In April 2017, the SEC Network sent Marcus Spears, the irrepressible former LSU defensive end, to the University of Alabama to conduct an interview with his college coach, Nick Saban. They get into Saban’s white Mercedes-Benz sedan—he owns a dealership in the Birmingham area—and drive from Saban’s office on the Tuscaloosa campus to his home. It is spring, so Saban is relaxed, and he is with one of his former players, so he is delighted.
The camera is affixed to the dashboard, Carpool Karaoke–style. Spears played for Saban nearly 20 years ago. They won a national championship together at LSU in 2003, before Saban embarked on his ill-fated NFL odyssey with the Miami Dolphins. Spears is approaching 40, his NFL career long behind him, now an established analyst at ESPN. He understands the toll that athletics can take on those who make a living from it. The competitive pressure is relentless. It extracts a price from everyone. And so, in the interview, Spears asks, “Everybody looks at you as the standard in the game. What keeps you motivated, though? Because, like,”—and here, Spears’s tone climbs with each word—“you don’t ever get tired?”
As the greatest college football coach of our time, maybe of all time, hears the question, he looks out the passenger window, eyebrows elevating, fighting off an eye roll. Saban turns back toward Spears and almost bites off the words.
“Tired of what? Winning?”
Saban grins. Spears tries to back off.
“No, not tired of winning …’”
Saban keeps talking, and in the next minute gives an answer that defines why, four years and two national championships later, he remains at the top of the game. Saban may be turning 70 this year, but he continues to sidestep the traps that have ensnared just about every other great college football coach who has walked a sideline.
“You know the answer to the question you’re asking,” Saban begins, and when he continues, he claps his hands with each word of the next sentence for emphasis—“I hate to lose more than I like winning. You know that. What’s going to happen if we lose the next game? So, again, I’m looking forward. I’m not looking backward. I’m looking at the challenges of how do we get this team to play to the standard they need to play to, or they’re capable of playing to, individually as players, and collectively as a team, so that they can accomplish something special.
“When I don’t look at it that way, then I think it’s time to do something else.”
Coaching careers, like The Sopranos, don’t end well. Every coach understands that. Those who are lucky enough to become a head coach know the clock is ticking until they have to call a moving van.
You can count the coaches who left at the top of their game on one hand: Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian, Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson, Oregon’s Mike Bellotti, and most recently, Bob Stoops, also at Oklahoma. Of that fivesome, Osborne was the oldest, at 60 years old, when he coached his last game, the 1998 Orange Bowl in which his Cornhuskers won their third national championship in four seasons.
Saban is a decade older; in fact, he won five of his seven national championships in his 60s. When it looked as if Alabama had begun to slide beneath the Saban standard—that blowout 44-16 loss to Clemson in January 2019; that 33-13 halftime deficit at home against LSU in November 2019—the Crimson Tide responded in 2020 with the most dominant performance ever by a Saban team. Alabama had a 13-0 record, 12 victories by at least two scores, an offense for the ages, six first-team All-Americans, including Heisman Trophy–winner Devonta Smith, winners of 11 major awards, etc.
All of which is to say that Saban has proved to be impervious to the forces that drag down coaches. It may be painfully obvious to say he’s winning because he continues to attract the best recruits—the most recent class is the greatest collection of prep talent since Peyton Manning dined alone—yet there is a message in that: Recruits don’t think Saban has lost a step, either.
History tells us that there are four reasons that older coaches leave the stage, no matter how successful they may have been. Here’s a look at each reason, and how Saban not only has eluded its grasp, but continues to thrive.
Coaches Get Old
Frank Beamer went 29-23 in his last four seasons at Virginia Tech; in the previous eight seasons, the Hokies went 84-24. Beamer retired at age 68, a year younger than Saban is now, citing the obvious. “We’ve been average too long,” Beamer said.
Steve Spurrier, after three straight 11-2 seasons, went 9-10 in a season and a half and abruptly quit South Carolina in the middle of the 2015 season. He was 70. “It’s time for me to get out of the way and let somebody else have a go at it,” Spurrier said.
Even before the internet era, which has compelled us all to shovel more coal into the furnace and at a faster rate, burnout claimed many casualties. Consider Bear Bryant, the sport’s most famous example. Bryant lived hard, with more than his share of unfiltered Chesterfields and brown liquids. But the part of him that considered retiring was no match for the part of him that was public legend. In 1980, no. 1 Alabama had a 28-game winning streak snapped, losing at Mississippi State, 6-3. From that moment until his retirement at the end of 1982, Bryant’s Tide teams went 20-7-1. According to biographer Allen Barra, Bryant spoke about retiring to family and friends after the 1981 season. Barra also quoted Bryant telling a Mississippi reporter, “Coaching is a young man’s game. You never see old men winning championships.” But he continued coaching.
Bryant died in January 1983, four weeks after he coached his last game.
Saban continues to look forward. He still finds it compelling to teach 18-year-olds to achieve up to his standard. If anything, he seems to be enjoying it more. He actually smiled during a couple of sideline interviews last season.
The Game Changes
After Alabama defeated Ohio State, 52-24, in the College Football Playoff national championship in January, someone asked Saban to compare this 13-0 team to his other undefeated team, the 14-0 national champs of 2009. “They were a great team, too,” Saban said. “I think ball has changed. It’s a little more wide open, a little more spread. This team has adapted, and we’ve changed with it.”
He made it sound so easy.
Coaches are fond of saying the fundamentals never go out of style. But football doesn’t stop evolving. Offenses come, defenses go, and vice versa. It has always been that way. When Stanford hired Clark Shaughnessy in 1940 to change the fortune of its one-win program, Shaughnessy brought his newfangled T formation in and junked the single wing that Pop Warner installed in 1924 and that had taken Stanford to six Rose Bowls.
