The thing we’ve been speculating might happen pretty much every year for roughly the last 10 years finally happened Wednesday — and it was still stunning. Seven-time national champion Nick Saban is retiring. If anything, at 72, he seemed to be enjoying coaching more than at any time in recent memory. He was doing more TV interviews than ever before and cracking more news conference jokes than ever before.

Whether he realized it at the time or not, turns out it was all one big farewell tour.

The Greatest College Football Coach There Ever Was is leaving college football, and doing what so few in his profession ever get to: going out on his own terms.

It would be inaccurate to say he “went out on top,” but that’s only because he built such a ridiculous dynasty that winning 12 games, knocking off the No. 1 team in the country in the SEC Championship Game, but falling a win short of the national title game was considered a “down” season for Alabama.

Apparently, instead of firing a few assistants over this debacle, he fired himself.

Seven. National. Championships. More than anyone who has ever coached the sport at the highest level. Many of the icons he passed along the way — Bear Byrant, Woody Hayes, Frank Leahy — did it in eras when there were no scholarship limits, when the best teams played only nine or 10 games or when the pollsters voted before the bowl games.

Not to diminish those gentlemen’s accomplishments by any means, but Saban coached a drastically more difficult sport.

To successfully build a national championship contender, first at LSU in the early 2000s, then nearly every single year for the past 16 at Alabama, all he had to do was this: out-recruit nearly every school in the country; hit on far more evaluations than he missed; manage the egos of 85 players, all of whom arrived expecting to become first-round draft picks; oversee a coaching and support staff that had ballooned to roughly 50 people; and juggle countless administrative and media obligations.

And then he had to coach the games. And they weren’t nearly as easy as he made them look.

In Bryant’s last national championship season at Alabama in 1979, the Crimson Tide went 12-0, beating No. 18 Tennessee and No. 14 Auburn during the regular season and No. 6 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. This season, the Tide had to win 12 just to reach the College Football Playoff, facing the likes of No. 11 Texas (a loss), No. 15 Ole Miss, No. 17 Tennessee, No. 14 LSU and, in a conference championship game that did not exist in 1979, No. 1 and two-time defending national champ Georgia.

Again — this was in a “down” season. Of which he didn’t have many.



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After leading Michigan State to a 9-2 regular season in 1999, that school’s best record in a dozen years, he took over an LSU program that had not won a national championship in 40 years, and in fact had rarely come close. Within a year, he’d signed a top-three recruiting class featuring future stars Marcus Spears, Marquise Hill, Andrew Whitworth and Michael Clayton. Two years later, he won national title No. 1.

After his brief sabbatical with the Dolphins, Saban in 2007 walked into an Alabama program rich with history but more recently associated with scandal and mediocrity. Again, within a year, he’d signed an absolutely ridiculous class featuring the likes of Julio Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Ingram and Mark Barron. Within a year of that, national title No. 2.

From that point on, he never stopped signing top-rated classes and playing for national titles, eventually winning Nos. 3 through 7. In the undisputed toughest conference in the county, the SEC, where the resources and recruiting footprint among the top programs are fairly even, Saban suffered either zero or one conference loss in all but three of the past 16 seasons.

Along the way, we learned all about The Process, his finely tuned program for developing players and molding teams to the Alabama standard. Every season was a carefully scripted, 365-day mountain climb with the goal of being better the next day than you were the day before, and better the next game than you were the game before. Fittingly, his last Alabama team may have been the most illustrative of them all, going from left for dead after that awful Week 3 game at South Florida to hoisting the trophy in Atlanta.

But there was also a process to Saban’s own evolution as a coach.

A defensive assistant at heart, the first half of his Alabama tenure was defined by pounding rushing attacks, swarming and fundamentally sound defenses and, strangely, unreliable kickers. The poster game for that era was arguably the Tide’s incredibly boring 21-0 victory over LSU in the 2011 BCS Championship Game, itself revenge for losing 9-6 in overtime to Les Miles’ Tigers in Tuscaloosa.

But the sport changed. Hurry-up offenses and RPOs came to the SEC via Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin. At first, Saban himself lamented, “Is this what we want football to be?”

When the public and the coaching community resoundingly responded, “Yes,” Saban turned around and beat them with their own medicine, first by bringing on then-radioactive Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator in 2014 to modernize his pro-style offense, then later Steve Sarkisian and Mike Locksley to go full-on spread-run-pass option. Just as importantly, he began loading up blue-chip quarterbacks (Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Bryce Young) and game-breaking receivers (DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle). And some pretty darn good kickers like Will Reichard to boot.

He wasn’t without worthy adversaries. For a four-year window from 2015-18, Dabo Swinney’s Clemson program effectively played Alabama to a draw, splitting four postseason meetings and four CFP championships between them. And then came Kirby Smart, the first of his umpteen proteges to effectively replicate the Alabama model. History will show Georgia won two national titles after Saban’s last, including against Saban’s Tide in the 2021 championship game.

History will also show Saban got Smart back one last time on his way out the door.

Saban may be leaving college coaching, but it’s doubtful he’s leaving college football. He cares about it too much. He regularly used his pulpit to sound off on the issues of the day, and he continually increased his presence on ESPN’s programming to offer his opinions. The popular hunch is that he’ll soon become a regular on said airwaves.

He can watch from afar as all those suckers still coaching attempt to navigate NIL, the transfer portal, possibly athlete employment and unionization, and, more imminently, having to grind out two more Playoff wins to be crowned champion.

There’s a high likelihood, though, he would have adapted to that, too.

(Photo: David J. Griffin / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)