Saban's legacy



Image credit:Kirby LeeUSA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

With the dust settling on Nick Saban’s unexpected retirement from football and a new era starting In Tuscaloosa, this seems the perfect time to reflect on the career and legacy that the greatest head coach the college game has witnessed leaves behind.

better than the rest

Photo Credit: Wade Payne/AP Photo

The record books show Nick Saban won seven National Championships, ten SEC Championships with a winning record of 274-67-1 record (.801).

The record of seven National Championships places Nick Saban at the pinnacle of college football surpassing legendary coaches such as Knute Rockne, Woody Hayes and the Alabama benchmark, Bear Bryant.

What is interesting is that the formidable task new Alabama head coach Kalen DeBoer faces is very similar to the one which Nick Saban found himself in when he arrived at Tuscaloosa in 2007. While Saban did not immediately follow the Bear, the spectre of Bryant hung over everything and everyone at Bryant Denny stadium. 

When Nick Saban joined Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide were languishing and a shadow of the program that Paul “Bear” Bryant had built Alabama to be during his 25 year tenure starting in 1957.

High expectations

While expectations were high when Saban stepped off the private jet onto the tarmac in Tuscaloosa on January 4th 2007, it is unlikely many thought they had found the coach who would equal and then surpass Bryant’s number of National Championships.

When you visit Bryant Denny stadium and the Walk of Champions, a line of statues borders the walkway as you make your way from University Boulevard towards the stadium. The line starts with Bear Bryant but it seems no coincidence that the last statue which is closest to Bryant Denny is that of Nick Saban. I am certain that the statues were placed in chronological order, but is now a clear show that Saban is the greatest coach Alabama has ever had.

So while the rest of this piece focuses on the legacy that Nick Saban leaves behind for his players, his seven National Championships (six with Alabama), ranks him ahead of Bryant making him the most successful head coach that college football has seen in its long history. And Saban is rightfully quite content to step away from the game at the top.

draft capital

Image Credit: Marvin Gentry, USA Today Sports

Up until Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide had never produced a Heisman winner. All that changed in 2009 when Mark Ingram won the first Heisman in Alabama’s history. Derrick Henry won his in 2015 and DeVonta Smith in 2020. Quarterback Bryce Young won the Tide’s fourth Heisman in 2022.

For all you attentive folks out there, that’s four Heisman awards in 12 years. 

Now, this brings me, aside from seven National Championships,  to the most tangible legacy that Nick Saban leaves not just on the college game, but on the game of football.

Inside the press room at the Mal Moore practice facility in Tuscaloosa hang 44 jerseys. These jerseys represent the 44 players who have been drafted in the first round during Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama.

Just to recap, 44 players have been drafted – in the first round. In addition to this remarkable statistic, Nick Saban is the only head coach to have a player drafted in EVERY position on a roster. Alabama has also had a player drafted by every one of the 32 NFL teams.

In total, Alabama during Saban’s tenure have had 123 players drafted with 36% of those drafted in the first round. 

In his resignation speech Saban acknowledged the importance of players creating value for themselves,

“the goal was always to help players create more value for their future, be the best player they could be and be more successful in life because they were part of the program”.

Those 123 picks are more than any other program in the period from 2009 to the present day. 

The process

Photo credit:Image credit:Johnny Congdon Twitter

Consistently throughout his career Nick Saban talked about the value that the players need to create for themselves. The Process was never about the number of games or Championships his teams have won, but the process of how they have won. Saban’s teams do not look at the scoreboard – it’s the next play, one play at a time, playing your best each time. Saban worked out early in his career that chasing games would quickly lead to stress and health issues. Controlling the moment and playing to the best of your abilities on every single play – concentrating on winning that play, was the recipe for great success. And so “The Process” was born.

football factory

Nick Saban and his staff over the years scouted and recruited players who accepted and trusted “The Process”. These players knew by doing so that they had the best possible chance of extending their football career beyond college football. In simple terms, Saban and Alabama created an NFL Football Factory.

In what turned out to be Saban’s last SEC weekly teleconference call back in November 2023, I spoke to Coach Saban and asked him about the 2023 team which had overcome so much adversity. The head coach answered in a familiar way – it was about the process.

“I like the resilience that this team had and the ability to overcome adversity. But that also comes in each individuals play and how they want to improve and create value for themselves”.

And there it is. The Process and the creation of individual value for each player is central to the ethos of Alabama’s culture.

Max Olson of the Athletic put a price on that value using the Spotrac database to estimate how much Alabama players have earned from NFL contracts during the Saban era. The estimated value was in excess of $2.2bn which is a truly staggering number.

recruiting gold

Of course the message this sends to would be recruits interested in coming to Alabama is simply priceless. You see, before the advent of NIL Nick Saban and his coaching staff could demonstrate with some authority what these players could earn in the NFL. While NIL may upset the equilibrium and introduce a whole new dynamic, the players who have graduated to the NFL via the Nick Saban factory have a lot to thank their head coach for.

Players like Tua Tagovailoa, Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, Da’vonta Smith, Minka Fitzpatrick, CJ Mosley, Bryce Young, Amari Cooper, Marlon Humphrey, Mark Ingram, Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris, Will Anderson….I could go on and on.

the legacy 

Nick Saban’s legacy is that of the greatest head coach in Alabama’s history. He is also, almost certainly the greatest head coach in college football history. Honestly, Nick Saban is also in contention for consideration as the greatest football coach in history. And if this is true, then one of the greatest sports coaches of all time. 

He is the Greatest Of All Time.

Hyperbole? Actually not this time. We will never see another like him in our generation.

That’s a lot of value created. A lot. #RollTide.