This past season’s four-team College Football Playoff ushered in significant change across the landscape — and not just with the arrival of the 12-team field that will begin in 2024. Three of the playoff’s four coaches are no longer with their respective teams: Alabama’s Nick Saban retired on Jan. 10 and was replaced by Washington’s Kalen DeBoer two days later. On Wednesday, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh went back to the NFL to coach the Los Angeles Chargers after leading his alma mater to its first national championship since 1997.
The turnover is historically significant. No coach, let alone three, had ever left his school the offseason following a BCS or CFP appearance (1998-2023). (Texas’ Steve Sarkisian is the only one returning to the same school.) The last coach to leave after a national championship at all was Nebraska’s Tom Osborne in 1997.
Harbaugh, who went 86-25 in nine years in Ann Arbor, had a record of flirting with the NFL, so it’s not necessarily a surprise. However, the two other coaches who left their teams following appearances in the CFP were much more shocking.
Saban, who is widely regarded as the greatest coach of all time, rode off into the sunset after the Rose Bowl semifinal loss to the Wolverines. While it sounds crazy for Saban to leave the game after a loss, it was all about pride for the G.O.A.T.
“I don’t look at it necessarily from winning and losing, you won the championship, you can’t win the championship,” he said after the game. “As a coach, you’re always trying to get your team to improve and be the best that they can be, and I think this team probably improved from the South Florida game and the Texas game early in the season as much as any team I’ve ever coached. That takes a lot of hard work. A lot of people being very committed to doing things that they need to do to self-assess and improve their game, and all these players bought in on this team and did it in first-class fashion. That’s why I think for me as a coach, maybe not for everybody else, it’s one of the teams that I’ll always remember the most and always be the most proud of.”
Saban’s departure opened the door for the hot shot on the scene, DeBoer, to take over the successful program of this generation. DeBoer is 104-12 during his coaching career, which spans stints at Sioux Falls (2005-09), Fresno State (2020-21) and Washington (2022-23). His ability to win at every level made his attractive to Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne, even though DeBoer is an “outsider” from a geographic standpoint.
What do these moves mean? On one hand, it could be one of those whacky coincidences. That almost certainly is the case with DeBoer, who took advantage of Saban’s retirement to take over the Tide. However, the evolution of college football has made it much more difficult for coaches to manage their rosters and time — especially in December and January.
Harbaugh’s flirtation with, and eventual departure to, the NFL gives him a chance to sit back and coach football rather than deal with rules and regulations set forth by the NCAA. Those rules, of course, caused him to be suspended for three games on two separate occasions during the 2023 title run.
Saban, who turned 72 last October, has referenced multiple times over the last few years how difficult it is to manage high school recruiting and the transfer portal, name, image and likeness (NIL), and coaching actual football.
The 2023 season was one of the most remarkable in the sport’s history, and the departure of three of the four coaches who led teams to the CFP has made the aftermath almost as intriguing as the season itself.