What Is Nick Saban's End Game as Alabama's Head Coach?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Lake Burton is calling. At least that’s what a lot of the competition would like to hope.

Every year, Nick Saban spends some downtime at his Georgia vacation home on the water, where he’s been known to zip around on his boat while listening to the Eagles. At some point, it might become his permanent address.

But not this year, and not in the near future.

Anyone wondering if Saban’s coaching days might be drawing to a close only needs to go back and watch him during SEC media days to know it won’t be happening soon. There’s no doubt the coaching fire in him hasn’t flickered, regardless of his age.

“I think he can go forever,” quipped Florida head coach Jim McElwain, a former Saban offensive coordinator at Alabama. “That’s just the way he’s wired. When we were around each other that week of the SEC Championship Game, I didn’t see one less bounce in his step, anything like that.

“The guy’s something special.”

Entering his 21st season as a head coach at the collegiate level (plus two in the National Football League), Saban will turn 65 on Oct. 31, when Alabama will be coming off its bye and beginning to prepare for another showdown with LSU.

For a lot of people, that’s an age that brings thoughts about cashing in the 401(k) and playing golf every day. Although Bobby Bowden kept coaching at Florida State until he was 80, and Joe Paterno was 85 when he finished at Penn State.

Saban has no plans to coach that long. Although he’s never come close to mentioning when he might want to hang up his trademark straw practice hat, it’s become a point of contention as he’s started talking about how other schools are beginning to use his age against him in recruiting.

What are the chances Saban is still Alabama’s head coach when current prospects are slated to earn their degrees? Actually, pretty good. Remember, these critics are some of the same people who previously said Saban would never stay with the Crimson Tide for more than a couple of years.

Instead, 2016 will be his 10th season in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Regardless, how much longer he plans to keep coaching has become one of the first questions Saban gets asked after he wins a national championship.

“The one thing I have always said is I’ve been a part of a team since I was nine years old,” he said in January after Alabama knocked off Clemson, 45-40. “It scares me to ever think of the day when I wouldn’t be a part of the team. 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.”

Saban has long said that as long he’s healthy and still enjoys coaching, he’ll keep plugging away. Although that’s not too different from what Steve Spurrier said before stepping down midway through South Carolina’s season last year at the age of 70.

But at this point of his life, one has to wonder what keeps Saban motivated because he’s done just about everything imaginable.

In winning five national championships, the four with Alabama have been at the sites of the four major BCS bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta).

Saban has the most wins against a team ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll in college football history with six. No one else has more than four, and that’s despite Saban having a team ranked No. 1 at some point of the season for a record nine straight years. Alabama was recently announced as No. 1 in the 2016 AP preseason poll.

He needs just five more players to land consensus All-American status to have the most of any coach in history. Similarly, his 21 first-round picks in the NFL draft (not including the seven additional players he recruited to LSU or Michigan State who were first-round picks after he left) have him tied for the fourth most.

Saban been so consistently good for so long he doesn’t win coach-of-the-year awards any more. Since getting the Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 2010, he’s won three national championships compared to just one major coaching honor—the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award (2014).

He had previously won the Paul “Bear” Bryant (2003), Eddie Robinson (2003, 2008), Home Depot (2008), Walter Camp (2008), Liberty Mutual (2008) and Sporting News (2008) honors. The last time he was the SEC coach of the year was 2009.

“This is the life, and the sequence of events over a calendar year that Nick Saban’s known for 40-plus years,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who serves as an analyst on Crimson Tide radio broadcasts. “I do think maybe, deep in his mind, maybe if he ever lets himself go there, ‘What would I do if maybe I had a month off?'”

Those closest to him, though, say such thoughts are short lived, and there’s no specific checklist of accomplishments that Saban wants to finish or predetermined number of rings that he wants to collect.

Paul “Bear” Bryant’s six national titles have long been considered the benchmark for anyone to beat. But his 1973 championship was extremely controversial since it was awarded by the coaches’ poll before Alabama lost to Notre Dame 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl. Additionally, his titles in 1965 and 1978 were split championships.

Saban’s only split title was his first, in 2003 with LSU, when AP voters opted for 12-1 USC when the Trojans were on the outside looking in on the BCS title game. Nevertheless, the Tigers still got the crystal football signifying the national champion after defeating Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, 21-14.

“I think he’ll win two more national championships before he retires,” former LSU All-American defensive lineman Marcus Spears said. “He’s already one of the greatest to ever do it. To me he’s the greatest to ever do it.”

Accolades aside, Saban still likes going to practice every day and simply being a coach.

“He’s driven to be the best, and I think that’s what makes him different,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, Saban’s former defensive coordinator. “Everybody is driven for their different purpose and everybody has their ‘why,’ and for Coach Saban, I think he wants to be the best.”

That competitive nature aside, when Saban does decide he’s had enough, there won’t be a lack of opportunities waiting. Perhaps he’ll be asked to serve on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, or if the sport has a commissioner by then, his name could be on the short list for the job.

“My personal opinion is that he would be a natural to make the jump into media,” said Savage, who first worked with Saban as a Cleveland Browns scout in 1993. “He would be welcomed with open arms. I would think that he’d want to do that to keep both hands in the game without having to devote 24 hours a day, 340 days of the year to it.”

Without a doubt, the person who will have the most impact on Saban’s retirement plans is his wife, Terry Saban, who played a huge part in his getting back into college football and leaving the Miami Dolphins for Alabama. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Miss Terry is the one who ultimately says, “It’s time.”

“She has a huge part of any major family decision,” Savage said. “But she also knows that he’s happy being able to coach.”

When Saban does hang it up for good, he will likely have a hand in picking his replacement, although to what degree remains to be seen. No one seems to be a fan of the coach-in-waiting title any more, but chances are some sort of plan will be in place regardless of who might be Alabama’s athletic director.

Maybe it’ll be Saban. Just imagine what kind of money he could raise for the Crimson Tide’s athletic department.

Moreover, even though he might spend more time elsewhere, Saban is expected to keep a lot of his ties to Alabama, where, for the first time in his life, he’s been able to put down significant roots.

His mother has moved to the area. His children are both raising families in the area, and Saban has finally dipped his toe into the business he thought would dominate his life before getting into coaching—automobile sales. He’s part-owner of a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Birmingham and is opening two others, including one in Nashville.

As much as anyone might speculate, only Saban himself really knows for sure, and he doesn’t appear to be giving it much thought these days. With another loaded team and the revolving door of top-notch recruits moving through Bryant-Denny Stadium each fall, he continues to do what he loves, much to the chagrin of every other college football fanbase.

“He will coach for a long time—I do believe that—because he likes it. He’s passionate about it,” Smart said. “He’s very healthy. He takes care of his body. He hadn’t slowed down a bit. I promise you that.”

    

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com


Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News

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