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Head coach Nick Saban is leaving the Miami Dolphins to accept a job with the University of Alabama, ending his two-year run in the NFL.
Saban told the Dolphins assistant coaches Wednesday morning that he was leaving, accepting an offer that is believed to be worth approximately $40 million over a 10-year period, although there are variable structures within the deal that Alabama put on the table. In the process, Saban left with three years remaining on his five-year contract with the Dolphins. He made $4.5 million annually.
He is expected to become the highest paid head coach in college and believed to be the first to reach the $4 million per year figure.
However, the overwhelming factor in Saban leaving for Alabama was not money. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga had made it clear he was willing to pay more to keep Saban, though the coach never made the request. Rather, Saban had grown frustrated with how to rebuild the Dolphins, thinking the project might be too difficult to accomplish in a short period of time.
Saban told Huizenga on three occasions Tuesday that he wanted to leave for Alabama. Huizenga tried to convince Saban each time to stay and Saban indicated he would stay if the owner persisted that the coach honor his contract. Eventually, Huizenga understood that Saban's desire was stronger to be in the college game.
When the two met Wednesday morning at Saban's house, Huizenga did not push again to have Saban stay.
"I'm not upset because it's more involved than you think," Huizenga said. "I feel the pain of Nick after going through this with him. I think Nick's great – we want the best for Nick and his family."
Saban, 15-17 with the Dolphins, had also expressed concern about the Alabama job because of the influence that many rich alums have had there over the years. Saban spoke with Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore about his concerns and other issues on Monday.
Alabama made its interest in Saban known shortly after firing Mike Shula on Nov. 27. The Crimson Tide was 6-6 under Shula last season, his fourth with the program, and then lost in its bowl game.
After weeks of public denials and the apparent near hiring of West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez, Alabama finally got its man. The question now becomes what the Dolphins will do for a head coach. Miami has not held a full-scale coaching search since Huizenga became the owner in 1993. In 1996, after Don Shula quit, Jimmy Johnson was the only person the team interviewed. When Johnson left after the 1999 season, assistant Dave Wannstedt stepped in as head coach and there were no other outside interviews.
After Wannstedt was fired during the 2004 season, defensive coordinator Jim Bates took over as the interim coach and was interviewed for the job. So was Art Shell, who was working for the NFL at the time and was the minority candidate the Dolphins interviewed to be in accordance with the Rooney Rule.
The Dolphins then focused on Saban, hiring him on Christmas Day of 2004.
The Dolphins have two assistants on staff with NFL head coaching experience in special assistant Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. However, neither is expected to be high on the team's initial list of candidates.
The most intriguing possibility could be Bill Cowher, who is expected to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers after being unable to work out a contract extension. Cowher has one year remaining on his deal, meaning that the Dolphins would likely have to give up a draft pick or picks to get him from Pittsburgh.
Huizenga addressed the situation in a press conference, saying the team had a "process in place" to fill Saban's job. He said the front office began working on a coaching search on New Year's Day, with executives Joe Bailey and Bryan Wiedmeier putting together a list of candidates for the job.
Huizenga said he continues to believe that he'd rather have a coach who is in charge of all football operations, as he's had for all but one year of his tenure. Saban made all the player and coaching decisions.
"You need to control who works for you," Huizenga said. He then described the many business models he has operated under, but said he prefers the model where the coach is essentially the CEO of the football operations.
"It's all about winning," Huizenga said in a message that was clearly meant for the fans and players. "Whatever it takes, whatever it costs. It's no fun to own a team if you're not winning."