Legendary Alabama football coach Nick Saban abruptly retired on Wednesday, with six years and $71.8 million remaining on his contract.
Saban, 72, is walking away from a Crimson Tide program with which he has won the most national titles in college football history and that is perennially among the top four teams in the country.
Soon after Saban’s retirement announcement, some who know him came forward to say recent changes to college sports, such as players being able to make money off their names, images and likenesses — better known as NIL — and the more relaxed student-athlete transfer rules, could lie behind the decision
A.J. McCarron, who was an Alabama quarterback under Saban a decade ago, suggested Saban had grown weary of the new college sports landscape.
University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders theorized that changes to the collegiate game had “chased” away Saban, whom he characterized as the greatest coach of all time.
Micah Parsons, an NFL All-Pro linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys who played collegiately at Penn State in 2018–’19, posted that he, too, believed NIL had played a role in Saban’s shock retirement.
The NCAA started allowing college athletes to earn name, image and likeness money in 2021, after decades of student-athletes saying it wasn’t fair that they didn’t receive any money while the games they played in generated millions of dollars — especially football and basketball games.
Saban has publicly stated on several occasions that he’s in favor of college players getting compensation, but he’s not a fan of the current system that rewards schools with top recruits for simply paying the most money through an NIL deal.
Earlier this season, in a now-famous press conference, Saban asked: “Is this what we want college football to become?”
While it’s true that Saban has had incredible success in different eras, including the BCS system, College Football Playoff and now this new NIL era, some experts think the most recent changes are creating new challenges for coaches.
“The changing landscape definitely makes it more challenging,” Michael Rueda, corporate partner and U.S. Sports & Entertainment practice group head at international law firm Withers, told MarketWatch. “It presents a factor that wasn’t there before.”
College coaches no longer just have to think about how recruits will fit in on the field and in the classroom, but also if the school meets the NIL requirements that certain student-athletes have.
“Most coaches are coaches because they want to create an environment for students to be successful both on the field and after college,” Rueda said. “With NIL and some of the later developments, it’s become ‘How am I going to facilitate bringing more NIL dollars to my program and to my student-athletes?’”
“When you go in and start talking to these younger kids, and you’re trying to recruit, the first thing they’re asking is, ‘What’s my NIL possibilities?’” George Washington University’s sports management professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti told MarketWatch. “So he has to be not only pitching his esteemed value as a coach, he’s now going to worry about how much money they’ll have to pay these kids on the sideline.”
In addition to recruiting high school students to their colleges, lucrative NIL opportunities can also lead to students transferring schools, something that is happening more often with the relaxing of transfer penalties in college sports, Neirotti added.
Publicly, Saban said his retirement is not specifically about the changing landscape of college football, whether it’s NIL or the increasingly active transfer portal, but he did reiterate that he and his fellow coaches are not happy with the current system.
“To me, if you choose to coach, you don’t need to be complaining about all that stuff,” Saban told ESPN. “You need to adjust to it and adapt to it and do the best you can under the circumstances and not complain about it. Now, I think everybody is frustrated about it. We had an SEC conference call, 14 coaches on there [Wednesday], and there’s not one guy you can talk to who really understands what’s happening in college football and thinks that it’s not an issue.”
Saban led the Crimson Tide to nine Southeastern Conference championships and won his first national title at Alabama with a 14-0 record in 2009. He also won championships in 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020, along with a prior national title with Louisiana State University in 2003.