Would Nick Saban ever go about his retirement like Mike Krzyzewski? I wouldn't be so sure
One of the best coaches in the history of college athletics announced Wednesday that this would be his last season, and that he planned on turning the program over to his up-and-coming assistant.
That sentence was about Mike Krzyzewski, who is set to retire and turn the program over to Jon Scheyer.
But one day, could that sentence be about Nick Saban and one of his up-and-coming assistants?
In a perfect world for Alabama, yes. In reality, though, those chances seem unlikely.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Saban is probably coaching until the robots take over, so this might all be a moot point. The idea of Saban riding off into the sunset with a farewell tour might be a bit of a pipe dream.
It can happen that way in football. Sort of. We saw Bob Stoops do that with Lincoln Riley, and Bobby Bowden did it with Jimbo Fisher. The former was a bit more of a surprise than the latter, especially when you consider the timing. But neither of those legendary coaches officially went on a farewell tour like Krzyzewski is about to embark on.
Can you do that in football? Not really. Well, not unless the exact situation lines up perfectly.
Kentucky football essentially did what Krzyzewski did, though that was on a much smaller scale when Rich Brooks turned the program over to assistant Joker Phillips. When Kentucky announced that Phillips would be the coach-in-waiting, it wasn’t given a set end date like Krzyzewski.
There’s also the other important detail here. College basketball has become a sport wherein big-time jobs are going to prominent alums without college head coaching experience. North Carolina did it with Hubert Davis. Michigan did it with Juwan Howard. Georgetown did it with Patrick Ewing. Indiana did it with Mike Woodson. And now, as fate would have it, Duke is doing it with Scheyer, who was second-team All-American and national champion with the Blue Devils.
College football coaching searches don’t really work like that. At least not at the highest levels.
Think about this for a second. How many times in Saban’s Alabama tenure would Crimson Tide fans have legitimately supported one of his assistants taking over? I’d say 2. Kirby Smart and Steve Sarkisian. That’s the entire list.
There’s no way Saban would’ve turned the program over to Lane Kiffin or Jim McElwain, both of whom left Alabama for Group of 5 head coaching jobs. And while Mario Cristobal has gone on to have success at Oregon, the guy who was fired at FIU wouldn’t exactly have been welcomed with open arms by the Alabama faithful. Even Jeremy Pruitt would’ve been met with some skepticism to take over such a big-time program (I’ll admit that hindsight might be influencing that take a touch).
That’s worth remembering because you can’t really do a farewell tour like Krzyzewski’s unless there’s a replacement locked in. Duke announced his successor on the same exact day. They didn’t want to go a single weekend without that being known.
The same would be true at Alabama, where recruiting No. 1 classes are still somehow the annual ritual for a program with a head coach set to turn 70 this Halloween. Saban following the Krzyzewski path to retirement would entail him having a top-notch recruiter and highly respected top assistant already on staff. That’s not entirely far-fetched, but given how many coaches seem to leave Alabama for promotions elsewhere, that timing seems especially tricky.
Think about this. The only remaining assistant from Alabama’s 2018 staff is Pete Golding. If Golding were announced as Saban’s replacement, the entire state of Alabama would protest.
The only member of Alabama’s current staff who might have an opportunity to be in a “coach-in-waiting” role would be Bill O’Brien, though that would probably be dependent on him at least matching Sarkisian’s brilliance. That’s far from a guarantee.
It’s also far from a guarantee that Saban would ever consider anything resembling a farewell tour. He’s not exactly the type of guy who would covet the pageantry associated with something like that. The guy who has been known to do recruiting work within 24 hours of winning a national championship probably isn’t signing up for a full year of people patting him on the back for his historic career.
More likely is that one day, probably freshly removed from adding another ring, Saban will call it a career. No farewell tour, no coach-in-waiting. Just a press conference, perhaps with Miss Terry by his side. He probably won’t hint at it ahead of time, either. A national search will be conducted. You’ll hear Dabo Swinney’s name said on The Paul Finebaum Show more times than you can count.
If and when that day comes, it’ll send the college football world into a frenzy.
That is, assuming the robots haven’t already gotten to us.