Mass transfers are dose of reality for Alabama after Nick Saban’s retirement

It will take time for Kalen DeBoer to stabilize program
Alabama coach Nick Saban holds up the championship trophy during College Football Playoff Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in January. Alabama came back from a 13-point second half to defeat Georgia 26-23 in overtime. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Alabama coach Nick Saban holds up the championship trophy during College Football Playoff Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in January. Alabama came back from a 13-point second half to defeat Georgia 26-23 in overtime. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Alabama football had glory days before Nick Saban arrived. The Crimson Tide likely will have more of them in the future now that Saban is gone. It just won’t be happening in 2024.

It was inevitable that Bama would have a rough transition once Saban decided to call it quits. Now that reality is smacking the Tide in the face. Saban’s retirement Jan. 10 triggered a mass departure of players on Alabama’s roster and recruit commitment list.

That happens at every school, especially after a coaching change. If there was hope in Tuscaloosa that Alabama’s brand and resources would make the program immune from those forces, then that optimism was immediately crushed by the rush of players out the door. The quantity and quality of players leaving Bama is eye-popping.

As of Friday afternoon, 15 of Alabama players had either entered their name in the portal or announced their intention to transfer. Saban’s successor, Kalen DeBoer, is left to clean up the mess.

“You absolutely don’t like it,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said on “The Paul Finebaum Show” on SEC Network. “You don’t like it for the team. Alabama is such a special place. The investment we make in our young men and young women across the board for our sports ... is as good as any place in the country.”

The money Alabama spends on football is better than almost anywhere else in the country. Byrne said there was a player retention plan in place in case Saban decided to retire. Athletics department staffers were assigned groups of players to call and sell them on sticking around. Byrne said Saban, who’s serving as an advisor to the program, also reassured them.

Those measures didn’t prevent several good Alabama players from deciding to play elsewhere. A few announced their decisions before DeBoer was hired. Most did as Byrne asked and waited for him to hire the new coach. Some prominent Crimson Tide players didn’t take long to decide they didn’t want to stay and play for DeBoer.

Safety Caleb Downs started 14 games for Alabama in 2023, led the team in tackles and was voted SEC freshman of the year by the league’s coaches. He’s going to Ohio State. Offensive lineman Kadyn Proctor started at tackle as a freshman. 247Sports projects he’s going to Iowa, which has a long history of developing NFL-caliber linemen. Alabama’s team leader for receptions in 2023, wide receiver Isaiah Bond, is headed to Texas.

Julian Sayin, the top-ranked quarterback in the 2024 class, decided to leave Bama, and 247Sports projects it’s for Ohio State. (It’s possible his decision is related to DeBoer bringing QB Austin Mack with him from Washington.) Five top 100 recruits in the 2025 class who’d announced they would play for Bama said they’ll look elsewhere now that Saban is gone.

None of those players should be blamed for their decisions. Coaches regularly leave their schools for what they consider to be better opportunities. Some do it after pledging a long-term commitment to the players they’ve signed. Here’s what DeBoer told KSFY-TV in Sioux Falls in November about his job at Washington:

“It’s just a perfect fit. I feel like it’s not even just the great football program that exists, the great tradition but also just who I am as a person. I think it just fits the style and the personality. It’s a blue-collar program still. It’s what I want to be a part of.”

DeBoer might have meant what he said then, but circumstances changed. One of the top jobs in the country opened, and DeBoer got an offer. Good for him. Some Alabama players saw Saban call it quits and entered the transfer portal to see if there’s a better offer. Good for them.

Alabama’s setbacks likely are temporary. But the long-term outlook isn’t good as far as winning national championships. It usually takes a long time for elite programs to win big again after legendary coaches retire. Alabama is the first to attempt it during college football’s newest era. Liberalized transfer rules and name, image and likeness rights allow players to find better financial and football situations elsewhere.

It will take time for Bama to be Bama again. Tide fans had it good for a long time with Saban. He won six national titles at Alabama during a 12-year span. Not even Paul “Bear” Bryant did that. Georgia’s Kirby Smart is the undisputed best college football coach now that Saban is done. Smart needs to win four more national championships over the next nine years to match Saban’s six in 12.

Saban’s retirement increased the chances that Georgia will win it all in 2024. Immediately following the 2023 national championship game, oddsmakers installed the Tide as the second betting choice behind Georgia to win the 2024 title. After Saban’s retirement and the subsequent player departures, the odds for Alabama (10-1) now are longer than for Georgia (3-1), Ohio State (5½-1) and Texas (7½-1).

That Alabama is considered a title contender even after so many good players departed is a testament to Saban’s program-building skills. The perception is that the Tide will keep winning because most of the player talent base he built is still standing. Also, DeBoer is no slouch. He’s won at each one of his stops: Sioux Falls, Fresno State and Washington.

But DeBoer has never had to manage the roster of an elite program in college football’s best conference. The circumstances at Alabama make it even harder. DeBoer is dealing with the fallout from the abrupt departure of a coaching legend. Maybe DeBoer can lead the Tide to another national championship after he gets the program through this rough patch.

It just won’t happen in 2024 after so many good players decided Bama isn’t the place for them now that Saban is out.

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