For the expansive timeline of 1936 to 2015, covering the latter stages of The Great Depression to the present day, only three head coaches have collected four or more Division I/FBS national football championships (recognizing the Associated Press poll, BCS computers and College Football Playoff).
Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant — five with Alabama (1961, 1964, 1965, 1978 1979).
Frank Leahy — four with Notre Dame (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949).
Nick Saban (four total) — one with LSU (2003) and three with Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012).
(The AP, BCS and College Football Playoff systems credit six head coaches with three national championships since 1936 — Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman, Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson, Southern California’s John McKay, Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, Nebraska’s Tom Osborne and Urban Meyer with Florida/Ohio State.)
Within that scope, Saban deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the college game’s most iconic coaches.
He has also lived up to the pressure of having a statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium (April 2011) … just 15 months after his first national title with the Crimson Tide and nine months before Championship No. 2 with Alabama.
Saban’s illustrious nine-year run with Alabama, highlighted by two Heisman Trophy winners (Mark Ingram in 2009, Derrick Henry in 2015), two College Football Playoff berths, three national titles, four SEC championships, five bowl victories and eight straight seasons of double-digit wins (2008-15), is already the stuff of legends — regardless of how the Crimson Tide fare in the upcoming Playoff (opponent: Michigan State) and national championship game (versus Clemson or Oklahoma, if victorious in the semis).
But what should become of Saban’s legacy with Alabama, factoring in the short and long term, if this is his final season in Tuscaloosa?
On the surface, it’s implausible to believe the 64-year-old Saban would bolt Alabama for another college program.
Not this close to National Signing Day.
Not with Alabama’s likely willingness to match any collegiate offer for Saban’s services.
But there’s still time for Saban to make the jump to the NFL, as a means of eradicating the lone smudge on his decorated coaching resume: The pedestrian two-year stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
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There aren’t many positive takeaways from the Saban era in Miami (15-17 overall from 2005-06).
The 2005 campaign included a Week 1 upset of the Broncos and six consecutive victories to close the regular season (9-7 overall).
It also entailed a strange training-camp incident … when Saban reportedly ‘stepped over a convulsing player’ in the Miami locker room, with minimal interest in helping the traumatized athlete (Jeno James) get medical treatment.
The 2006 season opened on a relative high note, with Miami serving as Sports Illustrated‘s preseason pick for the Super Bowl. But the expectations of greatness would be short-lived, as the Dolphins sloughed through a 1-6 start and 6-10 final mark.
For the second half of the schedule, Miami players and coaches also had to reconcile the Saban cloud of lingering speculation — regarding whether the coach was secretly coveting a return to the college ranks.
That exodus would play out at season’s end, when Saban abruptly left the Dolphins for his current job at Alabama — despite many public denials preceding the pro-to-college leap.
Which begs the question: Why was Saban so miserable, so mediocre during his time with the Dolphins?
Let’s review four components to that process:
Power: Randy Mueller served as the Dolphins’ general manager from 2005-07, but Saban had full control of the 53-man roster.
Media: It’s easier to control the press in college towns, as opposed to major markets with the pros, where big personalities rule the media landscape. Of course, that didn’t stop Saban from keeping the daily core of Dolphins writers and TV personnel at arm’s length.
As legend has it, the Dolphins media would often be cordoned off in a section far away from the practice field on non-gamedays, limiting their perspective of training-camp or in-season practices. (Saban learned this tactic with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator.)
Additionally, the volume of daily press obligations runs substantially higher in the pros — for both coaches and players. It’s just another facet of NFL life which could rankle hands-on, authoritative leaders, like Saban.
Personnel: Controlling the 53-man roster only goes so far in the NFL. To be a title-contending team for a sustained period, franchises must continually hit on their higher draft picks and premium free agents.
For 2005, the Dolphins had a decent draft, landing tailback Ronnie Brown (5,391 career rushing yards, 40 total TDs), defensive end Matt Roth (23.5 career sacks) and linebacker Channing Crowder with the first three picks. All told, the trio accounted for one Pro Bowl appearance and 15 seasons as NFL starters. Miami also fared well in the seventh round, snagging defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (6.5 sacks) with the 216th selection.
Now for the bad news: Yes, Brown served the Dolphins well as the No. 2 overall pick; but Saban and Mueller concurrently whiffed on the chance to grab defender DeMarcus Ware (133.5 sacks, possible Hall of Famer) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (two-time NFL MVP, likely Hall of Famer) in the first round.
In essence, at the top of the draft, the club favored running back (replaceable assets in the NFL) over two extremely valuable positions — quarterback and those who can consistently rush the passer.
The Dolphins had less success with the 2006 draft, selecting safety Jason Allen (15 interceptions) in Round 1 over defensive end Tamba Hali (86 sacks, four Pro Bowls), cornerback Antonio Cromartie (31 INTs, four Pro Bowls), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (two Pro Bowls) and offensive center Nick Mangold (six Pro Bowls).
In latter rounds, the Dolphins squandered clean chances to draft defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and defensive end Elvis Dumervil. They also failed to land O-lineman Zach Strief, cornerback Cortland Finnegan or wide receiver Marques Colston (711 catches, 9,759 yards, 72 TDs) with any of their three seventh-round picks.
Conversely, at a powerhouse school like Alabama, Saban has the potential to sign four or five future first-rounders … with every recruiting class.
Quarterback: Gus Frerotte (18 touchdown passes) engineered the Miami offense in 2005, leading the club to nine wins. For long-term success, though, Saban’s Dolphins required a tangible upgrade at the NFL’s most important position.
That prompted the major decision in advance of the 2006 campaign, choosing between Daunte Culpepper and Drew Brees.
