Connelly: Nick Saban built a Bama dynasty and went on the best coaching run … ever

Sports

For an entire era, Nick Saban completely broke the definition of success in college football.

Mark Richt won at least nine games in 11 of 15 years at Georgia, with two conference titles and seven top-10 finishes, just one fewer than the legendary Vince Dooley had in 25 years. Richt was fired after the last of those nine-win seasons.

Les Miles never won fewer than eight games in 11 full seasons at LSU. He won a national title with five top-10 finishes, more than the Tigers had managed in the 35 years before his hire. He was fired after losing two games early in 2016.

After a run of six straight top-three finishes with two national titles, Dabo Swinney’s Clemson has merely averaged 10 wins over the past three years, and it kind of seems like a crisis. Lincoln Riley has won 65 games in six full-length seasons and Ryan Day has won 46 in four, and they’re both facing extreme pressure and doubt. And while I’m not going to pretend this is all because of one man in Tuscaloosa — losing three straight to Michigan, as Day has, will always test the patience of Ohio State fans, for instance — Saban’s relentlessly consistent success scrambled the brains of fans and administrators throughout the sport.

Simply put, Nick Saban, who announced his retirement from coaching Wednesday, was the best, most successful coach in college football history. No one — not Bear Bryant, not Bobby Bowden, not Bud Wilkinson, not Bernie Bierman, not Frank Leahy, not Woody Hayes, not Walter Camp — can match his seven national titles. And while the College Football Playoff didn’t come into existence until Saban had already won four titles, it will still take Swinney two more trips or Kirby Smart five more trips to match Saban’s eight appearances in 10 years.

It’s not even just the titles, though. Fluky losses happen, and they can derail title bids, but even when Saban’s Alabama teams didn’t win the title, they were almost always title-worthy.

Here’s a complete list of teams that finished either first or second in SP+ — my opponent-adjusted power rating — for at least five straight seasons:

  • Penn, 1894-98 (five years)

  • Michigan, 1901-05 (five)

  • Georgia Tech, 1917-21 (five)

  • USC, 1925-29 (five)

  • Ole Miss, 1959-63 (five)

  • Miami, 1986-91 (six)

  • Yale, 1884-95 (12)

  • Alabama, 2009-21 (13)

Miami’s five-year run of near perfection was good enough to inspire a 30 for 30. It was the only run of its kind between the mid-1960s and the mid-2000s. But in an era of 85-man scholarship limits, with tougher national title runs — a guaranteed 1-versus-2 matchup starting in 1998, a four-team playoff starting in 2014 — Saban’s Crimson Tide more than doubled Miami’s run and topped that of even late-1800s Yale, which had to compete with only a few dozen football-playing schools.

And even that doesn’t fully capture the brilliance of Saban’s run because it doesn’t capture the complete and total reinvention that happened halfway through it.

Saban won BCS national titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012 with otherworldly defense; SP+, in fact, grades the 2011 unit — which allowed 8.2 points per game and just 3.3 yards per play, pitched a shutout in the BCS Championship and allowed more than 14 points just once all year — as the best defense in college football history. But he saw that the sport was becoming far more offense-oriented. “Is this what we want football to be?” he famously asked of the sport’s increasing tempo and point totals in 2012. But as the joke goes, he wasn’t complaining — he was just confirming. Because starting with the hire of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator in 2014, he shifted his program emphasis more to that side of the ball.

“It used to be that good defense beats good offense,” he told ESPN’s Chris Low in 2020. “Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore. […] It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you, it ain’t that way anymore.”

So be it: After ranking either first or second in defensive SP+ for 10 straight years from 2008 to ’17, his Tide ranked first on offense for five straight years from 2018 to ’22. He completely reinvented his program, and its overall level never really dropped. The Tide continued to rank first or second overall every year and never went more than three years without another national title.

Until 2023. It stands to reason that, even when Bama’s level finally dropped a bit — even as the offense briefly battled its first QB crisis in years, and the Tide both lost at home to Texas by 10 points and had to survive four one-score finishes and a number of performances that were mediocre by their standards — Saban’s final team still went 11-1 in the regular season, won the SEC and derailed Georgia’s nearly two-year winning streak and hopes of a third straight national title. The Tide unjustly secured a CFP bid over unbeaten Florida State, but whether it was deserved or not, they damn near beat eventual national champion Michigan once they got there. Saban seemed to hate dealing with collectives and the NIL era, and he dipped into the transfer portal only so much, but he continued to clear an impossibly high bar when it came to procuring talent, and his worst team in 15 years was still excellent by the standards of anyone other than Saban himself.

During his time dominating college football, he was also defining the future of it, hiring the coaches who would occupy seemingly every major job around him. At Michigan State, he hired future MSU head coach, playoff participant and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Mark Dantonio. At LSU, Saban employed future national champion Jimbo Fisher, plus future SEC head coaches Will Muschamp and Dooley and future NFL head coaches Pat Shurmur and Adam Gase. The Bama staff was constantly raided by rivals hoping to find their own Saban. Current Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian, Ole Miss‘ Lane Kiffin, Oregon‘s Dan Lanning, Florida‘s Billy Napier, Maryland‘s Mike Locksley, Miami‘s Mario Cristobal, Indiana‘s Curt Cignetti, Marshall‘s Charles Huff, Arkansas State‘s Butch Jones and Central Michigan‘s Jim McElwain are among the current active coaches who spent time under Saban in Tuscaloosa, as is the New York Giants‘ Brian Daboll. Hell, even Saban’s Miami Dolphins staff featured a number of future NFL coaches.

Then there was Kirby Smart. The former Georgia safety landed on Saban’s LSU staff in 2004, then scored an assistant role with Saban’s Dolphins in 2006. And from 2007 to ’15, Smart was the veritable right-hand man for the sport’s best coach. In 2016, he replaced Richt at UGA and proceeded to build the only Death Star that could consistently rival Saban’s. Georgia lost a heartbreaker to Bama in 2017’s national title game but returned the favor in 2021, then won a second title a year later. The Dawgs have finished either first or second in SP+ for three straight years, and while that’s still 10 years short of Saban’s incredible run, if any active coach has a chance of matching Saban’s exploits, it’s his greatest protege.

Saban’s last win, by the way, came over Smart. There’s some poetry in that.

Michigan State had been stuck in a rut when Saban began his first head-coaching job there in 1995. The Spartans had averaged just 5.9 wins per season in the seven years before his arrival, and after a few years of laying groundwork, his final MSU team went 10-2 with a top-10 finish in 1999.

LSU had been regarded as a sleeping giant for decades when Saban moved to Baton Rouge in 2000. The Tigers had enjoyed only one top-five finish between 1962 and ’99 and had averaged 5.5 wins over the previous 12 years. Saban averaged 9.6, breaking through with a 10-win campaign in 2001 and a national title in 2003.

Alabama, of course, was a spectacular mess when he finally gave in to athletic director Mal Moore’s persistent pleas and signed up after a brief sojourn in the NFL. Despite winning the 1992 national title, the Tide had averaged 8.1 wins per year with three top-five finishes in the 24 years since Bear Bryant had retired. Between 1997 and 2006, the school cranked through four head coaches and finished .500 or worse on five occasions. Boosters and administrators were pulling the program in about 17 different directions, but after a single transition year, Saban had everything aligned. And he unleashed a run of dominance we might never see again.

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