Nick Saban is latest championship-winning coach to exit amid drastic changes to college sports

FILE - 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)
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ABy RALPH D. RUSSO

AP College Football Writer

Two years ago, Nick Saban sat at the head of a long, cluttered table in the meeting room adjacent to his office and talked about how college football was rapidly changing in ways that would challenge the process he used to build the Alabama dynasty.

“Whether we’re recruiting you or whether you’re on our team, your focus should be on development,” Saban told the AP in March 2022. “It’s my job is to create a platform where you have a chance to develop and be successful as a person and as a student and as a player. I’d like to continue to do that.

“If that’s the case, you’re going to create more long-term value for yourself. You’re going to graduate. You’re going to have a better chance to develop as a football player and play at the next level. We want to continue to focus on development of players.”

Saban retired Wednesday after 17 seasons and six national title with the Crimson Tide, joining Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Villanova’s Jay Wright among championship-winning college coaches in high-profile sports to call it a career over the last four years.

They have have all talked about how the evolving landscape of college sports — with players being paid through name, image and likeness deals and almost unfettered transfers — has changed the profession they love.

But despite what TV commercial co-star and Colorado coach Deion Sanders suggested on social media, the 72-year-old Saban insists changes did not push him into retirement.

“To me, if you choose to coach, you don’t need to be complaining about all that stuff. You need to adjust to it and adapt to it and do the best you can under the circumstances and not complain about it. Now, I think everybody is frustrated about it,” Saban told ESPN. “But this ain’t about that. We’ve been in this era for three years now, and we’ve adapted to it and won in this era, too. It’s just that I’ve always known when it would be time to turn it over to somebody else, and this is that time.”

Saban has not won a national title since 2020, but the last two seasons his Crimson Tide went 24-4, won a Southeastern Conference title, snapped Georgia’s 29-game winning streak and took national champion Michigan to overtime in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

“We’ve watched him adapt to circumstances,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said.

While the salaries for those who coach at the highest level of Power Five football have soared — Saban helped set that bar with more than $100 million in pay over his Alabama tenure — it is also fair to say the job has never been tougher.

Recruiting of high school players has become a year-round task and now with players able to transfer more freely and play immediately, coaches need to re-recruit players already on their rosters.

“I have multiple coaches that say, you know, I don’t want to do this much longer. I can’t do this,” said Todd Berry, the outgoing executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.

Managing portal comings and goings makes roster management complicated with college football jamming both its offseason and postseason — with bowl and playoff game preparation — into the month of December.

“There’s a lot of moving parts going on right now in college football that I hope people are sitting down and really being thoughtful to what is best for our sport right now in the timing of some of these things,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said before the Sugar Bowl. “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t pretend to right now, but I do know it was taxing for us.”

Sankey said big decisions such as retirement often have many layers and he doubted Saban’s came down to one thing.

“Nick’s tough. Next focused. Nick has high expectations. I doubt with any of us that there’s A factor,” Sankey said, with emphasis. “Are people frustrated? Yeah. I’m concerned that we lose really good people because they’re frustrated about the environment.”

Sankey also said that he still expected Saban to be a part of college football and contribute in some way to guiding it through its turbulent times.

“He’s not walking away from the game,” Sankey said. “He’s walking away from a role.”