need you to call me back on the home phone in about an hour. If Miss Terry answers, just ask for me. Thanks.”

Kirby hung up and looked at the phone puzzled. But he eventually called Saban back on the home phone. Miss Terry, Saban’s wife, answered.

“Merry Christmas,” she said. Smart asked if he could talk to Saban. Miss Terry told Smart to tell his family Merry Christmas for her.

“Nick, honey, Kirby’s on the phone,” Miss Terry said.

Saban picked up the phone. Smart didn’t utter a word. The conversation went something like this:

“Hello? … What? … You’re kidding. No, you did the right thing. I know it’s Christmas. I don’t like it either. Don’t apologize. … I understand. We’ve got to handle it. We’ll take care of this. … OK, I’ll see you there.”

Nick Saban, the greatest coach of all time, was overwhelmed by his in-laws and needed an escape. So, on Christmas morning, Nick Saban went to the football office to work.

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I’ve told that story to friends several times. One time, a former Alabama staffer was among the group I was with. When I was done, he said, “Aren’t you going to finish the story?”

I wasn’t aware there was more to the story. Yes, there was more.

After going up to the football office on that Christmas Day, Saban eventually contacted the entire coaching staff to — you guessed it — have them come up there and work with him on Christmas Day. The hardest-working coach wanted his staff to work just as hard.

That’s why when Saban’s retirement news broke Wednesday, I – like most of the college football world – was stunned.

I always thought Saban would continue coaching. He's an avid golfer and is excellent on TV, but I didn’t think he was ready to not be a football coach. He’ll probably end up on ESPN, yukking it up every week, possibly on College GameDay.

Saban's Sustained Success

Saban was simply the greatest football coach of all time. The GOAT. End of story. There’s no comparison.

Seven national titles — one at LSU, six at Alabama. He went 297-71-1 in 28 seasons at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, the sixth-winningest FBS coach of all time.

Under Saban, Alabama was ranked No. 1 for at least one week for 15 consecutive seasons from 2008-22, the longest streak in college football history.

Saban was hired at Alabama in 2007. He resurrected a once-proud Alabama program that had three non-winning seasons in the previous four years before he arrived. Saban finished his career with 17 consecutive winning seasons, the 11th-longest streak in college football history.

Over the past two weeks while covering Alabama’s semifinal game in Pasadena, California, and the national title game in Houston, I spoke to several Alabama sources about Saban’s possible retirement. He turned 72 on Halloween.

One source told me that Saban had “seemed a little different this year,” but still would be surprised if Saban stepped down.

Said another source: “I think he will randomly do it (retire). I can’t imagine there will be any buildup.”

And there wasn’t. In the past 24 hours, Saban even interviewed two defensive coordinators to replace retiring defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. On Wednesday morning, Saban interviewed candidates for other openings on the coaching staff.

Then on Wednesday afternoon, Saban informed his team of his decision.

Alabama athletic director Greg Bryce met with the Tide’s players Wednesday and asked them to not make any decisions about transferring for 72 hours, a source said. Another source expects this to move even more swiftly, perhaps naming a new coach by Friday.

Potential Saban Replacements at Alabama

Who replaces the unreplaceable? Oregon’s Dan Lanning and Florida State’s Mike Norvell are considered the top targets for Alabama, sources told me Thursday morning.

Lanning has gone 22-5 in two years at Oregon. Before that, he was at Georgia from 2018-21, including the last three years as defensive coordinator. In 2015, he was a graduate assistant at Alabama.

Norvell, meanwhile, guided FSU to an undefeated 13-0 season before losing to Georgia in the Orange Bowl.

Other potential targets include Texas’ Steve Sarkisian (a former Alabama offensive coordinator), Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (an Alabama grad), Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin (another former Bama OC), Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman and Penn State’s James Franklin, sources said.

Last May, at the SEC’s spring meetings, I spoke with Saban for an extended time. We talked about everything, except football. When I walked up to him and said hello, he gazed out among the crowd on the deck of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort and remarked, “I don’t know anyone out here anymore.”

That’s what happens when you’re the one constant and the last one standing in college football’s ever-changing landscape, who also did it better than anyone else.

Since Saban was hired in 2007, there have been 54 different head coaches hired in the SEC, not including interim coaches. Arkansas and Tennessee had 12 coaches combined while Saban was dominating the league.

Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Nick Saban

My favorite Saban story (other than the Christmas story) was one he shared with me last May. It also involved a phone call — the only time he ever took a call on the field during a practice in his career.

It was 2013, and a staffer answered Saban’s phone during spring practice. The caller demanded to talk to Saban. It was urgent, she said.

The staffer pleaded: “Can I just have Coach Saban call you back?”

“Absolutely not,” the caller shot back. “Put my son on the phone — now!”

The staffer approached Saban, swallowed hard and said, “Coach, your mom is on the phone. She said she has to talk to you right now.”

Mary Saban was 81 then, and Nick was somewhat concerned with the urgency of the moment. So Saban, for the only time in 41 years of coaching, took a call right there on the practice field.

What happened next lays the foundation of the most driven coach in football like nothing else could.

“She says ‘brother’ — everyone from West Virginia calls each other ‘brother’ — ‘Brother, I just wanted to let you know I just made a hole-in-one and you’ve never made one,’” Saban said, laughing. “Yes, she really called me during practice to tell me she made a hole-in-one."

Since his mom’s call in 2013, Saban has the family lead now with two aces. After Wednesday’s retirement decision, it’s only a matter of time before Saban racks up another.

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