Nick Saban (and journalists chronicling him) faced two inevitable questions when Alabama won a fourth national championship under his care in January.
Is he the greatest college football coach of all-time? And how long will he keep going?
The former remains debatable. Any comparison to, say, Bear Bryant is apples to oranges.
As far as the latter, most of us have no idea. It seems like we’ve finally moved past the silly annual “will Nick Saban bolt for the NFL or Texas” rumor mongering. Nick Saban will turn 65 in 2016, and is reaching an age where it doesn’t make much sense for a new school or franchise to hire him.
But unlike Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier — recent legendary coaches who eventually lost their fastball — Saban never lets up, in any facet of his job. He’s half robot, half human, it seems sometimes.
It’s still in the back of everyone’s mind, but Alabama fans have to start wondering soon: Who will eventually replace Saban? And how long will this nearly unprecedented run last?
“I’ve been a part of a team since I was nine years old. It scares me to ever think of the day when I wouldn’t be a part of the team,” Saban said following last season.
“The feeling that you get being associated with a group like this makes you want to do it more. That’s kind of how I feel about it. I know you can’t do this forever, but I certainly enjoy the moment and certainly look forward to the future challenges that we have and really have no timetable for ever not being a part of a team.”
The Alabama coach is too smart to offer recruiting rivals a hint of when he may retire, lest they use it as ammo in the living room of high school prospects. He also doesn’t seem like a narrative guy, waiting for the perfect storybook ending to ride off into the sunset.
It seems like Saban will coach until the frustrations of unrealistic expectations and the heavy burden of the job overtakes the desire to be at the wheel of an important ship and to attack the constant stream of challenges.
One of these years, Saban is just going to say that he’s had enough, and that it’s someone else’s turn. Whether that’s next year or 10 years from now remains to be seen, but it seems unfathomable that Saban could continue at this rate into his 70s with a job as demanding as Alabama’s.
For a long time, it seemed like Kirby Smart was a potential successor, given that he remained Saban’s right-hand man nearly from the time he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007 through 2015. But now Smart coaches at Georgia.
Former Alabama receiver Dabo Swinney, who coached Clemson to the national championship game this year, also seems like a potential candidate that has drawn attention. But he already has the Tigers competing for titles and doesn’t need a new school for that.
Some of the game’s best coaches, guys like Mark Dantonio, will be well into their 60s if Saban holds on for much longer. It’s likely that we can’t foresee some of the best candidates, and when Saban retires is even more difficult to project. But certainly it’s an interesting idea to explore.
WHO SHOULD TAKE OVER AT ALABAMA WHEN NICK SABAN RETIRES?
Chris Wright (@filmroomeditor): Mark Dantonio or Lane Kiffin
Depends on when he retires. If he retires within the next two years, I’d call Dabo, but I’d be just as interested in Mark Dantonio, maybe more so. The trick for Dabo is to see if he can keep it going (especially after Deshaun leaves), which is something entirely different and far more difficult than getting it going.
If Saban retires in 3-5 years and Lane Kiffin hasn’t bolted, then I’d turn it over to Kiffin, who has done wonders on offense since his arrival and you figure will have added another national title or two by then.
John Brasier (@john_brasiersds): Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Pete Carroll or Mark Dantonio
I would go for the best available game coach and CEO. Someone with an Alabama background is a plus, but Nick Saban’s done just fine without it. At Alabama’s level, a head coach with unchallenged status and respect is just as good as a fabulous personality or recruiter.
Yes, times have changed. But Bear Bryant didn’t get down and boogie after victories. Nick Saban does the minimum celebrating with his players.
The next Alabama coach doesn’t have to be young and personable — he can get top young assistants to do that. But he needs to be someone who can handle the pressures and endless responsibilities that go along with the position. An Alabama coach only has to close with recruits — his assistants can handle most of the heavy lifting. If the head coach keeps Alabama on top, the recruits will keep signing.
Kirby Smart is unproven as a head coach. Dabo Swinney played at Alabama, but he just doesn’t fit the classic Bryant, Gene Stallings, Saban mold.
Of today’s present head coaches, I would opt for Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Pete Carroll or Mark Dantonio. Swinney would be a solid choice, but his social views and potential gaffes could get him in trouble. At Clemson, he doesn’t have those type of worries. Smart needs to win a national title at Georgia to be considered.
Tom Brew (@tombrewsports): Dabo Swinney
That’s a difficult question to answer without a time-frame attached to it. Nick Saban will be 65 in October, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down and his team’s are winning at a record pace. Say he decides to coach until he’s 70; that’s five years from now. So if it’s 2021, who knows?
Lane Kiffin might be mature enough then to no longer be the boy wonder, but I doubt if the stuff-shirts at Bama would ever go there. Kirby Smart, five years from now, would be interesting, but here’s the Catch-22. If he has great success at Georgia — which means at least PLAYING for a national championship, he might not want to leave his alma mater. Being an alum matters.
And that takes us to Dabo Swinney. Yes, he’s doing great things at Clemson and they love him there, but he’ll always be the guy who would want to come home to Alabama. He’d be the guy.