“If Stanford ever wins a single game with that crazy formation,” Warner said of the T, “you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean.”
Stanford, in Shaughnessy’s T, went from 1-7-1 to 10-0, including a Rose Bowl victory.
Coaches who don’t evolve get left behind. Bryant adopted the wishbone in 1971 after consecutive six-win seasons and won three national championships in the 1970s. Saban came to Alabama in 2007 as a defensive-minded coach. He watched as the up-tempo spread popularized by Chip Kelly at Oregon took over the game. Offenses ran plays so quickly that defenses couldn’t change the personnel on the field to combat them.
Saban tried to get the rules changed to help defenses. In 2012, after Alabama defeated Ole Miss 33-14, Saban had had enough. The Rebels, under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, had run 68 snaps in only 25 minutes of possession. His defense struggled to get into position. A few days later, in a telephone press conference, Saban famously asked, “Is this what we want football to be?”
When the NCAA didn’t respond quickly enough, Saban adapted. He made the up-tempo spread offense his own. He brought in Lane Kiffin to install it in 2014, and even as the NCAA adjusted the rules to allow defenses to make substitutions, Saban stayed with the offense. The output of touchdowns and yards over seven seasons at Alabama has been staggering.
Coaches Lose Assistants
Dabo Swinney just finished his 12th full season at Clemson. Nine of his 10 assistants have been on the Tigers’ staff at least four seasons. The 10th, new running backs coach C.J. Spiller, an eight-year NFL veteran, made All-American on the 2009 Clemson team during Swinney’s first full season as head coach.
Swinney drills his coaches into knowing what he wants. They know how to work together. The best way to understand the value of staff room chemistry is to not have it.
Other coaches lose valuable assistants and don’t hire the right guys to replace them. Bobby Bowden lost both his longtime coordinators, Chuck Amato on defense and Mark Richt on offense, not long after Florida State won the national championship in 1999. Forget playing for no. 1 again; after they left, the Seminoles won 10 games only once more in Bowden’s last nine seasons.
The staff stability rule applies to every other head coach. Saban’s staff turns over like the inventory on his car lot. In the early part of his career, Saban became known as the most difficult head coach to work for in the country. John Thompson took a job as his defensive coordinator at LSU in 2000 and didn’t stay two months. You don’t hear those stories as much now that he has won six national championships in 14 seasons in Tuscaloosa. You see coaches coming back to work for him—Kevin Steele, Lance Thompson, Sal Sunseri, Steve Sarkisian.
Perhaps Saban has softened. He certainly figured out before anyone else how to massage the limit on the size of a coaching staff and create jobs for “analysts.” He also has the money to pay those analysts. Or maybe assistant coaches have learned what happens when Saban sprinkles his magic dust. He brings in fired head coaches. He cleanses them of their losing sins. He inculcates them in his system, and out they go to get new head-coaching gigs, from Kiffin (FAU, Ole Miss) to Mike Locksley (Maryland) to Butch Jones (Arkansas State) to Sarkisian (Texas).
Losing Hurts More Than Winning Feels Good
That’s what got Darrell Royal at Texas. “Well,” he said in the 2005 book Coach Royal: Conversations With a Football Legend, “it got so that winning wasn’t exciting and losing became intolerable. Climbing is a thrill. Maintaining is a bitch.”
The grind never stops. It takes its toll on the winners. The grind made Osborne leave Nebraska, made Lloyd Carr retire from Michigan in 2007 at age 62, made Bellotti move into the athletic director position at Oregon in 2009 at age 58. Add the pain of losing to the grind, and the effect multiplies.
Saban said as much to Spears: “I hate to lose more than I love to win.” In his first game at Michigan State in 1995, defending national champion Nebraska came to East Lansing and beat the Spartans 50-10. Saban walked to midfield for the postgame handshake wondering if the Spartans would ever win a game. Osborne reassured him. “You’re not as bad as you think,” he said. Those 1995 Huskers won all 12 of their games by at least two touchdowns.
In his 14 seasons at Alabama, Saban has suffered some of the most painful losses possible: the Kick Six to Auburn in 2013, the 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in 2011, blowing the 24-0 lead against Auburn in 2010. But the reason Saban continues to coach is pretty simple. When you’ve lost only 23 games in 14 seasons, there isn’t that much to get over.
No one knows that better than the LSU faithful, who view Saban with broken hearts, a desire for vengeance, and awe. Saban remade LSU football into a national power. He arrived for the 2000 season, won the BCS title in 2003, and left a season later for the NFL. That lasted only two seasons. When Saban came back to college football but went to Alabama, he splashed down in the Tigers’ deepest well of insecurity. In 14 seasons, Saban is 11-4 against LSU, the extra game being that 21-0 beatdown for the 2011 BCS title.
Alabama won the next seven years against LSU. In 2019, when Joe Burrow and the Tigers easily defeated the Crimson Tide, racing out to a big halftime lead and cruising to a 46-41 victory en route to a national championship, LSU fans celebrated with the zeal of the newly freed.
A year later, Alabama humiliated LSU 55-17, the Tide’s largest margin against the Tigers since 1925. A few days after the beatdown, Charles Hannagriff, a Baton Rouge sports radio host, bared his soul.
“The day that man coaches his last game,” Hannagriff said on the air, “will be the greatest day ever for the rest of college football.”
Bear Bryant was wrong. One old man is winning championships. Bryant lived 69 years and 137 days. Saban will surpass that age on March 18. The next day, the 2021 Crimson Tide will begin spring practice.
Ivan Maisel is a college football reporter, author, and podcaster who has worked for Sports Illustrated and ESPN.