NEW ORLEANS | Nick Saban will step off a plane onto the tarmac at Louis Armstrong International Airport today, exactly five years to the day after being introduced as head football coach at the University of Alabama. In that span, Saban has the returned the Crimson Tide program to heights not seen in three decades as he leads UA into final preparations for the chance to win a second national championship in his short tenure.
Under Saban's watch, Alabama has won 47 of its 53 games over the past four seasons going into Monday's BCS National Championship Game against LSU. The coach has transformed a program that was coming out of the ravages of NCAA sanctions into a national powerhouse, ringing in a new era of success for an Alabama program that claims 13 national titles.
Alabama had suffered through five seasons with a record of .500 or worse over 10 years before Saban's arrival. The Crimson Tide had gone through four head coaches in seven seasons, including one - Mike Price - who never even coached a game.
Those times now seem long ago.
"It's not easy to be successful," Saban said last weekend in a rare reflective moment. "It's really pretty difficult. It's human nature to just to want to be average. So it's special when you really want to be good, and we've been fortunate to have a lot of good guys around here that have provided a lot of positive leadership for us that has affected other people. We've gotten a critical mass of guys on our team to buy into what we need to do to be successful."
That Alabama was able to land Saban at all shocked many in the sporting world. Saban had taken LSU to the 2003 national championship, then left a year later for the lure of the National Football League.
After Mike Shula was fired at UA following the 2006 season, Director of Athletics Mal Moore had a serious flirtation with then-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez before setting his sites on Saban. Moore nervously waited while Saban coached out his second season with the Miami Dolphins.
Shortly after, Moore landed his man.
"I felt very confident that he would be successful, yes. When we decided to make the change, he was the man I had in mind because he was a proven championship head coach at this level," Moore said.
Alabama fans, hungry to be back in the national championship picture, turned out in droves at Tuscaloosa's airport to greet Saban's arrival. He was embraced from the start like a conquering hero.
"There's no question that the Alabama family had been trying to replace Coach (Paul W. "Bear") Bryant for years," said Jackie Sherrill, a former UA player who won a national championship coaching at Pittsburgh and had successful stints as head coach at Texas A&M and Mississippi State. "With all the problems that Alabama had during a period of time ... you have to give credit to Mal Moore because Mal did not panic and Mal stayed right in there trying to make sure he could get Saban. By getting Saban, it certainly gave all the Alabama players and former players and alumni and students a ray of hope that Alabama would get back to where they once were."
It didn't happen instantly.
Alabama went 7-6 in Saban's first season, winning six of its first eight games before ending the regular season on a four-game losing streak that came after five players - including starting offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis and running back Glen Coffee - were suspended for receiving extra benefits from the school bookstore as part of a scandal that included more than 200 student-athletes in 16 sports.
The Crimson Tide won its bowl game, defeating Colorado 30-24 in the Independence Bowl, starting a stretch that saw Alabama win 32 of its next 34 games, including the 2009 national championship victory over Texas, as Saban's influence began to manifest itself.
"I think probably sometime in that second year we were here, we had a critical mass of guys in the leadership of the team that bought into things we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it," Saban said. "That's probably been true ever since."
Saban didn't come cheap. His Alabama salary turned heads and made national headlines when he was hired for $32 million over eight years, a package attractive enough to compete with what he was making with the Dolphins. At that time, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops was the only coach in the nation making more than $3 million per year, and only two Southeastern Conference coaches - Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Tennessee's Phil Fulmer - had topped the $2 million plateau.
Saban, who now makes almost $4.7 million per season, ushered in an era of escalating salaries, especially in the SEC. Now, only one coach in the SEC - Kentucky's Joker Phillips - is known to make less than $2 million per year, at $1.7 million. The average head football coaching salary in the SEC has jumped from $1.42 million in the year before Saban's arrival at Alabama to $3.11 million for the 2011 season. (Vanderbilt, a private school, does not release coaching salary information.) While Saban's high salary has made him some people's poster boy for escalating coaching pay, some experts see the rise as inevitable.
"It's an awful lot of money, and we can certainly argue the issues of athletic departments placing their money and their priorities - should we be doing this or that with our dollars - but it's really the money reacting to the economy," said Wright Waters, outgoing Sun Belt Conference commissioner, who worked for 10 years in the SEC office. "We've proven the public and the universities are willing to pay for it. Those who are more successful are being rewarded."
For Alabama's part, Saban's salary was an investment. Alabama didn't rank in the top 10 in college athletic department revenue in the 2006-07 academic year, before Saban's first season as coach, bringing in $70.5 million. For the 2010-11 school year, Alabama ranked behind only Texas and Ohio State at $123.9 million. While Saban wasn't solely responsible for the jump - starting in 2009, the league landed a 15-year, $2.25 billion contract with ESPN to go along with a 15-year, $825 million deal with CBS - he has played a big part. Aside from the increased television revenue, Alabama was able to add more than 9,000 seats to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take capacity above 101,000 while also adding more high-dollar luxury boxes.
"When you've got a Nick Saban who can put a quality product on the field year after year," Waters said, "you aren't taking that big a risk."
Said Moore, "When we finished the north end zone project in 2006, I felt it would be a long time before we made another expansion, probably after I would be gone, but it was clear almost immediately that the demand for tickets was regenerated just by hiring him. And the success he has brought quickly justified the south end zone (expansion) project, which has been a great help to our bottom line."
You want a bottom-line answer to how things have changed since Saban's arrival? Look at the bottom line: The year before he arrived, the UA athletic department reported a $10.5 million profit; in 2010, Alabama took in $31.9 million more in revenue than it reported in expenses, according to information provided to the NCAA.
"Well, obviously (Saban) has had a tremendous impact not only on our football program, but on our department as a whole," Moore said. "He raised the expectations inside the program to a higher level, and I think that has made our other coaches and student-athletes see what is possible here.
"It really has worked out better than we could have imagined it as far as the profile of the program, the pride that our fans feel, and our financial side has been very positively impacted."
Saban has invigorated the program in other ways. His impact on Alabama recruiting has been evident from the moment he landed on campus.
"Three out of the last four years we have them ranked No. 1 (nationally), and they're battling for it again," said Keith Niebuhr, Southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "For those who don't think those rankings mean anything, look at the results on Saturdays. He's hauling in a high-quality caliber of player."
Recruits are attracted to Saban's star power.
"We talk to kids on a daily basis, and we'll ask them a lot of times what coach really makes you stand at attention, so to speak, when they come to your school or arrive at one of your games or give you a phone call," Niebuhr said. "More than half the time, that's the name that comes up. When Nick Saban is interested and they have contact with him, they're giddy - this is their word, not mine. He's an A-list celebrity to kids these days. To them, it's like meeting Tom Cruise.
"There is no question that there is more than regional appeal to that program, and he is a large part of the reason why. There's just a confidence that emanates from him, and I think people sense that. I think they believe him when he says they can win and he can further develop them."
Current players concur.
"He's real structured," linebacker Nico Johnson said. "He stays on top of everything. He makes sure that everything is just right. We go off what he coaches and try to learn every day."
Despite his success, Saban is often portrayed in the national media as something of a villain. His persona of sometimes being less than friendly clashes with how his players view him.
"You either like, or you don't, any great coach," Sherrill said. "That's the way it was with coach Bryant. ... There's no question that people do not know Nick because he makes sure no one gets that close to him. As a coach, you observe he is a very good players' coach. He takes care of the players and the players like him. It's a very physical game, and it's not a game for a weak-hearted, weak-minded person.
"That doesn't mean he's easy to work for, but a lot of us were not easy to work for. There's a difference between being easy to work for and being good to work for, and most of us would rather have someone that is good to work for than someone that's easy."
Sherrill believes Saban will mellow.
"A year from now, two from now, three from now, Nick will open up and they will see another side that they don't see now," Sherrill said.
What shows now is the winning, and the enthusiasm from Alabama's fan base that Saban has generated. A little less than two years ago, Saban stood on a platform in UA's home stadium during a celebration of the 2009 national title and pledged that even better times were still to come.
"I want everybody here to know, this is not the end. This is the beginning," he said.
For Alabama and Saban, that beginning has been a successful ride.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.
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