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Nick Saban Made Alabama Too Big to Fail

Saban did more than just transform Alabama into a football dynasty—he built something unlike anything college sports has ever seen. And his greatest legacy could be evident in what happens next.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2007, the University of Alabama had an enrollment of 25,580. The school’s football team was coming off a 6-7 season that felt ordinary given its mediocre recent standards. Head coach Mike Shula had gone .500 or worse in three of his four seasons at the helm. Shula’s predecessor, Dennis Franchione, had left for Texas A&M after just two years on the job. The coach before Franchione, Mike DuBose, got fired after a 3-8 campaign in 2000. And in the midst of it all, Alabama hired and fired Mike Price: He never coached a game for the Crimson Tide, as the school rescinded his contract in May 2003 after a particularly expensive night at a strip club and a big room service bill that an unidentified woman in his hotel room had run up.

Alabama had long been known as one of college football’s premier programs. It was the school of Bear Bryant, who won six national titles between 1961 and 1979 and was widely considered the greatest coach of all time. Bama had won a bit before Bryant, and won a national championship after him, under head coach Gene Stallings in 1992. But by 2007, three SEC schools had won national titles since Alabama’s last triumph, and the Tide’s top coaching target wasn’t interested in changing things. “I guess I have to say it,” Nick Saban said from his Miami Dolphins podium on December 21, 2006. “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”

Two weeks later, Saban was indeed the Alabama coach. And 17 years after that, almost to the week, he finally isn’t anymore. Saban retired Wednesday to end a run of brilliance every bit as legendary as Bryant’s. Saban went 201-29 at Bama, winning nine SEC titles and six national championships. He built some of the most dominant defenses the sport had ever seen, and then changed his offensive approach and constructed some of the game’s most fearsome offenses. He made Alabama the preeminent destination for a plurality of the nation’s best football recruits. Forty-nine of his players became first-round NFL picks, and another five are projected to become first-rounders in April.

But Saban’s legacy can’t be explained by the staggering statistics or achievements alone. There are other coaches who have won lots of titles, others who have produced plenty of NFL talent. Even for as distinct as Saban’s system was—the Process will forever be part of the college football lexicon—it can’t fully encapsulate his seismic influence.

Instead, Saban’s singularity lies in his transformational impact, on both a universal level and a regional one. There’s no way to tell the story of how college football evolved into such a financial colossus without Alabama as a frame of reference: It was the team that fans wanted to watch, the opponent everyone wanted to beat, and the main character in so many of the sport’s defining moments of the 21st century. And there’s no way to tell the story of how Alabama blossomed into an athletic and cultural behemoth without Saban pulling the strings for so many years.

It may seem like Saban’s lasting legacy at Alabama was all the winning. In reality, it was the way he built a force that not only felt inevitable while he coached there, but that still feels inevitable now that he’s walked away.

By 2022, Alabama’s enrollment had climbed to 38,645, a 51 percent increase from Saban’s debut season. The city of Tuscaloosa had grown by a similar amount, expanding from a population of 90,000 in 2010 to 111,000 in 2022. The new entrants were mostly out-of-state students who began flocking to the university right around the time that Saban started to win big. Alabama’s ratio of in-state to out-of-state students in the early 2000s was about 3-to-1. Now, 58 percent of undergraduates come from outside Alabama, paying more than $30,000 in tuition to learn, tailgate, and go to fraternity parties at a school they may not have considered if Saban hadn’t drastically bolstered its public standing.

It’s a higher education truism that glossy sports programs boost interest in colleges; countless administrators have parroted the phrase “front porch” of the university to describe the dynamic. But the nationwide evidence for that rationale is mixed: It’s often hard to identify big application jumps after breakthroughs in sports. Even where they do exist, sometimes the trend began before the moment of sporting glory. (In fact, Alabama itself had started to see a rise in enrollment even before Saban arrived.)

The truism holds at Alabama, though, as evidenced by the continued growth of the enrollment boom. In 2013, the university’s chancellor told 60 Minutes, “Nick Saban is the best financial investment this university has ever made.” Saban made $5.4 million that year. He was wildly underpaid.

Saban was also the front porch of the sport during a financial boom unlike any in history. His tenure at Alabama coincided with rampant conference realignment and sweeping change across college sports in general. Texas A&M and Missouri were not members of the SEC when Saban arrived at Alabama, let alone Texas and Oklahoma, who will officially join the league this summer. The current playoff system didn’t exist, much less was it set to balloon from four teams to 12. And players collecting money in exchange for services? That was a pipe dream, a bogeyman scenario that the NCAA insisted would not happen. Saban was a mooring as the sport transformed, and he buoyed the earnings of everyone and everything around him.

That was most apparent at home. Alabama’s athletic revenues in 2007 were $88 million. Donors accounted for $27 million, or 31 percent, according to data from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. By 2022, Bama had a $214 million athletic budget, an inflation-adjusted increase of 87 percent. Television revenue ballooned for everyone in the SEC over this span, and will soon balloon even more when a $3 billion deal with Disney kicks in next season. But Alabama saw a 51 percent adjusted increase in donor funds, and that’s before considering the millions of dollars that fans and boosters likely gave in name, image, and likeness funds over the past few years, including to the recently launched collective Yea Alabama.

