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So long, St. Nick: Saban leaves untouchable legacy

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"I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."

Nick Saban, then head coach of the Miami Dolphins, uttered those words on Dec. 21, 2006. Two weeks later, he was deplaning on the tarmac in Tuscaloosa to be introduced as the new frontman for the Crimson Tide.

Wednesday now marks the first day that Saban's infamous quote is once again accurate - his stunning retirement announcement ending his 17-year tenure with the school.

It seems silly to say a 72-year-old opting to retire is a shocking decision, but that's how it feels as college football faces a future without its most notable face stalking the sidelines. We may never be graced with a better example of a "football guy" than the man who once didn't notice the bar he was sitting in was being robbed because he was too busy drawing up plays on a napkin.

There's no question that he's the greatest coach of the modern era, transforming the Crimson Tide into an inevitable machine that claimed six national titles during his time with the program. However, Saban was more than just an incredibly successful coach. In a sport that reveres its characters, Saban stood well atop the pile. His scowl on the sidelines and ornery demeanor softened slightly in recent years to resemble that of a wise and cantankerous uncle.

While he would routinely seem combative at press conferences, he would also occasionally drop a perfectly worded quote that had everyone rolling. Just ask those in attendance when he was reminiscing about Georgia Southern having plenty of success rushing the ball on his defense in 2011.

"They run through our ass like shit through a tin horn, man, and we could not stop them. Could not stop them," Saban said.

The straw hat at practice, the strategically-placed coke bottles at press conferences, and the occasional headset slam will be remembered almost as much as the wins - and damn, were there a lot of those. A total of 292 at the collegiate level, with 206 of them coming at Alabama. He lost six games in a disappointing opening campaign with the Crimson Tide and an astonishingly low total of 23 in the 16 years since.

To unpack what made Saban successful requires deeper reflection than a couple of hours following his retirement. However, perhaps the most notable was his ability as a recruiter. There's a strong argument to be made that he's the best to ever grace the sport at securing talent - something that made the college game more appealing to him than the NFL. An overconfident approach is often needed in the recruiting game, something Saban demonstrated on the plane ride to Tuscaloosa with Alabama athletic director Mal Moore after leaving Miami.

"Do you think you've hired the best coach in the country?" Saban asked Moore, according to Monte Burke in his biography "Saban." "Well, you didn't. I'm nothing without my players. But you did just hire a helluva recruiter."

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It wouldn't take long for Saban to prove that to be true, securing the nation's top-ranked class, led by No. 2 overall prospect Julio Jones. A 12-2 season followed, and the rebuild was in full swing heading into the offseason. Another top-ranked recruiting class in 2009 proved the Alabama machine was operating at a different level. In all, Saban delivered 10 top-ranked classes in his 17 years with the program - unprecedented talent acquisition in modern college football.

On the surface, Saban seems like a man set in his ways, but his ability to adapt is what set him apart in the industry. His early Alabama teams used a punishing running attack and a dominant defense to thrive, with the quarterback asked to be more of a game-manager than a gunslinger. Enter Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator in 2014 - an unlikely marriage, given the different approaches between the men.

That kicked off a change in the way Alabama played, something that eventually resulted in the program leading the nation in scoring. Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, and Bryce Young are the recent quarterbacks associated with the program after years of Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Jake Coker, and Blake Sims.

"It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn't beat good offense anymore," Saban said in 2020. "That's not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren't going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I'm telling you, it ain't that way anymore."

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With six titles in 17 years, there's no disputing Saban's impact on the field for the Alabama program. However, his success at the university can equally be measured by his off-field impact. His arrival coincided with the school's push to up enrolment from students across the country.

The year before Saban took the Alabama job, the university had 23,878 students enrolled in the fall semester. That number grew substantially during his time at the school to over 40,000 this past fall. According to sports business expert Joe Pompliano, that 60% increase compares to just a 10% rise across the rest of the country.

More importantly, the attention garnered by Saban's dominant football program shifted the type of students that attended Alabama. By the 2014 fall intake, the majority of students at the school weren't from the state of Alabama - the first time that had ever happened. With out-of-state students paying three times the tuition, Saban's influence has brought the school hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's hard to argue with former Alabama school president Robert Witt's famous quote to "60 Minutes" in 2013 that Saban was "the best financial investment the university ever made."

While Saban may have decided long before Wednesday that he would call it quits, that's not the way he operated down the stretch of the season. According to Yahoo Sports' Ross Dellenger, he was interviewing candidates for open positions on his staff both yesterday and this morning.

Where Alabama goes from here is one of the biggest questions in sports right now. There'll be plenty of top names mentioned as candidates for the role, but it seems incredibly risky to follow in Saban's footsteps and try to keep the train rolling.

As for Saban, he's long been rumored to be a fit for ESPN's college football broadcasts in a studio role. He's often appeared on the network during playoff runs where his team had been eliminated and proved to be a strong analyst.

Here's hoping that is the path he takes - because a college football season without Nick Saban just doesn't sit right.

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