Atlanta—Nick Saban, who turns 67 years old on Oct. 31, has this message for those who are hoping this will FINALLY be the year he’ll start easing into retirement:
Not a chance.
Saban, who won his sixth national championship here a little over six months ago, opened his appearance at SEC Media Days by fielding the second-most asked question surrounding Alabama football.
The No. 1 question about Alabama has remained the same since freshman Tua Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to beat Georgia in the CFP national championship game on January 8: Who’s going to start at quarterback—Tagovailoa or rising junior Jalen Hurts?
Saban made it clear from the outset that no decision has been on the quarterback position nor will there be before Alabama starts practice on Aug. 3.
“One guy is going to have to win the team,” said Saban. “It is still to be determined.”
The second most-asked question about Alabama football is bluntly put: How much longer will he coach?
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Veteran writer Ron Higgins of the New Orleans Times-Picayune served it up thusly: Steve Spurrier, at 71, is the only head coach in SEC history to work into his 70s. Bear Bryant was 69 years old when he died in 1983, just after completing his 25th season at Alabama. Did Saban think he might coach into his 70s? Counting this season, he would have to coach four more seasons to get to get there.
Saban was ready for the question. There were two parts to his answer, the first dealing with his wife, who he affectionately calls “Miss Terry.”
“Well, let me say this: Miss Terry does not want me at home. I can tell you that. She doesn’t care if I’m 60, 70, or 80. So she’s looking for something for me to do,” said Saban.
That was the funny part of Saban’s answer. Then came the deadly-serious part.
Saban has said on numerous occasions that he can’t imagine not being on some kind of team. It is a huge part of his DNA dating back to his boyhood in West Virginia. So his standard answer has been that as long as he’s healthy—and he keeps himself in tremendous shape—he wants to coach.
But on Wednesday at the College Football Hall of Fame, where he will someday be enshrined, Saban added this:
“But I would not want to be in the position where I ever rode the program down because I wasn’t capable of making a contribution that would be positive to the success of the program,” Saban said.
Translation: If the program ever started to slip under his watch no one would have to ask him to leave.
If anybody has earned the right to stay on the stage as long as he wants, it is Saban. He now has six national championships (1 at LSU, 5 at Alabama), which ties him with Bryant, who won his titles from 1961 to 1979. Saban’s championships have come between 2003 and 2017, with five coming in the past nine years.
College football is filled with examples of coaches who stayed too long.
I remember sitting in Steve Spurrier’s office in Columbia, S.C. and asking him how much longer he wanted to coach. He was in the middle of a run that saw South Carolina post an unprecedented three straight 11-win seasons.
“As long as we keep winning I’m going to keep coaching,” he said. “But I’m not going to stick around and be a 7-5 coach.”
After those three straight 11-win seasons in 2011-13 Spurrier went 7-6 in 2014. He talked himself into coming back in 2015.
“That was a mistake,” he would tell me later.
Spurrier resigned midway through the 2015 season.
But Saban’s program shows absolutely no sign of slipping. The Crimson Tide’s last four recruiting classes have been rated No. 1, No. 1, No. 1, and No. 6. Georgia, coached by Saban’s protégé, Kirby Smart, had the No. 1 class in the most recent recruiting period.
Alabama will again be the preseason No. 1 team and will face a schedule that looks quite manageable.
This team has a lot of challenges: There are six new faces on the coaching staff, including new offensive and defensive coordinators. There is a ton of work to do on the defensive side of the ball. But therein, says Saban, lies the challenge—and the fun—of being a head coach. Can he take a new group of men and find a way to do it again?
Alabama’s players are betting on Saban.
“I really don’t know how he does it,” said senior running back Damien Harris, who has returned to pursue his third straight 1,000-yard season. “All I can tell you is that everything he preaches to us he does himself. It’s obvious that he still loves coaching.”