Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when the news out of Alabama on a cold January afternoon about a college football legend with six national championships was a mournful but not unexpected announcement that Bear Bryant, mere weeks after he resigned as the Crimson Tide’s head football coach, had died of a massive heart attack. As Wikipedia recounted it, Bryant himself proved to be eerily prescient:
His last game was a 21–15 victory in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee, over the University of Illinois. After the game, Bryant was asked what he planned to do now that he was retired. He replied, “Probably croak in a week.”
Four weeks after making that comment, and just one day after passing a routine medical checkup, on January 25, 1983, Bryant checked into Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa after experiencing chest pain. A day later, when being prepared for an electrocardiogram, he died after suffering a massive heart attack.
Well, yesterday the news, while shocking, was a bit more upbeat about a coach in far better health who was actually able to eclipse the records that Bryant set. Per YAHOO! Sports’ Ryan Young and Nick Bromberg:
The seven-time national champion head coach announced his retirement Wednesday. Saban spent the last 17 years of his coaching career at Alabama, and the Tide won six national titles during his time in Tuscaloosa.
“The University of Alabama has been a very special place to Terry and me,” Saban said in an Alabama statement. “We have enjoyed every minute of our 17 years being the head coach at Alabama as well as becoming a part of the Tuscaloosa community. It is not just about how many games we won and lost, but it’s about the legacy and how we went about it. We always tried to do it the right way. 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. Hopefully, we have done that, and we will always consider Alabama our home.”
Saban, 72, led Alabama to three national titles in the BCS era and three in the College Football Playoff era. He led the Crimson Tide back to the playoff this year, though they fell to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
Saban, who had won his other title at LSU in 2003, has no doubt left his mark on the SEC and in college football as a whole. The YAHOO! duo added this summative statement from his most recent “boss”:
Simply put, Nick Saban is one of the greatest coaches of all time, in any sport, and The University of Alabama is fortunate to have had him leading our football program for the past 17 seasons,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “Throughout his career as a head coach, his teams have won seven national championships, 11 conference championships and 312 games, and he’s developed an NCAA-record 49 NFL first-round draft picks and, most importantly, hundreds of college graduates. He is the consummate coach, mentor and leader, and his impact is felt far beyond the football field.”
But the warning signs were already out there that despite his uncanny resillience and ability to succeed, Saban was growing weary of what college football was evolving into. Saban has been an outspoken critic of NIL since it was legalized in 2021, though his blistering words asserting he never paid anyone has been challenged by both competitors and even some former players. Perhaps that’s because with a track record such as the one he compiled, and the true riches his disciples as both players and coaches have achieved, Saban never needed the allure of blood money to attract talent. You come to a place like Tuscaloosa for football and football only. Mostly because there’s scant little else to do. Or that people care about.
On campus yesterday, the reaction of the current Alabama community was more in line to how the world reacted to Bryant’s death 41 winters ago, as AL.com’s Ben Flanagan narrated:
The shocking news of Nick Saban’s retirement sent fans to his statue outside the Alabama football team’s home stadium, where stunned students and others laid bouquets of roses, bottles of soda, crimson and white shakers and boxes of the coach’s favorite breakfast snack — Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies.
The sun set on the Capstone, as fans braved the chilled air to pay their respects at the only place they knew to go: The bronzed effigy in the now-former head coach’s likeness placed outside Bryant-Denny after winning his first national championship in 2010.
A gamut of raw emotions on full display, the scene drew both disbelief and closure among the fans, most of them University of Alabama students, who expressed the complex feelings moments after hearing news that would change not just a football program, but a university and city. Even still, the coach’s legacy and what lies ahead for the Tide were top of mind at the Walk of Champions.
Thankfully, there will be a future for both school and coach this time. There is no shortage of worthwhile candidates, some with direct ties to Saban and some without, that Byrne will be able to choose from. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s Pat Forde and Richard Johnson outlined eight in this insightful piece that dropped late yesterday.
And Saban? His charm, wit and candor seems ideally suited for ESPN’s College GameDay. With Lee Corso approaching age 90, a succession plan is all the more necessary, especially given Corso’s recent no-shows for several weeks of past seasons. A healthy Saban could easily be added as a point/counterpoint so long as Corso’s health holds out, and given their new deal with the SEC there is arguably no one breathing more qualified to discuss that conference, or the game in general.
Yes, feel shocked, but don’t feel sad. True, we’re not gonna see the likes of Nick Saban as a coach so capable of winning so often at the same place in today’s college football anytime soon. But at least we can expect him to be around for a while to tell and show us why that’s the case.