If not for a late night splurge at a strip club, Nick Saban could have been a mere footnote in the history of college football.
After all, before leaving LSU and heading to the NFL in 2004, he sat in the same ranks as guys like Philip Fulmer and Larry Coker, championship winning coaches, but hardly household names.
Three national titles later and perhaps a few more lined up down the road in Tuscaloosa, Saban is now widely considered the best coach in the NCAA.
That legacy may never have been cemented if not for Mike Price. A highly successful coach with the Washington State Cougars, Price was hired by Alabama following the ’02 season with a shot at returning the program to the Bear Bryant glory days.
Named the National Coach of the Year in 1997, he finished his last two seasons at Washington State with a combined 20-5 record that included a trip to the Rose Bowl. Spotting his ability, Price was hired by the Crimson Tide in December 2002 to replace Dennis Franchione as head coach.
After finishing 10-3 and winning the SEC West under Franchione in his final season, Price was given the reigns to a rather formidable team. Everything went downhill from there. Any hopes for continued success were dashed once school officials found out that Price had spent $200 on drinks and tips at a strip club in Pensacola, Fla., and had about $1,000 charged to his bill by a woman staying in his hotel room. Price and the Crimson Tide were exposed and humiliated on a national stage. Had Price kept his behavior in check, he could have secured a long tenure in Tuscaloosa. Saban’s future could have been much murkier.
As Price was exiting, Alabama turned to Mike Shula, then-quarterbacks coach of the Miami Dolphins and the son of NFL legend Don Shula, to lead the team in 2003. While Bama suffered through a nauseating 4-9 season that year, Saban was leading his LSU Tigers to the national championship game, their first since 1958.
That’s when the dollar signs of the NFL came a-calling. One year removed from a national title, he jumped ship, inking a multi-million dollar deal to coach in Miami. In the pros, he became just a run of the mill coach. He seemed out of his element. After two underwhelming seasons with the Dolphins, Saban’s name began to circle around the Alabama job after the team axed Shula in 2006. Late in the year, he reassured the Dolphins and the media that he had no interest in the Bama job. Showing his true colors, he became coach of the Crimson Tide two weeks later.
Ironically, Saban returned to Miami in 2013 to lead Alabama to a crushing defeat over Notre Dame. While his team was on their way to another national title, Saban’s eye undoubtedly veered towards the NFL successes of former college head coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbough. Eventually, the lure of the NFL will pull Saban from his comfort zone at Alabama. He’ll need to erase the sour taste in his mouth from his trip to the NFL.
The path to the NCAA Championship will also not be getting any easier. Simply winning the SEC will not automatically book a team a spot in the title game, which has been the case in recent years. Schools will be locked into a four team playoff and will have to jump two hurdles to be crowned champion. Had the playoff been in place this year, the Crimson Tide would have likely been in a Final Four scenario with Florida, Oregon and Notre Dame. While they destroyed the Irish, beating up the Ducks or the Gators would have been a more intimidating task.
While Alabama is expected to be a strong team for the next several years, success never stopped Saban from moving on to a different spot. A new legacy will be waiting in the pros and in search of a challenge, he’ll bolt. It’s where the big boys play. It’s where the spotlight shines the brightest.