It can’t be emphasized enough how much of Alabama’s financial might is a testament to Saban’s success. From 2007 to 2022, the median Football Bowl Subdivision school reported a 98 percent inflation-adjusted increase in football spending. The median SEC school reported a 115 percent rise. Alabama reported a 152 percent jump in football spending during those years. The year before his arrival, Bama reported $21 million in football expenditures, not far above the SEC median of $14 million. By 2022, Bama’s $78 million spent on football dwarfed the total spent by Georgia—which itself considers the sport a religion—by $17 million for tops in the league.

Typically, administrators don’t keep indiscriminately pouring money into football unless their teams are winning championships or they work at Texas A&M. Alabama was winning championships, though, and lots of them. The Tide couldn’t go back to the days of being a regular spender on football even if administrators wanted to scale things back. Alabama received $50 million just from the SEC in the 2021-22 academic year, and that number will go up with the start of the conference’s Disney deal. Alabama’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, comes from a fundraising background and has proved adept at powering a gravy train. Within minutes of the Tide losing the Rose Bowl to Michigan earlier this month, Bama’s third-party collective was soliciting donations in the style of a political action committee whose candidate is down in the polls.

From a competitive standpoint, whoever takes over for Saban is poised to keep winning. While some players could elect to transfer following Saban’s departure—the moment Saban retired, a 30-day transfer window opened for every Bama player—the next Tide coach will inherit a roster built on annual top-two recruiting classes and that just added the second-ranked class in 2024, according to 247Sports. Few claim that the Tide already tower over everyone in third-party spending via their NIL collective, but a school that can marshal resources like Alabama should eventually become a top player in that arena, too. Besides, Saban is keeping an office with the program. Fundraising seems like a natural next phase.

Beyond that, the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024. Alabama may not make the field every season in perpetuity, but will a program with its caliber of resources and brand power miss out more than once or twice in a row? Saban’s philosophy focused on giving Alabama every conceivable systemic and schematic advantage, and the university supported him in that endeavor. The Tide’s next coach may not be able to maximize these advantages in quite the same way, but the money spigot backing him will never turn off. And the expanded playoff means that the next coach’s margin for error will be bigger than Saban’s ever was.

It would be hard for a coach in any other sport to have the kind of transformative impact that Saban had at Alabama. Part of that is structural. Financially, such an impact is out of the question in salary-capped sports, where rosters turn over too mercilessly for a foundation to hold forever. Saban’s longtime friend and former boss Bill Belichick left the New England Patriots one day after Saban left Bama, and by that point his competitors had already caught up to him. Even without salary caps, great leaders who turn their clubs into juggernauts are not able to bequeath success forever. Manchester United, for example, didn’t keep winning the Premier League right after Alex Ferguson retired.

In the college ranks, too, Saban has no equal. Bryant made Alabama into a beast, but there wasn’t enough money in the sport then for one school to lap the competition the way Bama did under Saban. Joe Paterno won a lot of games at Penn State, but not enough for the Big Ten’s third-best program to catch Ohio State and Michigan in terms of resources. Bobby Bowden made Florida State into a power, but the Seminoles didn’t find long-term stability—heck, they’re still scrambling to solve their economic future.

Mike Krzyzewski built Duke men’s basketball into a potential forever powerhouse. But basketball isn’t football and can’t overhaul a school in the same way, even if a coach manages to avoid the competitive pitfalls that are more plentiful on the hardwood. A sport that starts five players instead of 11 is vulnerable to one or two bad evaluations or injuries derailing a season—a lesson Coach K learned when his team missed the 2021 NCAA tournament. And for all of Coach K’s excellence, Duke is still Duke; it does not transform for anyone. Duke has only a few hundred more undergraduate students now than it did when he arrived in 1980, although tuition costs have skyrocketed.

On the women’s side, Kim Mulkey is a terrific basketball coach, but Baylor’s women’s team has not been a perennial national contender since she left for LSU in 2021. It’s possible that whenever Geno Auriemma leaves Connecticut, the Huskies will endure as a titan in much the same way Alabama is primed to endure in football. That’s not assured, though. UConn isn’t even the biggest women’s hoops spender. The list of coaches who transformed a school’s on-field and financial fortunes has one name: Saban.

For years, those in college football have wondered what would happen to Alabama in the years following Saban’s exit. The Tide fell off after Bryant’s retirement at the end of the 1982 season. Oklahoma struggled after Bud Wilkinson retired in 1963. Florida has been in the wilderness since Urban Meyer took a year off in 2011 and later went to Ohio State. Those programs all looked like indestructible football machines during their heyday, and none proved impervious to hard times.

Alabama won’t be impervious, either, but the machine Saban built is different from all the rest. He ensured that Bama will always have the best toolbox, the best resources, the best everything. Saban’s greatest gift to Alabama was his transformation of the football program and the university it represented. His next-best gift was how difficult he made it for the next guy, or even the guy after that, to fuck it up.

Alex Kirshner is a writer in Los Angeles. He cohosts Split Zone Duo, a national college football podcast.