Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Nick Saban is legendary college football coach with that pesky NFL asterisk

If Alabama beats Clemson in the national championship game Monday night, as it is favored to do, it will be coach Nick Saban’s seventh title. That would be one more than Bear Bryant. That would be one more reason many will consider Saban the best coach of all time. 

If the Crimson Tide wins, I won’t be among them. 

Saban is obviously an all-time great college coach. That is not the same as being a great coach, period. The best coaches win in the NFL, where Saban couldn’t hack it. 

It was 12 years ago Thursday that Saban quit his Dolphins gig after two seasons and tucked tail back to college football. He’s owned it since. Saban has won 88 percent of his games at Alabama, with six SEC championships and five national titles. He won a BCS championship and two SEC titles at LSU. 

In two seasons with the Dolphins, Saban lost more than he won (15-17) and didn’t go to the playoffs. Saban couldn’t win when he didn’t enjoy advantages in resources over 99 percent of his opponents. The NFL is about competitive balance, and coaching becomes a lot harder when the field is leveled. 

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Saban didn’t like NFL dynamic, as he acknowledged during a CBS interview a couple of years ago (via AL.com). 

Saban took the Dolphins job in 2005, after he’d won as head coach at Michigan State and LSU. In the 1990s he was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland. But Saban said he realized the NFL no longer was for him during “the first press conference” in Miami. 

The NFL was different, Saban said, because of free agency and “the media had infiltrated sorta everything that was happening.” The next year Drew Brees was ready to sign with the Dolphins, but doctors didn’t like his surgically repaired shoulder. Brees went to New Orleans and the Dolphins acquired Daunte Culpepper instead. 

"When that happened, I said I can't control my destiny here," Saban said. 

So, there you have it. Saban could have coached up the players he had, but that’s harder than stacking his roster with as many good players as he wants. In the NFL there were too many reporters nosing around in his team’s business. Too much scrutiny, too few advantages. 

That’s how it goes in the big leagues. Saban faced a challenge that most great college coaches never do and couldn’t handle it. If Saban had never gone to the NFL, he would be Urban Meyer instead of Steve Spurrier, Tom Osborne instead of Dennis Erickson. 

Well, not exactly, because Saban has been more successful in the college ranks than any of those coaches. And I don’t fault Saban for going back to Triple-A if that’s where he’s most comfortable. I’m just saying that his NFL flop puts a hard ceiling on any assessment of his coaching legacy. 

The NFL is the Big Show. It’s where X’s and O’s get tested every week. You can’t just do the same things and depend on better players to win the day. Game plans change from week to week, sometimes dramatically. 

NFL coaches don’t face many inferior coaches, or any good ones with less resources. Saban lost games to NFL teams coached by Belichick, Jon Gruden, Dick Vermeil and Bill Cowher (he beat Belichick once when the Pats rested their regulars). But Saban also lost games to teams coached by Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron and Eric Mangini. 

The thin margins between winning and losing in the NFL makes it hard for head coaches to win enough to keep their jobs for long. They answer to billionaire owners (Green Bay excepted) and not feckless administrators with less power than the coach. In Miami, Saban worked for a non-dysfunctional owner and a decent GM, so he had it better than most. 

But Saban couldn’t pick some opponents with no chance to beat the Dolphins. He can do that every year at Alabama. He went from playing 16 tough games each season to being favored to win every week over several years.

Managing NFL players is harder, too. Saban couldn’t rule over players, many of whom were more valuable than him and were paid like it. It’s easier to coach players with no salaries and less control of their careers.

Certainly, Saban faces challenges at Alabama that he didn’t in the NFL. There’s NCAA rules compliance, academic standards and booster behind-kissing. It takes a certain kind of personality and administrative ability to deal with all that, but those challenges are overstated. 

Every major program has an army of aides to deal with compliance, and the NCAA’s investigative and enforcement mechanisms are mostly toothless, anyway. There are departments dedicated to keeping athletes academically eligible, the window dressing that gives cover to the NCAA’s “amateur” model. 

(As for boosters, well, the name says it all. Win big like Saban, and they are sycophants. Win for long enough and they’ll even buy your house.) 

NFL coaches outside of New England don’t have fiefdoms (even Belichick’s kingdom has started showing cracks). Saban has total control at Alabama, just the way he likes it. He’s getting paid more than most every NFL coach without the scrutiny, pressure and risk of losing games to good coaches with just as many good players. 

The Browns had a solid defense during Saban’s four seasons as coordinator, including the No. 1 scoring unit in 1994. The Dolphins were good on defense before Saban became head coach and stayed good. That provides evidence that Saban is a good NFL defensive coach, but it’s a lot harder to be a good NFL head coach. 

Maybe Saban would have become one if he’d stayed in Miami. His old boss Belichick got fired in Cleveland (way to go, Browns) before resurfacing as New England head coach five years later. Now Belichick probably is the best coach of all time, period (of course, it helps that Belichick had the kind of quarterbacks that Saban didn’t). 

Saban chose a different route. Now he’s a legendary college football coach. That’s a great professional legacy, even if it comes with that NFL asterisk.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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