In hindsight, this was a no-brainer option for Saban and the Dolphins: Sign Brees and subsequently enjoy the fruits of a Hall of Fame career.
But in his first five NFL seasons (2001-05), Brees had never passed for 3,600 yards or 30 touchdowns. At the time, he was a dynamic young passer … but not necessarily on a Hall of Fame arc. Plus, San Diego complicated matters for the quarterback slot, chemistry-wise, by trading for Philip Rivers (another Hall of Fame consideration someday) during the 2004 draft.
In the winter/spring of 2006, the Chargers ultimately sided with Rivers, partly due to Brees’ right-shoulder injury in the final game of the 2005 season; and when the Purdue product entertained free-agent offers from the Dolphins and Saints, he apparently committed to New Orleans … as a response to one troubling, yet revealing conversation with Saban.
Here’s an excerpt from a September 2015 story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
(According to his book, “Coming Back Stronger”) … Brees took free agent visits to Miami and New Orleans and underwent physicals before he placed a final call to Saban to help make a decision. Brees asked, “Coach, I know what your doctors believe about me. My question is, what do you believe? Do you believe that I can come back and be better than I was before and lead your team to a championship?”
“Nick Saban paused,” Brees wrote. “That was really all I needed to hear. His pause told me everything.”
Added Saban, “I would still love to have you, but I have to trust what our people are saying …”
The above recollection somewhat absolves Saban from the Dolphins’ fleeting decision to sign Culpepper (just 5,555 yards passing, 20 passing TDs from 2005-09) over Brees — the first quarterback in history to pass for 5,000 yards in back-to-back-to-back seasons (2011-13).
But who’s to blame for Miami’s errant strategy from the previous year — bypassing Aaron Rodgers in Round 1? For February and March 2005, the Packers superstar consistently ranked No. 1 on mock draft boards … before inexplicably tumbling to the 24th overall slot (Green Bay).
Fast forward to the present: If the Brees and Rodgers debacles, as separate gaffes, still grate on the hyper-competitive Saban … then why wouldn’t he contemplate one more run at the NFL?
Especially with a franchise that’s already set at quarterback.
In anticipation of next week’s Black Monday, the NFL could have as many as 10 head-coaching vacancies to fill over the winter; and of those franchises in short-order disarray — Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, Tennessee, Cleveland, San Diego, New York (Giants), among others — only the Browns and 49ers remain a hot mess at quarterback.
This likely occurrence, in theory, would present Saban with multiple options to rejoin the NFL — while hitching his wagon to a top-notch QB.
Bottom line: This might be Saban’s last AND best chance to do so.
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It’s tough to quantify the Saban legacies at Toledo and Michigan State.
Yes, Saban led the Rockets to a sterling 9-2 mark in 1990, his only season running the program, but successor Gary Pinkel didn’t transform Toledo into a consistent MAC powerhouse until the mid-to-late 1990s.
Yes, Michigan State upended No. 1 Ohio State in 1998 and then famously knocked off Oregon, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State during the 1999 season — along with a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida (after Saban bolted for LSU) — but successor Bobby Williams struggled mightily in three seasons as the Spartans’ head coach, posting losing records twice and never tallying more than seven wins in a single campaign.
Also, current head coach Mark Dantonio (Saban’s defensive coordinator in the late 1990s) has accomplished more than his mentor at Michigan State, leading the Spartans to five double-digit-victory seasons since 2010 (along with two premium bowl wins).
On the LSU side, however, there’s no disputing Saban’s grand legacy:
Phase I: Saban quickly revived a Tigers program which endured losing streaks of three, four (1998) and eight games (1999) in the late 1990s.
Phase II: LSU captured SEC titles in 2001 and 2003 and claimed the BCS national championship in ’03.
Phase III: Saban’s relentless recruiting efforts handsomely paid off for successor Les Miles, who won 34 games in his first three seasons with the Tigers (2005-07) and led LSU to the BCS national title in 2007.
Which brings us to this: If Saban should leave Tuscaloosa in the coming weeks, who would accept the monumental task of filling Saban’s shoes at Alabama — a storied, frenzied place where bronzed reminders of Coaching Legends Past stand right outside the stadium?
When Alabama (one SEC championship from 1993-2006) landed Saban nine years ago, it was an act of pseudo-desperation for the Crimson Tide, whose run of head coaches after Gene Stallings (national championship in 1992) featured Dennis Franchione and The Middling Mikes — Mike Dubose, Mike Shula … and for a few weeks in 2003, Mike Price.
(Don’t forget the hand wringing over Rich Rodriguez turning down Alabama, as well.)
Back in 2007, the going rate for an elite-level head coach was roughly $4 million. But upon accepting the Alabama job, Saban didn’t have to worry about matching or eclipsing the work of his immediate predecessors. His only ghost chase involved the legendary Bryant (one classic houndstooth hat, five national titles, 13 SEC crowns with the Tide).
Fast forward to the present: With Saban hypothetically jumping to the NFL, Alabama would likely be obligated to overpay for a prominent successor — how does $8 million per year sound? — knowing that only an over-sized Brink’s truck could motivate a successful coach to leave his current gig and subsequently welcome relentless comparisons to Bryant and Saban.
Even after championship-contending seasons.
One notable saving grace: Thanks to the stupendous work of Saban and his staff — seven straight top-5 recruiting classes from 2009-15 … with another one likely on the way — the new Alabama head coach, young or old, novice or experienced, SEC-embedded or not, relatively inexpensive or exorbitant in price, should dominate the competition on the presence of in-house talent alone … for two or three seasons.
After that, it’ll be up to the new coach’s own recruits to cement an Alabama legacy that’s ultimately judged by championship banners and life-sized statues.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.