End of an era: Nick Saban ruled college football with an iron fist and old-school attitude

It was overtime of the 2017-18 national title game. Alabama trailed Georgia by three. That’s when Tua Tagovailoa, the true freshman thrown into the game to save the day, was sacked on first down for a 16-yard loss, only to then whip a perfect, 41-yard touchdown to win it all.

Amid the celebration, Tagovailoa ran into his coach, the forever-demanding Nick Saban, expecting, well, some kind of reaction other than what he got. After all, this was one of the most legendary passes in Alabama history. Maybe a hug and a “Great play, Tua.”

“He pulled me to the side [and said], ‘What were you thinking taking a sack [on first down]?’” Tagovailoa said years later on "The Rich Eisen Show."

Saban, college football’s iconic coach, all-time perfectionist and relentless winning machine, announced his retirement Wednesday. The 72-year-old won seven national titles, including six during an impossibly successful, 17-year run with the Crimson Tide (2007-2024). He previously won it all in 2003 with LSU.

Saban went 292-71-1 in 28 seasons as a college coach at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and Alabama. He also spent two years with the Miami Dolphins and was a defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns.

Saban will be recalled for his unbending principles and almost unflappable seriousness as much as the gold-standard teams he churned out. His reaction to Tagovailoa that day was repeated a million times with a thousand players, as the pursuit of perfection drove him more than scoreboards and trophies.

Saban’s teams played against the game of football as much as any other opponent.

“The more one emphasizes winning, the less a person is able to concentrate on what actually causes it,” Saban often said.

Nick Saban has retired as coach of Alabama. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)
Nick Saban demanded excellence out of players and coaches around him. The result was one of the most successful coaching tenures the sport has ever seen. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

It was at Alabama that Saban truly hit his stride, restoring Tuscaloosa to the Bear Bryant-created center of the college football world.

It’s almost impossible to remember, let alone fathom, the dire straits that had befallen the program before his arrival. The Tide were 51-55 the decade prior, a period marked by bad losses, NCAA sanctions and embarrassing off-field sagas. Alabama was an aging power tripped up by conflicting egos and internal politics. It went 2-6 in SEC play three times.

For more than a month, then-Alabama athletic director Mal Moore couldn’t find a coach who’d even take the job. Steve Spurrier opted to remain at South Carolina, Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Saban, then with the Dolphins, said no also, but Moore was so desperate that he flew to Miami and sat outside Saban's home until he convinced Saban’s wife, Terry, to convince her husband to grant a meeting.

In one sitting, Moore scored the greatest recruiting victory in college football history.

At Alabama, a new standard was set. It was as simple in theory as it was complicated in application. It was about the unbending pursuit of greatness — Saban sought players, coaches and support staff so committed to maximizing their abilities that they would willingly embrace the sacrifices necessary to achieve it.

Long hours. Lots of work. Team first. No excuses. No complaints.

This was the oldest of old-school standards, forged from his humble youth in little Monongah, West Virginia, that found a willing audience in the most modern of times. Saban wanted only the toughest — physically, of course, but also mentally and emotionally. Anything less, he believed, would drag the group down.

“Mediocre people hate high-achievers,” he often preached. “And high-achievers hate mediocre people.”

Recruits flocked to be part of it; Saban landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class 10 times despite lacking the stereotypical charisma of a salesman. The chance to buy into a blueprint that delivered victories and NFL Draft first-round selections overrode all else.

Coaches came also, from eager assistants on the way up to aging ones looking for a mid-career reboot. Saban’s coaching tree through the years is astounding — Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Dan Quinn, Jason Garrett and Brian Daboll, to name but a few.

The wins followed, 201 of them with the Tide, where he won 87% of his games. Following a 7-6 transition season in his first campaign, Alabama never won fewer than 10 games in a season and took home 10 SEC titles (to go with two Saban won with LSU).

That includes this past season, despite a team that looked shaky at the start. A career-closing national title was almost attained as well, if not for an overtime loss to eventual national champ Michigan.

During that run, Saban became the standard, the measuring stick few could match up with. And even when they did, it was for only a stretch of time. Urban Meyer at Florida and Ohio State. Dabo Swinney at Clemson. They’d make their run but eventually fall back or burn out. Not Nick. Perhaps only Georgia's Kirby Smart — nearly three decades Saban's junior — has kept up of late, though Saban won their final clash.

That's why even if you weren’t a Bama fan — heck, even if you hated Alabama — the news Wednesday likely offered a pang of disappointment. Saban was the constant, the immovable force, the familiar figure pacing in controlled competitive lunacy on some southern sideline.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game between Georgia and Alabama, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. Nick Saban, the stern coach who won seven national championships and turned Alabama back into a national powerhouse that included six of those titles in just 17 seasons, is retiring, according to multiple reports, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nick Saban won a record seven college football titles, six of them at Alabama. (AP/John Bazemore)

Nick Saban was college football for nearly two decades. Either he was winning it or you had to go through him to win it. There were no shortcuts. He was going to be there.

And then, even in victory, even in the most glorious of moments and the most gratifying of victories, he wanted more.

What was Tagovailoa thinking when he took that sack? Saban actually wanted to know. It wasn’t a comment. It was a question that demanded an answer, if not an opportunity to teach for the future.

“I thought it was a good time to joke with him,” Tagovailoa said, shaking his head in regret. “I mean, we won the national championship. So I told him, ‘Well, we needed more room to throw the ball, coach.’”

Tagovailoa, still a teenager at the time, thought it was a good line. Saban just glared back.

“That’s not funny,” the coach said.

Alabama would make three of the next four national championship games.