The Saban Tsunami
One man's retirement has upended the college football landscape.
As one might imagine, the story I have been following most closely the past few days is the scramble at my graduate alma mater, the University of Alabama, in the aftermath of the surprise retirement of Nick Saban, its legendary head football coach. The news has been mostly good, all things considered, for Alabama fans, but it has set off a tsunami across the college football landscape.
Because Saban has spent the last seventeen years at the Capstone, I have only had mild interest in coaching hires since. And the rules have changed considerably since then, with the advent of pay-for-play and nearly unfettered player free agency.
Under current rules, which I support, players on teams experiencing a head coaching change—whether through firing, retirement, or the coach taking a new job elsewhere—are given an extra 30-day window in which to explore their options at other schools. The combination of immature players, hurt feelings, not knowing where they fit with the new staff’s plans, and other schools able to throw money at them for their services means star players jump into the “transfer portal” to test the market for their services.
Our athletic director, Greg Byrne, asked players to give him 72 hours to hire a new head coach. He did it in a mere 49, luring Kalen DeBoer, the former head coach of the Pac-12* champion Washington Huskies, fresh off a loss in the national title game, to Tuscaloosa. The hire has been almost universally praised by analysts whose opinions I value.
Nonetheless, quite a number of players who signed on to play for the GOAT jumped into the portal and a few others are reportedly thinking about it. While somewhat frustrating from a fan’s standpoint, I get it. They don’t have relationships with the new staff yet and probably feel betrayed by Saban’s retirement. Being coached by the best to ever do it was surely part of the appeal of coming to Alabama, and he almost certainly gave them the impression that he was going to be there their whole tenure.
But, aside from my fan-driven concern about player retention and who DeBoer would hire to fill out the staff, the thing that has fascinated me is how much impact Saban’s retirement has had on the whole world of college football.
Most immediately, of course, Alabama’s players and coaching staff were put into limbo. Who would coach the team? Which assistants would be retained? Already, one key defensive staffer has decamped for Georgia.
But, 49 hours after Saban delivered the news to his players, DeBoer did the same to his Husky players. Four days removed from playing for the national championship, they got told their coach was leaving them for greener pastures. Exactly the same sort of feelings and turmoil I’ve described in Tuscaloosa is going on in Seattle now. (With the added bonus of Pete Carroll being forced out at the Seahawks.)
It didn’t end there, of course.
It took roughly another 48 hours for Washington to replace DeBoer, hiring Jedd Fisch away from the University of Arizona. So, naturally, the anger and angst at Tuscaloosa and Seattle is taking place in Tuscon, mutandis mutatis.
San Jose head coach Brent Brennan has reportedly been offered the job. One imagines he’ll take it.
Oh, and after the aforementioned Alabama staffer, Tavares Robinson, turned down an offer to stay in Tuscaloosa as DeBoer’s defensive coordinator, DeBoer turned around and offered the job to South Alabama head coach Kane Wommack. He took it. So, of course, there’s now an opening in Mobile. Most of the candidates to replace Wommack are either already on staff or out of work (including Tommy Rees, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator but not retained by DeBoer, who brought his guy with him from UDub), so we’re unlikely to see another big wave—unless they hire Marshall head coach Charles Huff or Rich Rodriguez, head coach at my undergrad alma mater, Jacksonville State.
So, to reiterate: Saban’s leaving created head coaching changes at at least four schools. Dozens of assistant coaches are either out of work or had to scramble to move to a new school in January, smack in the middle of a school year. Hundreds of student-athletes have new head coaches and/or are changing schools halfway through an academic year.
UPDATE (17 Jan, 0626): Roughly 24 hours later, more ripples. Brennan indeed took the Arizona job, so there’s now a search to fill that vacancy. Meanwhile, DeBoer lured another head coach, the University of Buffalo’s Maurice Linguist, to his staff to coach defensive backs. Obviously, that creates another vacancy to fill, if not a whole staff.
*May it rest in peace.