Nick Saban’s exit confirms a new era of college football

by Adam Minter

For Alabama football coach Nick Saban, winning was always second to “the process.” He stressed the importance of putting the most effort and intensity on executing the current play, not the scoreboard. But it’s hard not to keep score when you think of the legendary college football coach.

Last Wednesday, Saban retired with a 297-71-1 record, seven national championships and a reputation as one of the greatest coaches in the history of American sports.

Yet his success wasn’t just about sticking to his process. More so than any other coach, Saban thrived in an era when great teams were recruited, players stayed in place because transferring was hard, and compensation was limited to scholarships.

Today’s college athletes aren’t so constrained. Over the last three years, they’ve received the right to transfer without hindrance and to monetize themselves. Saban, as much as any coach in college football, has been publicly uncomfortable with how students embraced these changes. Fans will never know if he could have adapted to them long term. Whoever succeeds him will have no choice.

Change has come quickly to college football. In 2021, the National Collegiate Athletic Association issued rules that allow athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness rights, or NIL; it also loosened up strict transfer rules that prevented athletes from competing for a year at their new schools. In combination, these two changes have fundamentally altered the landscape of big-time college football.

Whereas prior to 2021, a coach could invest time and energy into recruiting players who would almost certainly remain at their first school for the duration of their playing careers, today they are subject to an ad hoc free agency. Coaches, working with donors, actively recruit high school students and players on current rosters with promises of lucrative NIL deals. The transfer portal, a database where athletes express their interest in potentially finding a new school, has become a means of bidding up — and winning over — talent.

The numbers can be mind-boggling. In November, Nebraska coach Matt Rhule told reporters “a good quarterback in the portal costs $1 million to $1.5 million to $2 million right now.” For coaches accustomed to recruiting — and then keeping — players for the duration of their college playing careers, it’s been a difficult and bitter adjustment. Saban has been particularly vocal.His preferred recruiting tool was low-key and fact-based, summed up in a recorded video that was leaked and went viral in 2021: Alabama wins championships, the competition in practice improves recruits, and its players get drafted into the NFL.In 2022, he lamented that schools could “buy players” and accused rival Texas A&M of doing just that. Though he also works with groups seeking to recruit via NIL, he seems to take particular umbrage when a student opts to leave the process in search of more money and playing time.

“We’re giving people scholarships. We’re creating name, image and likeness opportunities. But what is their commitment?” he asked during a radio appearance last summer. “So when you can opt out, transfer, do whatever you want whenever you want, I’m not sure that balance is quite right.”

He’s not the only coach thinking that way. But it’s not a uniform opinion, and the future of college football — at least for now — will belong to coaches who have a more flexible attitude toward money and freedom of movement and see both as a tool for building winning teams.

Deion Sanders, the meteoric head coach at the University of Colorado Boulder, best exemplifies this approach. In 2023, his first year at Colorado, he brought in 47 transfer students from other four-year colleges. Along the way he improved a 1-11 team (in 2022) to 4-8 and gave Colorado a national profile. This year he’s bringing in 16 transfers recruited from other schools, a haul that’s ranked No. 1 in the nation for a 2024 transfer class.

It’s not the approach that Saban would take, and Sanders, among others, knows it. As news of Saban’s retirement broke, Sanders, referring to the Alabama legend as the greatest of all time, posted to X: “The game has change[d] so much that it chased the GOAT away.”

During his career, Saban proved himself to be among the most adaptable of coaches. His success over the last few years suggests he could have thrived during this era, too. But even if he continued to do so, it’s clear that NIL and the transfer portal require coaches willing to go beyond simply recruiting high school students into a “process.” For better and for worse, Nick Saban represents that bygone era.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of sports.