Senior College Football Columnist

No knowing what restless Saban will do if he wins another BCS title


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Nick Saban is not going to tell you, the media or anyone that he is a lifer at Alabama. He can't, he won't, not with any credibility. Not since 2006 and not since the 10 most famous words uttered by the man in his career:

"I am not going to be the coach at Alabama."

Remember that one? That is the verbal filter you have to pass through when dissecting his interest in returning to the pros. Apparently NFL clubs are asking again and being told no.

There's only one way to believe it, and it may take years -- when Saban retires at Alabama.

The Tide arrived in town Wednesday for the BCS title game sparking the latest round of Saban Speculation. He is already on record recently as saying, "I'm getting old now. I don't think we've got to many moves left in us." But even that is a long way from incorporating the words "I'm here forever" in a sentence.

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Saban has been a renter when it comes to job titles during his career. That makes him no different than hundreds of other coaches. That is their right to climb the ladder and provide for their families. But Alabama is some sort of pinnacle.

For nervous Bama fans, the next benchmark is next month's national signing day. That would seem to be an indication Saban is good for at least 2013. But when you're winning at an unprecedented rate at the highest level of the game that's the way these things go. You savor your Nick a month at a time. And hope.

We all want to know what he will do next. Certainly there is no other college job that is worthy of his presence. But the NFL is the penthouse that overlooks the ocean.

The problem is, the coach himself probably isn't certain of his next move. (See above.) "I am not going to be the coach at Alabama" turned into an altering college football history. Think of the Butterfly Effect had Saban stayed in the NFL or Alabama never opened up when he was interested. The Tide are on the brink of winning a third national championship in four years. Only two other programs have ever accomplished that feat -- Nebraska in the 1990s and Notre Dame in the 1940s. The man is already halfway to Bear Bryant's national title total of six if you count his 2003 championship at LSU. Which, of course, you must.

I'm not going to call Saban a liar for a statement probably uttered out of frustration six years ago. He recently told a call-in show that he regrets how he handled his Miami exit. I'm good with all that. But Saban did take the Alabama job and that's why there is no certainty that a month from now he will still be with the Tide.

January Saban has yet to check in with February Saban.

I called around in the days leading up to this week. What made Saban tick? What are the factors that would lead him to leave Alabama after some of the most spectacular six seasons in the game's history? This is what I got:

One person close to him described Saban as a "tormented soul," one of those people who isn't happy unless he is unhappy on the job. There always has to be a goal, a next game, a championship to chase. Perhaps even a new team. That doesn't make him a bad person. It makes him one of the most driven people in organized sports.

If he had never coached in the NFL or if he were 51 instead of 61, Saban's future would be more clearly marked. He would be a southern version of Chip Kelly, the Oregon coach who no one expects to be in Eugene much longer past Wednesday's Fiesta Bowl.

But Saban is in his 60s with seven years of NFL experience, including two years as Miami's coach before coming to Alabama. This is where it gets complicated. Does Saban want to prove he's better than that mediocre stay with the Dolphins?

You've heard or read that the Browns could pay him $10 million per year. But, again, he's never necessarily struck me as a money guy, which adds another layer of speculation. Saban has the best coaching job in college sports this side of Mike Krzyzewski. He can compete for championships each year from now until he decides to retire. If that happens, Saban's nine-foot statute outside Bryant-Denny would at some point have to become the largest free-standing structure in the Southeast.

If Saban gets close, matches or surpasses Bryant then we're starting to talk about the greatest coach of all time. For most of his career, Bear didn't have scholarship limitations. In this age of parity, what Saban has done with 85 scholarships -- only 25 per year -- has been absolutely amazing.

Once again, it's a question of challenges: Repairing his head coaching legacy in the NFL or putting it out of reach in college? There is no one who can tell us for certain except Saban. Even he might not know until, say, two years from now when the Patriots come calling to replace Belichick.

The frustration is that none of us have really figured out Saban. Not the media, not his coaches, not his players. Not fully. At all times he is in some way inscrutable. One of his most loyal players, center Barrett Jones, was stunned to find out his coach had put together a rain delay plan for an October game at Missouri.

Who does that?

The same man who once brought a Dolphins' player to tears, and who guided a fractured school and city through the tragedy of the April 2011 tornado. The man has molded both a Heisman winner (Mark Ingram) and the nation's pass efficiency leader (AJ McCarron for a time this season).

This Alabama job worked out so well because both parties were so perfect for each other. Bama was desperate having gone through a passel of coaches who mostly didn't measure up. Saban was interested because he had already won a championship at LSU and was familiar with the advantages of coaching in the SEC. At that point, Alabama was desperate, willing to bend to his wishes. You can almost recount the meeting with AD Mal Moore.

"I'll take this job but you need to stand aside and let me run this thing the way I see fit. Money isn't the issue, championships are. And this is how I'm going to do it ..."

Part of the plan was borrowed from his mentor Belichick. Media access was choked off. We hardly knew his team except when Saban wanted us to know it, on his terms. I remember the all-access series with ESPN a couple of seasons back. That seemed so out of place except when you realize every second of film that made the air no doubt had to be approved by the coach, right down to the spot-on impersonation of Saban by Rob Ezell.

Along with the iron fist, Saban also wanted you to see the velvet glove. Call it a glorified recruiting ad -- as these all-access docs are -- but one that worked to its end game spectacularly. There is no end of recruits wanting to be part of those championships and documentaries and, eventually, the NFL. In that order. The coach has seen to it.

Part of it was his own coaching prowess. Saban has a strict set of measurables that he recruits to at each position. It's the range of height, weight and speed he wants his players to fall within. All of it tinged with a bit of instinct. The story is told of Saban inheriting cornerback Javier Arenas from Mike Shula. Arenas didn't fit Saban's benchmarks. But the coach saw intangibles. Arenas eventually thrived under Saban becoming an All-American as well as a dangerous return man.

If the Tide beat Notre Dame, this might go down as the least talented of Saban's four championship teams. The defense lost six draft choices, including four first rounders. The offense lost a Heisman finalist in Trent Richardson.

The term "control freak" is too simplistic. The man has a sense for what to do next.

Two quick stories: At the Heisman ceremony a couple of years ago, Saban found himself "trapped" at the Best Buy Theater. The ceremony was over. The well wishers were closing in around him and the coach was on a strict schedule. He needed to find a way out. Quick. With only Moore and a couple of other school officials with him, Saban found the nearest door and made a hasty exit.

It wasn't rude, it was Saban. He has these things planned down to the minute.

Only in hindsight is Saban's Dec. 3, 2011 appearance on GameDay truly appreciated. Alabama had completed its season. Georgia and LSU were playing for the SEC title later that day. Saban was there to remind millions of viewers -- and voters -- that his team deserved to stay at that No. 2 spot.

What could have been perceived an obvious pub grab turned out to be an understated explanation of the situation. It was like Saban and those viewers were together in his office chatting about the BCS.

Alabama finished .0086 of a point ahead of Oklahoma State for the BCS title game berth.


But how long will that brilliance shine at Alabama?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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