If Nick Saban ever retires, don't expect him or Alabama to replicate Coach K's farewell tour | Toppmeyer
Duke replaced the greatest men’s college basketball coach of the modern era with a warp-speed search that resulted in naming assistant coach Jon Scheyer coach-in-waiting. He’s set to take over for five-time national champion Mike Krzyzewski, 74, who announced last week the 2021-22 season will be his last.
Don’t expect Nick Saban or Alabama to follow a similar plan whenever the time comes to replace college football’s greatest coach.
And don’t expect Saban’s retirement to come anytime soon.
“I’m still very optimistic that he has a lot of years left in him,” Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne told Nick Kelly of The Tuscaloosa News last week.
Maybe even seven years (or more).
Alabama announced Monday a contract extension for Saban that would keep him on the sideline through the 2028 season.
If Saban, 69, ever retires, I doubt he replicates Krzyzewski’s move of a season-long victory lap. Can you imagine Saban welcoming a yearlong barrage of questions about his upcoming retirement? And I cannot envision a scenario in which Saban pumps his arms while techno music plays at a news conference announcing his farewell tour. (Yes, Krzyzewski did that.)
Alabama could charge a small fortune for tickets to a Saban victory lap, but I don’t think a retirement announced a year in advance would work to the football program’s benefit. Keeping a recruiting class intact would be made more difficult, with prospects knowing they’re signing on to a program tasked with replacing a legend.
The recruiting element is less of an issue in basketball. Krzyzewski’s final signing class already is complete. Plus, basketball programs like Duke feature one-and-done players who need not worry about who will coach the team in 2022-23. They’ll be gone anyway.
Furthermore, the coach-in-waiting avenue doesn’t work for Alabama because Saban’s top assistants in recent years haven’t stuck around long enough to warrant consideration for the job if it came open. Rather, they use their experience on Saban's staff as a springboard to the NFL or college head coaching jobs.
Scheyer will have spent nine seasons on Krzyzewski’s staff before taking the reins. Alabama hasn’t had a coordinator last longer than three seasons since Kirby Smart was defensive coordinator for eight years from 2008-15.
If Alabama’s job opened before Smart departed to become Georgia’s coach, he would have warranted consideration to replace Saban.
But no coordinator since Smart’s departure would have been qualified to slide into Saban’s chair.
The coach-in-waiting move was once en vogue in college football, although the transitions were rarely seamless, and some handoffs never happened.
Texas had tapped Will Muschamp as coach-in-waiting to replace Mack Brown, but Muschamp got tired of waiting and left his post as Texas’ defensive coordinator to become Florida’s coach.
Similarly, James Franklin was once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting to replace Ralph Friedgen. Franklin became Vanderbilt’s coach instead, before moving on to Penn State.
West Virginia’s coach-in-waiting plan to pass the baton from Bill Stewart to Dana Holgorsen imploded before it ever really got off the ground. Stewart was forced out in favor of Holgorsen.
Florida State endured a sticky transition executing a coach-in-waiting plan with Jimbo Fisher, who went from Bobby Bowden’s offensive coordinator to his successor. The result turned out OK. Fisher won a national title to highlight his mostly successful eight-year tenure before leaving for Texas A&M.
Rather than a Duke-style handoff, Alabama’s likely path in choosing Saban’s successor will be a highly scrutinized coaching search. Debate will linger about whether Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama alumnus, will be Saban’s eventual replacement.
But Swinney would be a fool to leave Clemson, where he’s building a statue-in-waiting résumé, to try to fill the sport’s biggest shoes in a tougher conference.
Don’t assume Alabama will limit the search to alumni or Saban proteges. After all, the last time the Alabama job opened, it hired a West Virginia native who played at Kent State, had a losing record as an NFL coach and had won a national championship at rival LSU.
The task of replacing Saban remains on hold, much to the chagrin of the rest of the SEC. In the meantime, maybe someone can persuade Saban to celebrate his contract extension to the beat of techno music.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.