TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Nick Saban, famous for his trial, stuck to his routine on Wednesday.
He joined a scheduled video call of SEC coaches. He conducted several interviews for an open position on the coaching staff. One person briefed on the interview in particular concluded just 15 minutes before the coach being interviewed began seeing notifications of news that changed college football forever: The Alabama legend was retiring.
During the SEC call, Saban remained engaged.
“He was Nick Saban,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “I couldn't be there, but I contacted our employees. He was an active participant. There's a lot, a lot of good stuff going on in college football right now, and some of it is making people a little unhappy. But there were no tells.”
A team meeting in Alabama was scheduled for Tuesday, but bad weather forced the meeting to Wednesday afternoon. Tuesday's storm made for a clear, sunny Wednesday.
The meeting began around 4 p.m. CT, with Saban citing his age (72) and unspecified health reasons for his decision, according to a team source briefed on the meeting, after 17 years at Alabama, 50 years as a coach and seven national titles. Shortly thereafter, Saban's decision reverberated throughout Tuscaloosa. On Thursday, Saban addressed these concerns in a conversation with ESPN's Rece Davis.
“My age became more of an issue when it came to hiring coaches and players,” Saban said. “People wanted reassurance that I would be here, three years, five years, and it became harder to be honest. And to be honest: last season was exhausting. It was a real challenge for us to get from where we started to where we arrived. It challenged me a little more than usual. When people mentioned the health issue, it was actually just anger.”
Nick Saban's last win as Alabama coach came against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Crowds of people streamed outside Bryant-Denny Stadium at the Walk of Champions, where all five national championship-winning coaches have a statue. The area around Saban's statue resembled a monument. The figure was surrounded by flowers, oatmeal cream cakes, Coca-Cola bottles and a crown attached to a string on the statue's hand. The crowd began singing, including “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Amazing Grace.”
There were more impassioned cries focused on possible successors. Fans have their preferences and many took turns in front of the Saban statue, voicing their opinions to the large crowd. One fan in particular said, “I'm excited to see who our next coach is, but I can only say one thing: Anyone but Dabo! Say it with me!” They were, of course, referring to Clemson coach and Alabama alumnus Dabo Swinney. Soon the crowd followed the chant.
Official statements finally arrived from Alabama. Saban said, “The University of Alabama was a very special place for (his wife Terry Saban) and me. It's not just about how many games we won and lost, but also about the legacy and how we went about it. 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 succeeded and we will always consider Alabama our home.”
Athletic director Greg Byrne released a statement via his .
On Thursday, the sun rose and the Tuscaloosa News headline contained two simple but powerful words, a sentence that Alabama fans may not have been ready to read: “SABAN RETIRES.” Fans still walked outside Bryant- Denny around to take photos and express her feelings. One fan asked: “What are we doing next year?”
Saban himself was at the Mal Moore Football Facility just before 7:30 a.m. — which will likely help answer that very question. On Thursday afternoon, Saban said in an interview with ESPN's Chris Low that he intends to remain a presence around the university in some capacity. For now it supports the transition.
The actual retirement announcement wasn't as jarring to some as the suddenness of the move. There was speculation that 2023 would be Saban's final season, and it grew more intense as the end of the season approached. But there was no choreographed statement at the time of the news release or a planned press conference. Very few people, including senior Alabama executives, knew how Wednesday would ultimately unfold.
In many ways, the signs were there throughout the 2023 season. It was a year considered by many to be Saban's best coaching job and in which he performed in an almost unprecedented way. Senior defensive back Malachi Moore described Saban as more open in the lead-up to the Rose Bowl and said this season was the most he's ever heard Saban banter with the team. One example was Saban setting up mousetraps throughout the locker room and facility to warn players of a “trap game” against Kentucky – part humor, part motivation. But it was effective: Alabama defeated Kentucky 49-21 to win the SEC West title.
