What's next for Alabama after Nick Saban's surprise retirement?

Two days after Alabama’s loss to Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Nick Saban busily worked within his office in Tuscaloosa.

He made calls to set up appointments, scheduled interviews with potential new staff members and carried out like usual in every other capacity. On Tuesday of this week, he interviewed coaches for open staff positions. And on Wednesday, he joined a call for SEC head football coaches.

Later Wednesday, he informed his team of his resignation — a proverbial grenade dropped on the college football world and one that leads to an inevitable next question: Who replaces the King?

“Doesn't matter who you hire,” said one industry source. “Somebody is going to have to go in there and take an ass-whipping.”

No one is Nick Saban, winner of seven national championships and 292 games in 28 seasons as a head coach, the last 17 in Tuscaloosa.

But someone must slip into those giant shoes, must sit in the big chair, must follow — arguably — the greatest dynasty in college football history. After all, he won 87% of his Alabama games, with six national championships and nine SEC titles.

Who even wants to do that? It’s Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne’s job to find out.

“Greg Byrne’s first call,” says one industry insider, “is to Jimmy Sexton.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 02: Head coach Nick Saban and Jalen Milroe #4 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs 27-24 in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 02, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Nick Saban won more titles (seven) than any other coach in college football history. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The mega agent represents Saban as well as plenty of college football’s highly prized coaches, including two of the hottest names right now: Dan Lanning at Oregon and Washington’s Kalen DeBoer. But each has a massive buyout.

Like any athlete director with a 70-plus-year-old football coach, Byrne has been preparing for this moment, likely already far down in his process — whether that’s vetting a list of potential candidates or even zeroing in on a select few names.

Byrne, formerly at Arizona and Mississippi State, is notoriously private. He’s cognizant of the outside world and its reporting and will almost certainly orchestrate a buttoned-up search — as he’s done in the past. He last hired a football coach in 2012 at Arizona: Rich Rodriguez. Before that in 2009 at Mississippi State: Dan Mullen. One of those had plenty of head coaching experience and the other had none.

Byrne has already gotten ahead of the chatter in a statement released on his social media: “Next time I talk publicly will be to announce our new coach. If you don’t hear it from me, don’t believe it.”

Alabama has all of the resources, fan support and incredible tradition. It’s got money, and lots of it. Nick Saban was the highest-paid coach in college football at more than $11 million in salary. The school recently struck a mega-million-dollar media rights deal with Learfield Sports that comes, too, with assistance for name, image and likeness (NIL) money going to Alabama athletes.

It’s got it all — except, for now, a head coach.

Like any team without a head coach, Alabama’s players have an additional 30 days to enter the NCAA transfer portal. Speed in this search is crucial. And Byrne may soon have competition as well. The sentiment from most within the industry is that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is a prime candidate for multiple NFL openings.

After such a slow coaching carousel season in December, two of the country’s most attractive jobs may open.

In Tuscaloosa, who’s it going to be?

A hot name

The hottest names are the previously mentioned Lanning, a former Alabama graduate assistant and Georgia defensive coordinator; and DeBoer, the second-year Washington coach who is 114-12 as a head coach at the NAIA and Division I levels and most recently led the Huskies to the national title game. One is defense oriented; the other offense.

Lanning’s buyout is a whopper: $20 million. DeBoer’s is $12 million and despite some negotiations between UW officials and Sexton, DeBoer hasn’t yet signed a new deal — one that is expected to at least double his current salary of $4.2 million.

“Knowing Greg, Kalen DeBoer sounds like the guy he’d hire,” said one athletic administrator.

There are other hot names. Mike Norvell, with a buyout of $4 million, just completed an undefeated regular season and won an ACC championship at Florida State. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, a former Alabama offensive coordinator, just led the Longhorns to the CFP semifinals and is highly respected at UA. But would he leave Austin for Tuscaloosa?

Finally, there’s Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who used the transfer portal to amass a five-star roster and win 29 games in three years. But the question must be asked: Would Byrne seriously consider Kiffin given his past and off-field antics?

“I don’t think he would,” said one person within the SEC.

A proven guy

Penn State head coach James Franklin, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Kansas coach Lance Leipold have combined for 45 head coaching seasons and won 445 games.

That’s what you call proven. Would Byrne turn to one of these guys? Leipold is the oldest, at 59, followed by Swinney (54) and Franklin (51).

There are question marks for each.

Leipold, a six-time national champion at the Division III level, has never coached at a top Power Five program. Swinney is coming off his worst two seasons at Clemson in a decade and his approach to roster-building could be a turnoff. And Franklin? Well, for all of this winning, he has a 4-16 record against Ohio State and Michigan.

An unconventional hire

The pool is somewhat shallow in the coaching market.

There really aren’t any sure-fire guys, and no absolute No. 1 target as there often is with these big gigs. Those on the Nick Saban coaching tree are not successful enough in their current gigs to really get a look. That includes Florida coach Billy Napier and Miami’s Mario Cristobal.

“There’s not the one guy you look at and go, ‘OK, it’s him,’” said one industry source.

Does that leave Byrne with an unconventional route or an inside hire? Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, 31, would be a stunning promotion as a first-time head coach. But does he at least get an interview?

There are potential NFL names, such as Mike Vrabel, recently fired by the Tennessee Titans; Todd Monken, the Ravens offensive coordinator who was at Georgia previously; Bill O’Brien, the former Alabama offensive coordinator now with the Patriots; and Dan Quinn, the ex-Falcons head coach who's currently an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys.

The field seems wide open for one of college football’s most fascinating hires.

Who replaces the King?