Nick Saban's new motivation

Originally Published: April 5, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If the Miami Dolphins had signed injured quarterback Drew Brees in 2006, instead of crippled veteran Daunte Culpepper, Alabama coach Nick Saban might still be coaching in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Paul Spinelli/Getty ImagesNick Saban's tenure with the Dolphins ended after two seasons.

If the Dolphins' doctors had only signed off on Brees, who was coming back from an injured right shoulder, Saban might have been competing for Super Bowl victories the past five seasons, instead of guiding the Crimson Tide to two of the past three BCS national championships.

Saban, 60, said this week he has no interest in returning to the NFL, where he had a 15-17 record in two seasons with the Dolphins (2005 and '06). Last month, Saban signed a two-year contract extension at Alabama, which will pay him $5.6 million a year through the 2019 season.

"I learned about myself by going to the NFL," Saban said. "Why do I have to go do it again?"

After guiding the Crimson Tide to a 21-0 victory over LSU in the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, Saban received other job offers. There were overtures from a couple of NFL teams and a few other colleges. But in the end, Saban realized he already has the job he wants.

"I had my chances and I've had chances since," Saban said. "I think you have to know yourself well enough to know that if I'm happy doing what I'm doing now, why do I need something else? Before as a coach, even when I was at LSU, I went all those years and it was always work hard to get the next opportunity."

Enduring two mediocre seasons in the NFL made Saban realize that his best opportunity was coaching in college, and there are few better jobs than Alabama, where football and winning always seem to matter more.

Saban is set to begin his sixth season as Alabama's coach, which is his longest stop in what had been a vagabond career. He never stayed longer than five seasons at any of his previous 12 coaching stops, from working as an assistant at schools such as Kent State, West Virginia and Ohio State to being the head coach at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAfter winning his third national championship, Saban is perfectly content at the college game.

"I was always going to be a head coach in the NFL someday -- that was, like, the next thing," Saban said. "When I left LSU after building a pretty good team and program there, I thought that was it. I loved [Dolphins owner] Wayne Huizenga. He's one of the best people in the world and was great to us. I'm indebted to him forever. But it wasn't the same."

Along with not having complete control of his team's roster and personnel, Saban also realized that he couldn't simply outwork everyone else in the NFL. In college football, Saban is known as a tireless recruiter and detail-oriented CEO, which is a big reason why the Tide have a 48-6 record over the past four seasons. Saban demands a lot from his assistant coaches and everyone else associated with the Alabama program.

"I loved coaching the NFL players," Saban said. "Everybody thinks it's the NFL players who are hard to get along with. I loved the NFL players and it was never a problem. It's just the rules of parity in that league make it difficult to create any advantage for yourself. I always thought my advantage was I was willing to outwork everybody to get better. That was a hard thing. I missed college players and I missed helping guys develop personally, academically and athletically."

With Saban having already won three BCS national championships at two schools -- he guided LSU to a national title in 2003 -- it might seem there's little left for him to accomplish. Alabama has already erected a statue of him on campus. Regardless of how many games or titles Saban wins, he'll probably never equal the stature of legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, who won 232 games and six national titles in 25 seasons as the Crimson Tide's coach from 1958 to 1982.

Saban insists that's not why he's still coaching.

"To me, as a coach, and I think that's why I like college coaching, it's not just about winning games," Saban said. "I'm not saying I don't want to win every game and win championships, but from a job standpoint it's a great profession because you have a great opportunity to affect young people and help them be successful. If you go out and talk to anybody that's an athlete, almost every one of them will tell you about some coach they had somewhere that had a huge impact on their lives. That's kind of why I do this."

The tail end of Saban's coaching career -- he said he'll coach as long as he still likes being around his players -- might be more about writing his legacy than padding his already impressive résumé.

"It's not about when am I going to be able to enjoy it, or are the expectations going to be greater next year?" Saban said. "I understand all of that, and I know all the love I get around here is conditional on one thing, and that's winning the game. I understand all of that. But if I didn't get positive self-gratification from helping kids and helping them graduate from school, being better people and being all they can be as football players, I wouldn't do this.

"It wouldn't be worth it to me. It wouldn't be worth the time, the sacrifice, and the family sacrifices I've had to make over the years with my own kids and wife. It's just not worth it. You can go make all the money in the world, but when you die, they bury it with you. There is no legacy to it. There won't be something they remember you for or talk about."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban Statue
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireSaban has already been immortalized with a statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Saban's immediate future involves rebuilding the Crimson Tide, who must replace All-American tailback Trent Richardson and most of their playmakers on defense. Five of Alabama's top eight linebackers must be replaced, along with starting cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie and All-American safety Mark Barron.

Alabama faced a similar rebuilding job when it tried to defend its BCS national championship in 2010. The Crimson Tide finished 10-3.

"I thought our 2010 team was one of the most talented teams we've ever had," Saban said. "We did have to replace nine starters on defense and our punter and kicker and all of that. But when you looked at the whole body of players, it was a talented team. We really didn't have all the right ingredients to be all we could be."

Alabama brings back what could be the country's best offensive line, and quarterback AJ McCarron should be more comfortable in his second season as a starter.

"That year [2010] was probably the most horrible year we went through," linebacker Nico Johnson said. "We can never get complacent. As soon as last season was over, we tried to establish the belief that we can never be satisfied. We have to stay hungry."

No one at Alabama understands that more than Saban.

"We're going to get everybody's best shot, and you have to be ready for that," Saban said. "Being like everybody else isn't good enough."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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