Let’s just get this out of the way at the top: Nick Saban, who has retired as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, was the best college football coach of all time. Period.
The numbers make this undeniably true: His seven national titles (six at Alabama, one at LSU) are the most ever, one more than the other Alabama legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant.
But it’s more than that. It’s the manner in which Saban won those championships, in an era of nearly constant chaos. One of Saban’s remarkable traits as a coach was his adaptability. He adjusted to sea changes in the college game. The old defensive-minded coach mastered the faster, spread offenses, producing four starting NFL quarterbacks and a fleet of NFL wide receivers. He attuned his recruiting to the new world of Name, Image, and Likeness and the transfer portal. He annually restocked his ranks of assistant coaches who were poached by other schools. And he did it all with stunning alacrity. He was the old dog who relished learning the new tricks.
His greatest strength, though, was as a recruiter of pure football talent. Though he came across as prickly and cold in front of the media, particularly earlier in his career, he was the maestro of the one-on-one warmth needed in the living room of a recruit.
In my book about Saban, I relayed the story of the plane trip to Tuscaloosa on January 3, 2007, after he had just been hired away from the Miami Dolphins by Mal Moore, then the athletic director at Alabama:
Moore and Saban sat across from each other, with Moore facing the cockpit and Saban facing the rear of the plane. As the plane took off, with its nose pointed toward the sky, Moore found himself looking up at his new coach. He would never forget this moment, and would tell the story frequently to his closest friends, in various versions.
“Mal, let me ask you something,” Saban said over the roar of the plane’s engines, gazing down at Moore. Saban’s leg had started to bounce. At this point, adrenaline was staving off exhaustion. Any pretense he might have felt had been completely stripped away. “Do you think you’ve hired the best coach in the country?”
Moore was a bit taken aback by the question, not exactly sure where it was heading. He still didn’t know Saban very well, still found him hard to read. Moore rubbed his big hands together and cleared his throat. “Why, Nick, of course I do,” he said, while thinking to himself: For $4 million a year, I sure as hell hope so.
“Well, you didn’t. I’m nothing without my players,” Saban said, locking eyes with Moore. “But you did just hire a helluva recruiter.”
With that, Moore exhaled audibly.
In the end, it turned out both Moore and Saban were correct.
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