Nick Saban’s retirement is a blow to Alabama football’s fans — and a boon to its haters

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In this AP file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game between Georgia and Alabama, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta.

In this AP file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game between Georgia and Alabama, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. Nick Saban, the stern coach who won seven national championships and turned Alabama back into a national powerhouse that included six of those titles in just 17 seasons, is retiring, according to multiple reports, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

John Bazemore, AP Photo, File

Nick Saban shocked the sports world on Wednesday when the longtime University of Alabama football coach announced his retirement.

At the Black Market Bar & Grill in Birmingham’s Five Points South neighborhood, it was the only thing that mattered. Every TV in the restaurant was tuned to ESPN’s nonstop coverage of the announcement — long before Saban and the university confirmed initial reports. And it was the topic of conversation for many guests.

“I hate to see the GOAT (greatest of all time) leave,” said patron Nick Hamilton, a self-proclaimed diehard Alabama fan and an alumnus of the school. “He’s irreplaceable, man. We may not ever see anything like what he’s done in our life [again].”

Saban won seven national championships — more than any other major college football coach — and turned Alabama back into a national powerhouse with six of those titles during his 17 seasons in Tuscaloosa.

The 72-year-old Saban took the Crimson Tide program to the top of college football after taking over in 2007.

His decision to step away was reported Wednesday, first by ESPN and then by other outlets, ending a career that has produced numerous titles and helped launch or relaunch the head coaching careers of Georgia’s Kirby Smith, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian and Mississippi’s Lane Kiffin. Saban was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

“We’ve been lucky to have two coaches in our history that have accomplished similar feats,” Hamilton said, referencing Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s other iconic coach. “It’s going to be a tough, tough task to find a replacement.”

But while some, like Hamilton, were in mourning, others like David Humphrey were celebrating.

“I’m pretty excited about Nick Saban stepping down. He’s a great coach and everything, but everything has to come to an end,” Humphrey, a fan of Alabama’s in-state rival Auburn University, said in response to Hamilton’s reaction. “And at the end of the day, I think it’s gonna make things a lot more fair and balanced here in college football.”

Tributes poured in for Saban across the state. Students outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa gathered around a statue of Saban, leaving gifts, snack cakes, and lighting candles.

While at rival Auburn, students gathered in Toomer’s Corner — the usual meeting place to celebrate a Tigers win — ready to hurl toilet paper into the university’s famed oak trees.

He finished just shy of the top in his final season, leading the Tide from a shaky start to a memorable win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl, a Southeastern Conference championship and back into the College Football Playoff before falling in overtime to Michigan in a semifinal game at the Rose Bowl.

Rodney Boyington, another Auburn fan dining at the bar with Alabama fan Becky Boyington, believes the highs and lows of the past season were the catalyst for the surprise retirement.

“I’m not surprised to see [him retire],” Boyington said. “I figured that by the losing year that he was having … he was gonna hang it up. He just didn’t have the players that he used to have.”

When it comes to players, Saban’s retirement announcement is likely to cause seismic shifts in college football. Crimson Tide players have 30 days to enter their name into the transfer portal, allowing them to move to another school, now that he’s leaving.

There’s also rampant speculation about who will be Alabama’s next head coach, and which school might lose their own because of it.

At Carrigan’s Public House in Birmingham, Sarah Caroline St. John and her friends are gathered for a retirement party — but not Saban’s.

“We are actually both retiring from our jobs on the same day so I feel a symmetry here,” Caroline St. John said.

She said she’s shocked, but moving toward acceptance.

“I’m at peace if he is at peace,” she said.

The Associated Press and the Gulf States Newsroom’s Orlando Flores Jr. and Rashah McChesney contributed to this report.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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