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March 28, 2012

HURT: Buyout wouldn't deter serious suitor

Once again, Nick Saban's contract has been extended.

Once again, some media members - not as many as in 2009, when Saban received his last raise and extension from UA, but a few talking heads - have breathlessly sounded the "No buyout!" alarm. A few have even acted as if the absence of a buyout clause is some sort of secret in Alabama, even though it has been an often-discussed issue since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, if only because of the "Saban is leaving" rumors that annually blossom and, so far, annually fail to bear fruit.

So, not to relive 2009, but to repeat: The absence of a buyout clause in Saban's contract isn't that much of an issue, certainly not one that was going to make it worthwhile for UA officials to go to the mattresses in a negotiating turf war.

Why? Because - while Saban himself wouldn't like the term - Alabama's football coach is the No. 1 rock star among current college coaches. The Big Show. The Main Event.

And the first priority, when you are the entity profiting from the services of such an individual, is, to borrow some rock star terminology, to keep his head in a good place. When you have the best, you want to keep him productive and happy and secure that he has the trust of his employers. You don't want an indentured servant.

Perhaps Alabama could have chosen to make a big issue about a buyout in 2009. What would have been a fair figure? Five million dollars? Would that have daunted any legitimate prospective suitor? Would $10 million? (To make an apples-to-burnt-oranges comparison, Mack Brown's buyout at Texas this year is $3.5 million.)

At this point, any financial package to pry Saban loose from Tuscaloosa would probably involve $60 million or so. Would an extra $3.5 million be an obstacle to a dedicated pursuer? Not if that pursuer had enough financial resources to get into the game.

Perhaps Alabama could have put that clause in the 2007 contract, or the 2009 extension, or this time around. UA could have wrangled with Saban and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, for months, the extension going unsigned, the relationship with his employers growing more strained and potential destinations offering their own "no-buyout" deals as incentive.

Instead, Saban, comfortable in his working environment, has won two BCS championships in the past three years. Rest assured, the revenue enhancement from that sort of success is far more than the $10 million that Alabama might have realized from the "insurance" of a massive buyout clause.

At this point, with Saban headed into his sixth season at UA, Alabama fans are resigned to the fact that rivals, and talking heads, are going to connect Saban's name with every NFL opening or prominent college vacancy. It was no surprise on Monday when Saban himself said there had been "offseason interest" in his services. It would have been far more surprising, in the wake of the BCS title, if there had not been such overtures.

But prying Saban loose will be a different matter. Since a prominent national commentator (the usually astute Michael Wilbon) mentioned it, let's take Notre Dame as an example. Since 2001, when Saban was clearly among the nation's elite candidates, though he had not yet led LSU to a national title, Notre Dame has hired four coaches (if you count George O'Leary).

Not once has Saban gone running to South Bend. Not once has Notre Dame come close to hiring a coach at the level of Saban or, for that matter, Urban Meyer. If Brian Kelly doesn't work out either, could Notre Dame (and NBC) finally decide to assemble a no-limit financial package and throw it at Saban? Sure. If the Irish were going to make a commitment of that size, would a big buyout be a deterrent? No.

At some point - maybe next year, maybe after the 2019 season when the current extension expires, maybe in 2025 - Saban is going to leave Alabama, and buildings are going to shake all over the UA campus from the collective cries of "I told you so!" from every other spot in America. But until then, UA officials are content to take Saban at his word that, as he said Monday, he is committed to staying where he is.

I know big business isn't supposed to be based on what someone says. I know Saban has changed his mind on such matters before (although he already has set personal stability records at Alabama).

And I also know that, if he wanted to go, no buyout clause would keep him around. So isn't it better all around for everyone - a happy employee and a happy employer - not to force the issue?

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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