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Replacing Nick Saban: Alabama begins hunt for a successor who will face sky-high expectations

By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer

Nick Saban accomplished the unimaginable in actually raising the bar for Alabama football, where Paul “Bear” Bryant had long been the measuring stick.

Whoever replaces the retiring coach will inherit all the makings for national championship contention and the sky-high expectations that come with them. The stockpile of talent, barring a transfer portal exodus. Facilities that have had millions in upgrades. And the culture that led to six national championships and nine SEC crowns over a 17-year run.

The Crimson Tide can only hope for a more successful transition than the last time the school had to replace an iconic coach.

It took Alabama more than two decades to find a comparable successor to Bryant after his retirement following the 1982 season. And that was Saban, who arrived with experience that included winning a national title at SEC foe LSU.

“The secret sauce for Nick Saban was total control of the program, but he could get that,” ESPN’s Paul Finebaum said Thursday. “He had already won a championship. He was coveted. He came in there and essentially said, everybody stay out of the way.

“I don’t know who the next coach will be but there’s nobody who can do that. There won’t be anybody with the kind of stature that Saban had in 2007. So the new coach is already challenged, without even knowing who it is, because he won’t have the gravitas that Nick Saban has.”

Saban announced his retirement Wednesday, leaving the Alabama program while it still appears formidable enough to regularly contend for Southeastern Conference and national championships. Saban said he settled on retirement after returning from a trip last weekend to his Florida home.

“The last few days have been hard,” Saban told ESPN. “But look, it’s kind of like I told the players. I was going to go in there and ask them to get 100% committed to coming back and trying to win a championship, but I’ve always said that I didn’t want to ride the program down. And I felt whether it was recruiting or hiring coaches, now that we have people leaving, the same old issue always sort of came up — how long are you going to do this for?”

The decision sent shockwaves through college football but the immediate impact on the team remains to be seen. His decision opened a 30-day window for Tide players to enter the transfer portal, and five-star wide receiver Ryan Williams has already announced his de-commitment.

No program knows better the challenge of replacing an iconic coach than Alabama, which cycled through seven coaches before Saban’s arrival, starting with former player Ray Perkins. (That number counts Mike Price, who was fired for off-the-field behavior before coaching a game).

The other six all had at least one 10-win season but only Gene Stallings (1990-96) won a national title, in 1992. The next one came under Saban in 2009, a 17-year drought that would be hard to swallow again for ‘Bama fans. Alabama won its last national championship in 2020. Bryant’s final national title came four years before he stepped down.

“Some of it’s a little fuzzy and cloudy at the moment to see,” said Finebaum, who covered Bryant’s final seasons as a Birmingham, Alabama, sportswriter. “But I didn’t think in ’82 that we’d ever see anything like this and not only have we seen it, it was better.”

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey weighed in on the challenges of replacing both Saban’s impact and his legacy, but noted the Alabama athletic department’s transformation as an asset.

“I walked into the athletic department for the first time in November of ’02 from the Southland Conference, and that’s been transformed,” Sankey said. “The infrastructure, the support systems. The expectations are incredibly high. That’s true around our campuses. So it’s a great opportunity for the right person.”

Athletic director Greg Byrne said Alabama plans a “thorough but expedient” search process.

“Our ideal candidate will be strong in recruiting and relationship building, player development, excel in Xs and Os and have the overall ability to lead this historic program,” Byrne said in a post on X.

One potential candidate to replace him, Oregon coach Dan Lanning, said on X he was staying put.

“I want to be here in Eugene for as long as Eugene will have me,” Lanning said in a video post that included the text “And I’m not leaving.”

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, a former Alabama offensive coordinator, expressed the challenges of replacing Saban in a 2022 interview.

“What could you possibly do right if you don’t win the national championship every year?” Kiffin told USA TODAY at the time. “You’re going to follow Nick Saban at Alabama? No, that would not be a good decision for anyone.”

Saban said he’s not going anywhere quite yet. He still headed into the office Thursday morning, like always, and said he wants to be around to support the current coaches and players.

“There are a lot of things to clean up, to help as we move forward,” he told ESPN. “I’m still going to have a presence here at the university in some form and trying to figure out all that and how it works.’
AP College Football Writer Ralph Russo contributed to this report.

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