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Saban’s Bama career did more than just rebuild a dynasty

In February 2002, my father announced his retirement after a 47-year career in medicine. It was a career marked by two extraordinarily significant things, given the day and age we now live in: He was never sued for malpractice, and he never lost a patient on his operating table.

In May 2002, my father was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him.

The man who was a beloved and supremely competent physician – one that, sometime in the early 1970s, turned down an invitation extended to him by one of the university’s athletic team doctors, allegedly on direct orders from Paul “Bear” Bryant himself, who knew of my father through his relationship to several former Bama players, to join Alabama’s medical team – and one that deserved a long, happy retirement, did not get one. He had dreamed of spending his final years traveling with my mother, in particular in Europe and California, visiting vineyards and wineries. They never got the chance.

His story is one I have retold many times over the years, not just therapeutically for my own benefit while dealing with his untimely and unfair death, but as a cautionary tale to anyone who is older, financially secure and able: Retire when you still have good years left. Enjoy your family. My parents did not. Don’t be them.

When news broke today, Jan. 10, 2024, of Nick Saban’s retirement, it caused me to reflect not just on my father, but my son. He is, almost to the exact day, the same age I was when Bryant announced his retirement following the 1982 season. When I told him the news after picking him up from school, he responded much the same way I did to my mother when she told me of Coach Bryant’s retirement: “What are we going to do now?”

Nick Saban’s career will go down not just as potentially the greatest in college football history from a numbers standpoint, it will also be noteworthy for the historic reclamation of Alabama’s place atop the college football landscape, which had fallen into serious question following the departure of Bryant in 1982. Saban’s near-unprecedented run of national championships at Alabama got the Crimson Tide out of the did-they-or-didn’t-they bracket with Notre Dame, where fans of the two schools burned hours every offseason debating the legitimacy of early-era national championships. Even though Michigan is now the defending national champion, Saban leaves Alabama with the program in the position of being the measuring stick against which all other programs’ successes are judged.

But it’s also notable at this time to remember Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama for something other than the games on the field, and chief among those off-the-field memories were how the Saban family together helped Tuscaloosa, and the state of Alabama as a whole, heal after the April 27, 2011 tornado that ravaged the city. It has been said many times over the years, quietly, that Nick Saban stopped listening to any other potential suitors following the aftermath of that storm. While the Sabans were already connected to the Tuscaloosa community, the tornado did as much to help them build roots in Tuscaloosa as it did to rip up the trees and buildings located within the city.

If Nick Saban wasn’t already larger than life in Tuscaloosa, he became so on that day, and the days that immediately followed. Tuscaloosa was already his home, but it became home then, the same way Mom and Dad’s house is home long after one has left its comfort and solace and headed out into the big world around them.

It would surprise no one if Nick Saban stayed sidelined for a few months, maybe a year or two, and then suddenly showed up at the door of the high school nearest to his properties in Georgia or Florida, offering to serve as the volunteer defensive coordinator, maybe even washing a few loads of jerseys after a Friday night battle, and screaming at a 16-year-old cornerback for not being in the right phase. Or, as Rob Ezell once expertly put it, Saban might choose to simply move to Lake Burton, Ga., sit on the front porch and watch the ducks (play) in the yard.

Whatever Nick Saban decides to do next, he is almost guaranteed to be successful at it. Seventeen years at Alabama, sixteen of them dominant. He restored Alabama football to its accustomed spot in the college football pecking order, and put up a record of success against Alabama’s rivals so magisterial that many teams’ fans reacted to his retirement announcement as if they themselves had just won some kind of championship.

A coaching search now awaits, and with it, the opportunity for another man to attempt to add his own creations to the Alabama football script. It won’t be the same without Nick Saban around, but the unknown is not to be feared. Nick Saban asked, in his introductory press conference, “what kind of football team do we want to have here?” It turns out the answer was the one he gave us.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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