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Nick Saban void felt at SEC Spring Meetings, creates power vacuum

DESTIN — Former Alabama coach Nick Saban lorded over the SEC and college football for nearly two decades before he retired in January.

Despite his unforgiving dominance and intimidating presence, the 72-year-old was widely missed at SEC Spring Meetings.

“It definitely was strange not having Coach Saban in there,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said.

Kiffin was Tennessee’s new 34-year-old coach in 2008, while Saban was in his second year at Alabama. Greg Sankey was an associate SEC commissioner years away from replacing Mike Slive in 2015.

“We’re the only ones left now that coach is gone,” Kiffin said.

Kiffin is among four head coaches who worked under Saban, along with Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian and Florida’s Billy Napier.

Smart’s Bulldogs, winners of the 2021 and 2022 national titles, eventually surpassed Saban’s program, while Sarkisian’s Longhorns beat the Crimson Tide 34-24 last season.

Saban, though, would rally his team to beat Georgia 27-24 in the SEC title game and reach the four-team College Football Playoff. But on the heels of a 27-20 overtime loss to eventual national champion Michigan, Saban abruptly retired after a 12-win season many consider among his finest coaching efforts.

The decision creates a potential SEC power vacuum and a chance to ascend the pecking order.

“There’s opportunity for some of our guys to step up,” Napier said.

The SEC is home to many of the sport’s top coaches and talent, including Saban’s replacement Kalen DeBoer, who led Washington to the 2024 national title game, and the roster he inherited.

“Alabama’s Alabama,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. “It’s not like they hired some slouch to replace him. “You look around that room and there’s still a bunch of future Hall of Fame coaches all around.”

Hugh Freeze, now at rival Auburn, would welcome a chance to fill the shoes of Saban, who lost to Freeze twice when he coached Ole Miss.

“It’s too early to tell,” Freeze said. “The league still has some pretty dang good teams, and I’m sure Alabama’s still gonna be one of them.”

Yet no coach has Saban’s resumé, experience or gravitas.

Sarkisian, Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2016, joked his former boss had carried so much sway he had carte blanche with the school plane.

“I’m just curious… did he stay here the night, or did he fly here and fly back?” a smiling Sarkisian said.

Whenever Saban was in Destin during Memorial Day week, he commanded the room when he chose to speak.

“He wasn’t overall vocal,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. “But when he said something, you knew he’d thought about it, had talked to people about it and was probably right.”

Besides his 17 seasons at Alabama, Saban coached five at SEC power LSU (2000-04).

Along the way, he pushed to elevate college football and preserve a sport he either played or coached uninterrupted since 1970.

“People relied on him for experience and knowledge,” said Smart, who worked for Saban for 11 seasons. “I always respected the fact that … it was never about what was best for his team. It was about what was best for the game of football.

“Sometimes people lose sight of that.”

No current coach attended more spring meetings with Saban than Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, now in his 12th season. But the Stoops-Saban relationship dates to his days as a defensive back at Iowa in the 1980s when Saban coached the position at Michigan State.

“It’s different, certainly for myself coming or all these years and seeing him,” Stoops said. “I’ve known Coach personally a long time, and then working with him as a colleague you miss him in there.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com