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Nick Saban leaves the widest gaping hole in college football history
College Football

Nick Saban leaves the widest gaping hole in college football history

Updated Jan. 11, 2024 10:14 a.m. ET

Two days after the College Football Playoff national title game and just nine days removed from watching the No. 1-ranked Michigan Wolverines defeat his team in the Rose Bowl, Nick Saban, the greatest football coach the sport has ever seen, reportedly announced his retirement at Alabama on Wednesday.

With this decision, Saban has not only thrown out of balance one of the most powerful and dominant programs in the country, but squarely placed Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne in a position to make what will be the sport's most consequential hire since Pat Haden sought a replacement for Pete Carroll at USC.

Fittingly, Saban and Carroll have always been linked.

The two passed each other on the way in and out of Ohio State when Buckeyes legend Earle Bruce picked Saban to replace Carroll as secondary coach at OSU in 1980. 


And on Wednesday, Carroll, one of just three coaches to win both a Super Bowl and a national title (along with Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer), announced he'd be moving from head coach to the front office of the Seattle Seahawks after 14 years in that post.

This also must be processed alongside the knowledge that New England Patriots coach and Saban's very close friend, Bill Belichick, is likely on his way out of the organization where he has been head coach since 2000 and won a record six Super Bowls.

While each one of these men — Saban, Belichick and Carroll — have forged Hall of Fame résumés, combined to win nine national titles and seven Super Bowls, no coach has seen more players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft than Saban.

Through changes in the sport ranging from the postseason, to the number of regular-season games played, to the invention of the transfer portal, to the monetization of name, image and likeness, Saban has set the standard for excellence in a sport that demands dominance and perfection in equal measure.

The task to follow Saban has long been talked about as one of the most unenviable in the sport. It's not just the shadow Saban leaves behind, but the need to win is immediately expected.

Nick Saban retiring after 17 seasons with Alabama

Byrne will have a call sheet of candidates he believes are not only interested in the job but capable of continuing to maintain winning at a high level in Tuscaloosa. I'd suspect such a list includes former Alabama players and branches on Saban's coaching tree, which is the most prolific and fruitful this side of Hayden Fry's tenure at Iowa.

Coaches such as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Oregon coach Dan Lanning, Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and Miami coach Mario Cristobal all have the experience, résumé and recruiting bona fides to merit a call.

And while Byrne takes up the task of identifying the next headman of one of the jewels of the sport — shortly after former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele announced his retirement — the task of keeping the program together falls on 31-year-old offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.

Rees, entering his second year as coordinator for the Tide, was expected to help Alabama defend its SEC title in 2024 with Heisman hopeful Jalen Milroe back at quarterback and enough returning talent at the offensive and defensive skill positions to win double-digit games in the new 16-team era of the league.

[Deion Sanders, others across sports world react to Nick Saban's retirement]

Now, keeping players from jumping into the portal has become his No. 1 duty. But I don't expect him to be especially adept at keeping what will be coveted players from finding out who else they'd like to play for other than Saban.

This means Byrne's identification and hiring of the next coach at Alabama will not only need to be good enough to replenish who the Tide lose in the portal but have broad enough shoulders, strong enough self-confidence and a deep and abiding appreciation for Saban and the program he has built.

These attributes will loom large for Saban's successor, but no one will loom larger than the man himself.

BREAKING: Nick Saban retiring as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide | No. 1 CFB Show

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube.

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