LSU coach Nick Saban, arguably the biggest prize in the pool for the four NFL franchises still with coaching vacancies, has jumped to the head of the wish lists of the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons, ESPN.com has learned.
But the plan is for both teams to formally interview Saban within the next week.
In the wake of LSU's victory over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Sunday night, a win that earned the Tigers the BCS share of the national title, Saban also has spoken to university officials about a new contract.
Published reports have indicated that LSU is prepared to offer Saban a 10-year contract worth about $3 million annually. Winning the national championship triggered a clause in his existing contract that makes him the highest paid coach in the college game. The fact the Bears and Falcons will pursue Saban almost certainly signals both teams are prepared to consider what are sure to be lofty financial expectations on his part.
For weeks it has been assumed it will take not only a potentially solid football situation, but also a large contract offer for Saban to even think about leaving Baton Rouge. LSU will have a strong roster returning in 2004, supplemented once again by one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
Saban has been a target of several league franchises over the past two years. Last year, he quietly interviewed for the Jacksonville Jaguars opening. A year earlier, he had informal discussions with the Tampa Bay Bucs after Tony Dungy was dismissed.
He is a close friend of Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, has been linked to the Chicago job for more than a year, and clearly is atop the franchise's wish list. It is doubtful the Bears will advance their search significantly before determining Saban's plans. Saban is familiar with Falcons GM Rich McKay as well.
Saban, 52, has been attractive to NFL teams in recent years for a number of reasons. In 10 seasons as a head coach -- at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99) and LSU (2000-present) -- he has compiled an 82-39-1 mark and never suffered a losing season. Almost as important, particularly at a time when NFL owners seem to favor candidates who have past league experience, Saban possesses that coveted commodity.
He served for four seasons as Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator (1991-94) under Bill Belichick, and Saban was the Houston Oilers secondary coach for the two seasons prior to that.
At various times in the past decade, Saban has turned down NFL head coaching offers, but there remains a long list of league general managers and personnel directors who admire him and feel certain he would succeed in the pro game.
There is a good chance he would have been a top candidate for the New York Giants job earlier this week had some things come together from at timing standpoint. Team officials phoned him Monday morning, just hours after the Sugar Bowl, in an attempt to arrange an interview.
Saban asked for a few days to savor the BCS title victory and to collect his thoughts, but the Giants' search was on a faster timetable. Management feared that if its other leading candidate, Tom Coughlin, left town without the job and headed to Buffalo for an interview there, they could lose him to the Bills.
Convinced they should not head down the same road with Saban -- he turned down the Giants earlier in his career -- New York hired Coughlin, who had been their leading candidate all along.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.