Saban seemed more thoughtful and appreciative. After Alabama's emotional win over Tennessee, Saban shared a humorous moment on television when he put a cigar in his mouth despite knowing he is not a smoker. He then jogged to each part of the field for several minutes to personally thank the fans for their support during the game.
In the SEC Championship Game, Saban and his former protégé Kirby Smart spent a moment at midfield before kickoff. Saban walked up to Smart and said, “You were right about one thing: I'm too old for this.” He went on to express to Smart how proud he was of what Smart built at Georgia while Smart responded with similar compliments about what Saban has done with the 2023 team, thanking him for everything he's done for Smart in his career. Before they went courtside, Smart told Saban, “Try to enjoy it, man. You’re a great coach.”
Alabama's victory over No. 1 Georgia for the SEC Championship marked the highlight of the Tide's 2023 season. It didn't end with a national championship, and in some ways it may be surprising that Saban isn't “at the top.” But shortly after Alabama's Rose Bowl loss to Michigan, Saban showed one final expression of gratitude for the 2023 team and what it meant to him. It was his last and one of his most memorable teams.
“One thing I told them in the locker room after the game: This is one of the greatest seasons in Alabama football history,” Saban said. “In terms of where this team came from, what they were able to accomplish and what they were able to accomplish. I think for me as a coach, maybe not for everyone else, it is one of the teams that I will always remember most and that I will always be most proud of.”
At the moment, these events felt like a more classic lure to increase Saban's aura. In retrospect, it was just breadcrumbs that led to his retirement. And yet he went back and forth until the final minutes before the team meeting before making a final decision.
“We had a meeting at 4 p.m.,” Saban said in his interview with Davis. “It was 3:55 p.m. and I'm sitting in my chair saying, 'You have five minutes to decide what speech you're going to give.'
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Things are moving quickly in Tuscaloosa. Due to Saban's announcement, current players have 30 days to enter the transfer portal. According to a team source, Byrne told players to give him 72 hours before making a decision, suggesting the search for a coach will move quickly. Existing players will have another window to participate in the spring (beginning April 16), but it is paramount to sign as many players as possible before spring training. Oregon coach Dan Lanning announced Thursday afternoon that he is staying with the Ducks amid speculation that he could be a top candidate.
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Even though Alabama is a powerhouse with the best resources available, the next coach will be in the near-impossible position of succeeding Saban. Those who were close to him and helped pave the way to success at Alabama spent the past day expressing their appreciation.
“Coach Saban is the GOAT!!,” said former player Mark Ingram II, Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 2009, via his X account. “Thank you for believing in a young man from Flint, Michigan. Helped me become a champion on the field, but more importantly, a champion in LIFE. Happy retirement Coach, you deserve it!! I love you, Coach Saban, ROLL TIDE!!”
The impact of Saban's retirement is also reverberating through rival fan bases. At Auburn, fans went to the famous Toomer's Corner and rolled the trees with toilet paper, a tradition after a big win. Some Auburn fans made their way to Bryant-Denny Stadium to see the scene in person and take photos of the memorial. In the words of one fan: “The fans of Auburn, Georgia, and the entire SEC are happy today, but whether you loved or hated Saban, you respect the way he was able to win.”
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For most, that is Saban's lasting legacy, the victory he won for so many years, but for coaches still in college who coached alongside him, it goes beyond that.
“The impact he has had on college football is lasting,” said Drew Svoboda, a former Alabama assistant and current assistant head coach/special teams coordinator at North Texas. “He has set the standard for what it means to be elite, from the importance of recruiting and evaluation to the structure of the coaching and support staff to the ability to continually adapt to the changing landscape of college football.”
“The work under his leadership showed us every day how important communication and attention to detail are. He left no stone unturned in building a championship program.”
Alabama is facing a tipping point, but exactly what that looks like is yet to be determined. Fittingly, the transition, like the retirement announcement, will reflect Saban's desired process at Alabama – as closed as possible, but with his fingerprints all over it.
—Seth Emerson, Bruce Feldman, Sam Khan Jr., David Ubben and Chris Vannini contributed to the reporting of this story.
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(Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)