Saban will find crowded pond in Tuscaloosa

Updated: January 3, 2007, 4:38 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Wealth just triumphed over imagination. The power of college athletics once again ran right up the middle against higher education. Alabama's hiring of Nick Saban takes everything that is skewed about college football, shines a spotlight on it and says, "Hey, watch this!"

Nick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban left LSU one year after leading the Tigers to the 2003 national title.
Which, if memory serves me, is a punch line to one of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck" jokes, as in, "Has anyone in your family died after saying, 'Hey, watch this!'?"

Yep, Alabama done gone and bought itself a football coach.

The promise is enticing for Crimson Tide fans. Saban returns to college football, where at LSU he won the 2003 BCS national championship; returns to the Southeastern Conference, which his Tiger teams won in 2001 and 2003; and returns to Bryant-Denny Stadium, where he is 2-0 as a head coach.

It may well be that Saban and his family will find their bliss on the banks of the Black Warrior River. It may be that his fourth collegiate marriage will be the perfect one, just as Paul "Bear" Bryant made Alabama his fourth and final coaching home.

But there's a big difference between Saban and Bryant. Mama didn't call Saban to Tuscaloosa. Mammon did.

Mammon, in the personages of university president Robert Witt and athletic director Mal Moore. Here's hoping that neither man has the gall to complain about the athletic arms race anytime soon.

If the Crimson Tide fans parched for success interrupt their backslapping for just a moment, they will see why the hiring of Saban is not the cure for all their problems. It just means they have traded their problems in for a new set.

For instance, Saban, for all his success, has found a reason to leave the last three coaching jobs he's had. At Michigan State, he didn't like being The Other School to Michigan. At LSU, he felt underappreciated after winning the national championship and he left for the money and the challenge of the NFL. At the Miami Dolphins, he didn't like the lack of control he had over his adult players. Why would he be happy at Alabama when he has had trouble being happy everywhere he has coached?

Tide Turns Again In Tuscaloosa
Alabama
The Crimson Tide have had seven coaches in the 24 years since Paul "Bear" Bryant's last season in 1982. Bryant had directed the Alabama program for 25 years. Only Gene Stallings was able to win a national championship at Bama, going unbeaten in 1992. The program's run of coaches in the post-"Bear" era (a.k.a since 1983):
  Seasons W-L
Mike Shula 2003-06 26-23
Mike Price 2003 0-0
Dennis Franchione 2001-02 17-8
Mike DuBose 1997-00 24-23
Gene Stallings 1990-96 62-25
Bill Curry 1987-89 26-10
Ray Perkins 1983-86 32-15-1
Fans and administrators alike expect Saban to recreate at Alabama what he built at LSU. Saban went 48-16 (.750) and won championships in Baton Rouge. Why did he leave Michigan State, where he coached for five seasons, building to a 10-2 peak in 1999? Because LSU is the only big-time football school in a talent-rich state.

Alabama shares a talent-rich state with Auburn. High school coaches, as well as coaches at both Alabama and Auburn, told me for a story in February 2004 that, all things being equal, the state's recruits tilt as much as 70-30 toward Tuscaloosa.

It will take time for Saban to make all things equal (including wins) in Alabama. In the three seasons since I wrote that story, Auburn has won 33 games, third in the nation behind USC and Texas.

Once Saban makes all things equal again, he is still fishing in a more crowded pond than the one he fished at LSU, where he caught right up to the limit every year.

Then there's the money. If the report of $32 million over eight years is accurate, give credit to Moore for putting such a big stack of chips behind Saban. He has been accused unfairly of mishandling more searches than Inspector Clouseau -- wrongly accused, in my opinion.

But is Saban twice the coach that Rich Rodriguez is? Last month, Alabama offered the West Virginia coach slightly more than $2.1 million per year.

Is Saban eight times better than the coach who outmaneuvered Bob Stoops of Oklahoma on Monday night? Boise State paid Chris Petersen $500,000 this season -- and he still hasn't lost a game.

It may fly in the face of recent history to believe that Alabama should have hired someone for whom the program would be a step up. They have tried that in the last four hires over 10 years, and Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula didn't work.

As Saban mulled going to Alabama, a close friend of mine who is a diehard Crimson Tider said, "We'll make a coach out of him, too." His point is that Alabama football is bigger than any one coach.

By going out and buying Saban, Alabama has put more than chips on the table. The university has bet its football future and reputation on a guy who provides no reason to believe that he will build a career in Tuscaloosa.

If Saban wins and bolts, as he did at Michigan State and LSU, or if he fails to win $32 million worth of games, Saban will have done more to make Alabama football smaller than anything the three Mikes ever did. The way to success in the SEC, as Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida have illustrated, is to hire coaches on their way up who will build programs that last.

That Moore chose to spend the money to hire Saban shows how desperate the university is. It's an all-or-nothing bet, and the early line is pick 'em.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE