MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There was a certain juxtaposition on display when Alabama coach Nick Saban exited the main podium inside Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida on Thursday morning, giving way to Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, as the two coaches spoke at the Capital One Orange Bowl media day.
If you’re a fan of the Sooners or simply tired of the Crimson Tide’s dominance over college football, you had to hope what you were seeing was a changing of the guard. At the very least, it represented a burgeoning younger generation nipping at Saban’s well-aged heels.
Here was the 35-year-old offensive whiz kid, Riley, literally taking the seat of a 67-year-old, six-time national championship winner. Riley used words like “steady” and “consistent” to describe the length and breadth of Saban’s successes, while Saban spoke of the creativity he’s seen in Riley’s two seasons as a head coach. On its surface, it’s as if the CFP semifinal game had become a battle of tried-and-true wisdom versus newfound energy.
It had to be weird for Saban. Most of his contemporaries are no longer around now. Urban Meyer is set to retire, as is Bill Snyder. Steve Spurrier is long gone. And here Saban was, getting ready to play Oklahoma, talking about the successor to his friend and former Sooners coach Bob Stoops.
Saban is getting older, while everyone around him seems to be getting younger and younger. And they’re all coming after what he’s built. Not just Riley but also the previous two head coaches he has faced in the College Football Playoff: 43-year-old Georgia coach Kirby Smart and 49-year-old Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Smart nearly unseated Saban and Alabama in last season’s national title game and again in this year’s SEC championship. Swinney, meanwhile, is 1-2 in his dealings with the Tide, with one national championship.
“A lot of these young coaches are very, very talented, dynamic,” Saban said. “They’re doing a lot of creative things that are very challenging to whoever is coaching against them.”
Even outside news conferences, Saban has praised Riley specifically. Oklahoma assistant Shane Beamer relates a story from May, when he saw Saban at a function: “He got to talking about Lincoln and the amount of respect he has for him, and he said, ‘You guys are a challenge to prepare for,’ and this was before he had to prepare for us.”
There’s a reason Riley is drawing interest from the NFL, which is something Saban could tell him a thing or two about. Riley’s offense is all the rage now, but Saban’s defense was a hit decades earlier when he and Bill Belichick created a system that blended man and zone concepts. Saban spent two seasons in the pros before realizing he was better suited for the college game.
“I think it’s, systematically, this is one of the most well-conceived offenses we’ve had to play for a long time,” Saban said. “He’s a very good playcaller. He’s very good at utilizing the personnel that he has and putting them in position to make plays. They always seem to have a complementary play to go with the last play. So when you figure out how to stop that play, you have another play that comes off that same action and makes it ever more difficult.”
It’s that offense that has led Riley to this moment. When he replaced Stoops last offseason, as a 30-something with no head-coaching experience, some wondered how it would work. But not those closest to him.
Two playoff appearances in two seasons only validate what those who worked with him saw. When Ruffin McNeill took the job as East Carolina head coach in 2010, he made Riley his offensive coordinator, at age 26. “There was no one else I wanted to work with,” McNeill says. Riley soon became highly sought after, but he turned down offers. He stayed with McNeill for five years. Until Bob Stoops called.
“I told him, this is one you’ve got to take,” McNeill says. “Bob called me later on, and I said, ‘Bob, you’ve got to take him. He’s that good.’ Bob thought I was trying to toss him away, but I said, ‘I don’t want to lose him.'”
McNeill simply told Riley, “It’s time.”
After Riley replaced Stoops, he brought McNeill on staff to work with him. But it’s not just those who know him best who jump at the opportunity to be on his staff.
Beamer left Smart’s staff specifically to work under Riley and learn the offense. He has come away impressed with just how much Riley does to tweak it every single week.
“He’s going to give the opponent eight to 10 new things on Saturday they’ve never seen before,” Beamer said. “There’s a lot we do offensively, there’s a lot Alabama’s practicing, but there’s a lot on Saturday that Alabama’s never seen us do before, and that’s every single week.”
If you watched what Oklahoma’s offense has done since Riley took over the offense in 2015, you might think Alabama’s defense would be in real danger Saturday. And it very well might be. But despite how sound and forward-thinking Riley’s scheme is, change isn’t anything new to Nick Saban.
Perhaps the least discussed but most important attribute of Saban’s career — and why he’s been able to take on all challengers through the years — is his willingness to adapt.
The things that made him the top coach in college football decades ago are no longer what they are now. He has gone from having a defense built on size and strength to one predicated on athleticism. When he failed to garner the support needed to scale back the rise of no-huddle offenses and run-pass options, he didn’t fight it until his dying breath. He didn’t ask, “Is this what we want football to be?” again, and you didn’t hear much from him about the issue of illegal linemen downfield. Instead, he saw the writing on the wall and embraced the new concepts in 2015, asking his new offensive coordinator at the time, Lane Kiffin, to push the tempo, spread the field and create more explosive plays.
For decades, Saban relied on mostly veteran quarterbacks. Then, in 2016, he started a true freshman for the first time in Jalen Hurts. Then, in 2017, on the game’s biggest stage in the CFP National Championship, he did the unthinkable when he benched 26-2 Hurts in favor of untested true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. With Tagovailoa and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, Alabama not only caught up to the so-called 21st-century offenses this season but surpassed many of them in terms of creating space and layering in run-pass options.
When Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran talks about his boss, his eyes light up. He has witnessed much of Saban’s progression firsthand, from their time at LSU together until now. And it’s why, two days before the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Cochran calls Saban the “Godfather of football.”
But that title comes with a target — like, say, when the young upstart Carlo comes after the elder statesman Don Corleone in “The Godfather.” There’s always someone with ambition coming up.
Even now, even after all these years and all these national championships, the fire in Saban hasn’t diminished. There might be a few more strands of gray hair on his head and a few more lines on his face, but he’s in remarkable shape given his age and remains as motivated as ever.
Players such as cornerback Saivion Smith say, “He’s not going anywhere.”
“He’s at the top right now,” Smith added, “and I think he’s going to be there for a long time.”
Offensive guard Lester Cotton grew up practically across the street from Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and, like Cochran, has had a close vantage point on Saban’s career at Alabama. Cotton has seen Saban’s progression, but he also has seen the coach’s challengers come and go.
In the SEC alone, there’s been Meyer and Les Miles and Mark Richt and Hugh Freeze. Kiffin somehow went from taking aim at Alabama as a young loudmouth coach at Tennessee to being an Alabama offensive coordinator and Saban protege. Butch Jones, who coached the Vols for five seasons and never beat Alabama, is now part of Saban’s ever-expanding support staff in Tuscaloosa.
Many have come for Saban, and many have failed.
This younger generation of coaches, including Riley, might be the one to break Saban’s spell over the sport. Smart has come close, and Swinney has even succeeded on one occasion.
But until it happens, until Saban really falls, you’ll have to forgive Cotton’s skepticism.
“Only thing I can say is, a copy is not better than the original sheet,” he said. “You can have a copy, but if you don’t have the original, it’s not going to be picture perfect like Nick Saban does it.”