Nick Saban has cemented his legacy as a savant on the sidelines.
He has confirmed his high IQ with a headset.
He has achieved greatness at Alabama in ways that will serve as the gold standard for coaches in years to come.
All that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to surprise us. We’ve grown used to watching Saban, the architect of one of college football’s most impressive dynasties of all time, the builder of a beast in Tuscaloosa that has produced four national championships in the past seven years.
But with Lane Kiffin becoming Florida Atlantic’s coach and Steve Sarkisian’s hire as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, we’ve witnessed a new angle to Saban’s legacy.
He has become a rehabilitator of coaching careers.
This is no small feat. If it were so easy to gain a reputation as someone who can discover treasure where others see trash, why didn’t more coaches try to hire Kiffin as their offensive coordinator after the former rising star was dumped at Southern Cal three years ago? If it were so simple to take a chance on faces who come with gigantic question marks and enough baggage to fill an airport carousel, why didn’t more schools try to snap up Sarkisian after he was fired at USC following a number of terrible alcohol-related situations?
The presence of Kiffin and Sarkisian at Alabama and each coach’s subsequent reinvention serves as a fascinating peek into Saban’s strategic genius. For all the talk of The Process, for all the discussion of following a well-worn path of success that has delivered results time and time again in Tuscaloosa, Saban is comfortable enough to color outside the lines when he must do so to give his program a coveted edge. That’s a mark of rare leadership.
“I think FAU has selected someone that is going to do a great job for them,” Saban said of Kiffin, shortly after Florida Atlantic made the hire. “He’s done a great job here molding our offensive players to what they can do to have the best chance to be successful. I think that’s always something that’s very telling about the quality of a coach.”
Saban’s overlooked achievement
A coach’s quality can be measured in many ways: victories, championships, a program’s growth under his guidance. Saban has achieved check marks in each of those boxes at Alabama. Those accomplishments alone would make him one of the sport’s best ever to walk the sidelines.
But the fact that Saban graduated from a master builder of teams to the man behind the resurrection of two coaching careers deserves attention.
The development shows Saban’s versatility as a leader and his ability to turn almost anything he touches into gold.
Sure, the journey to this point included bumps. There were Saban’s sideline blowups directed at Kiffin. There was the knowledge that the Saban-Kiffin partnership had run its course before the assistant bolted for Boca Raton. There was the perception that Saban can be a bear to work under.
However, Kiffin should have no complaints about how everything turned out. It’s fascinating to consider where he would be without Saban. At Alabama, Kiffin was given a grand stage to change his public perception as an unpredictable, sometimes-immature leader. He benefited from Saban’s uncommon vision.
“Very grateful to coach Saban,” Kiffin said during his introductory news conference at Florida Atlantic. “My phone was not ringing much after getting let go by USC. That was a very humbling experience.”
Sarkasian’s Saban upside
Certainly, Sarkisian will find his new role as Alabama’s offensive coordinator to be humbling, even after working as an offensive analyst for the Crimson Tide in recent months. He will enter a situation in which expectations are high and demands are as large as Saban’s shadow. His professional life could become a grind.
Despite all that, Sarkisian is smart to bet on himself and Saban’s trust. There’s no reason Sarkisian can’t follow the pattern created by Kiffin at Alabama: keep your nose down, excel at your job within the country’s premier program and make potential employers forget about your embarrassments before you become a head coach again. Comebacks are possible after a collapse.
“I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to join Coach Saban’s staff, and I can’t thank The University of Alabama enough,” Sarkisian said in a statement after being hired as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator. “I have always admired the Alabama program from afar and getting to be part of this football team these past few months has only reinforced my belief that this is the best college football organization in the country.”
Alabama earned that reputation under Saban for a variety of reasons. But with the rises enjoyed by Kiffin and Sarkisian, we can gain a new appreciation for the Crimson Tide’s leader.
Saban is more than a builder.
His restoration work produces rewards as well.