By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 7, 2017
One of these days, Alabama fans will have to confront the reality that Nick Saban can’t coach the Alabama Crimson Tide forever.
At whatever point that is – five years down the road, ten years – discussion will have turned to Saban’s eventual replacement probably a few months, at least, before the official announcement. If Saban starts signaling retirement at any point before that, discussion will begin immediately.
And when it does, Alabama boosters are likely to break into two camps: the Dabo Swinney camp, and the camp for all others.
Alabama fans in general have avoided discussion of Nick Saban’s retirement largely for two reasons: one, their fingers are stuck in their ears and they’re singing “LA LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU” too loudly to concentrate on the topic; two, they don’t want to jinx recruiting in whatever way boosters and fans can jinx recruiting (newsflash: they can’t). Make no mistake, though, Nick Saban even today is having to fight against rumors cooked up by his rivals that he’s on the way to the retirement home, Mr. Five-Star Prospect, and perhaps even directly after he leaves your house.
The reality is probably much different, with Saban’s eventual exit tied more toward Terry Saban’s opinions of grand-parental responsibility than whatever Nick might want to accomplish on the football field. Regardless, Nick Saban turned 66 this past October, and it’s not easy to think of coaches that remain successful into the late 70s or beyond. In other words, Saban has probably already passed the T-minus-10 line on his Alabama career.
To that end, what was once verboten must now be addressed, and that is Saban’s exit strategy from Tuscaloosa and what is going to happen when he finally pulls the trigger on the decision to hang it up.
Going back to the above, most Alabama fans have already begun to align behind Dabo Swinney, a UA-degreed favorite son who has a national championship under his belt, a goshdarn-it wholesome persona, strong Christian sensibilities and a pretty good backstory, rising from walk-on wide receiver to Alabama assistant coach to cleaning out rain gutters to getting a second chance in coaching at Clemson to finding himself the unlikely temp-to-perm head coach there when Tommy Bowden got fired. If you were to order up the prototypical Southern-boy-done-good from central casting, this is who would show up.
But there is a contingent that doesn’t see the appeal in Swinney, who took a long time to get his arms wrapped around even the eminently-winnable rivalry against South Carolina, or the concept of playing defense, or the ability to coach in close games without turning into an emotional wreck of the Hesperus. He might still struggle with the latter.
There will thus be a fairly sizable contingent of fans, both of the donating variety and not, that will prioritize former Nick Saban assistants, and perhaps whoever is currently serving on that fateful staff that will be in place at the time of Saban’s exit. Names you might recognize from this group include Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and …
… Jeremy Pruitt.
The question now turns to Pruitt’s decision to accept Phil Fulmer’s offer to helm the floundering Tennessee Volunteer program in its time of deepest need. There is little doubt Pruitt will be an upgrade from Butch Jones, whose entire career prior to getting the Tennessee job consisted of following Brian Kelly around and Jones trying to convince people his successes were his own and had nothing to do with Kelly laying the foundation.
Perhaps for that reason – for agreeing to throw a life preserver to a dying Volunteer program – Pruitt’s Tennessee venture may be held against him one day. It’s already being held against him now; Alabama alums that pursue a dalliance with either Tennessee or Auburn tend to spend a disproportionate amount of their time afterward defending their choices. And there is evidence to suggest seeking an employment with either institution is all but career suicide if a part of that career was intended to form a circle back to Tuscaloosa.
Pat Dye likes to tell people he was Bear Bryant’s real choice to replace him at Alabama. If that’s so, it’s absolutely true that Dye killed his own chances by taking the Auburn job in 1981. Bill Oliver logged an impressive career in Tuscaloosa, but his name is often spoken, in Alabama circles, immediately preceding an ejection of spittle from the mouth. So, too, for Wayne Hall. And if Will Muschamp emerges as a real candidate to take over for Saban – and from the list above, especially now with Jimbo Fisher cashing in at Texas A&M, he’s one of the only Saban disciples left that is both viable and available – he’ll have to answer for his time in Auburn, too, although Muschamp’s career path didn’t involve a move from Tuscaloosa to Auburn/Knoxville, and that’s really the issue in play for Pruitt.
Alabama fans giddy over the 11-year win streak Saban has put up over Tennessee – not to mention Saban was Fulmer’s personal Kryptonite, both while helming LSU and later Alabama, and may have been the final catalyst that got Fulmer fired in 2008 – were hoping to see the eventual death of the Tennessee program in terms of it being a top-tier SEC power. Even in the best of light, Tennessee right now ranks at the top of the SEC’s bottom half. Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida and Georgia are all objectively better stops. Once recent results are factored in, South Carolina and Kentucky become competitive. Ole Miss would be in the mix, too, were it not for probation. Pruitt, for that matter, landed the Tennessee job after being passed over by Mississippi State.
The fact Pruitt stooped to help out the Tennessee program may be treated, by Alabama fans, with the same disdain Michael Corleone had for his brother Fredo in “The Godfather”: Jeremy, you’re our brother, and we love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Bama Family again. Ever.
In the end, it might all come down to math. Saban is 67. If he stays ten years, Dabo Swinney would be 58 years old at the time Saban walks out. That’s not too old – Saban turned 56 the year he was hired at Alabama – but part of Swinney’s success has been a result of his youthful exuberance and ability to connect almost on a peer level with his players. Jeremy Pruitt would be 54, a defensive-minded coach, and possessing a demeanor more akin to that of Saban.
This is assuming math doesn’t work against Pruitt – specifically, the math of wins and losses. He has to make Tennessee successful in order to get a look-see from Alabama’s eventual search team, but if he brings the Vols back to power, he’ll be treated with disdain in quite a few quarters. If this all comes down to numbers, Pruitt may have already hung himself with one: catch-22.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN