ATLANTA — Alabama coach Nick Saban has navigated through the ever-changing landscape of college athletics plenty of times throughout his coaching career, including the rise of up-tempo offenses, the transition from the BCS to the College Football Playoff and the recruiting budgets that schools began pouring into recruiting once the SEC’s revenue exploded.
Evolving in today’s world is his biggest challenge yet. The confluence of the NCAA’s name, image and likeness rules that allow players to benefit off of their marketing value, along with a transfer portal that is the size of a medium-sized village, has made the job of head coaches more difficult than they’ve ever been. Saban addressed where his program stands after the first year of NIL’s existence Tuesday at SEC Media Days.
“I don’t dislike name, image and likeness. I’m all for the players,” he said. “I want our players to do well. Our players made over $3 million in name, image and likeness. I’m all for the players being able to do as well as they can and use their name, image and likeness to create value for themselves. We have a great brand at Alabama, so players are certainly — their value there is going to be enhanced because of the value that our brand can help them create.”
Saban supports players making money off of their names, but it’s the lack of consistency that bothers him about the current state of college athletics.
“The thing that I have sort of expressed, not concerns about, but there’s got to be some uniformity and protocol of how name, image and likeness is implemented,” he said. “I think there’s probably a couple factors that are important in that. How does this impact competitive balance in college athletics? And is there transparency to maintain fairness across the board in terms of college athletics? How do we protect the players? Because there’s more and more people that are trying to get between the player and the money.”
Using NIL as a recruiting inducement is against NCAA rules, but Saban’s primary concern is the lack of enforcement that is happening across the board.
“On the recruiting trail right now, there’s a lot of people using this as inducements to go to their school by making promises as to whether they may or may not be able to keep in terms of what players are doing,” he said. “I think that is what can create a competitive balance issue between the haves and have nots. We’re one of the haves. Don’t think that what I’m saying is a concern that we have at Alabama because we’re one of the haves. Everybody in college football cannot do these things relative to how they raise money in a collective or whatever, how they distribute money to players.”
Saban has hit the transfer portal hard, including this year when he lured wide receiver Jermaine Burton away from Georgia, defensive back Eli Ricks away from LSU and running back Jahmyr Gibbs away from Georgia Tech. This comes on the heels of the 2021 season when ex-Ohio State wide receiver Jameson Williams and ex-Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o were two of the star transfers that moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He has also lost his share of contributors including this year when linebacker Drew Sanders moved from Alabama to Arkansas. Simply put, Saban understands what players are thinking in this new era.
“I think it’s going to work both ways,” he said. “I think some of the really good players in that league are going to have opportunities to go other places, but I also think that there will be some players that come back to that league that will also be able to enhance their value as players because of the opportunity that will be created for them by playing at that level. All good things.”
Can Saban adjust to the new era? There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t.
Saban complained about up-tempo offenses to the point that he and former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema lobbied for officials to make snapping the ball prior to 10 seconds running off of the play clock a penalty. At the same time, he was implementing an up-tempo offense of his own and putting to rest the idea that defenses win championships.
Saban has transitioned from recruiting game mangers at quarterback to bona fide difference-makers including Young and former star Tua Tagovailoa.