This year's greatest reminder of sports mortality came just last week, when Blue Jays and Phillies great Roy Halladay retired. For around 10 years, his detail-focused, methodical, process-oriented approach to pitching put him close to the top of the baseball universe. At his peak, it seemed like it would never end. But only three years after attaining perfection, Halladay was finished. He couldn't execute properly anymore, the process broken down, and he walked away at 36 rather than continuing to press on as shell of his formerly-dominant self.
Obviously, a bum arm can't derail a coaching career. A coach can't lose his fastball physically, only metaphorically. But if Alabama coach Nick Saban has had an athlete parallel -- on the field, at least -- it's Halladay, the coldly efficient taskmaster who set new standards for consistent excellence. Eventually, even those in the most complete control of the outcome, through a combination of personal talent and preparation, can't continue at such a high rate of success. Peak performances gets away from you, sometimes out of your control. One short field goal in the hands of college students can derail a season; one underperforming recruiting class can set in motion a larger downturn.
The latter, whether it's recruiting-related or something else, will come eventually at Alabama, and while there is no proof that Saban has reached this point, 23 years since his first head coaching job and 10 years since his first national championship, his coaching career is closer to its ending than its beginning. He may very well be satisfied with the stability of Alabama, his role as a living legend at one of the top jobs in football and, at a reported $7 million per year or more now, the richest contract of anyone in the college game. But Saban's nothing if not ambitious, never perceived as 100 percent happy, and as such his name will not stop getting mentioned as a possibility for other marquee jobs even as he veers toward the end of his prime. There is always the potential for more.
With the Texas job dismissed, the number of sensible moves dwindles. Which means that the defining question in the college football world for the next few years might not be a college question at all: Does Nick Saban want to win a Super Bowl?
Rarely does a football coach get to decide when and how he goes out, but there comes a certain point in a career when the end game has to be planned anyway. For Saban, the man with the most unassailable position in the sport, that time actually isn't that far off.
It was no secret, of course, but one of the most startling facts emphasized during the Texas coaching saga of last week was that Saban, at age 62, is the same age as Mack Brown. In football terms, they seem so far apart, Saban the man Longhorns supporters hoped would bring the program future glory in place of a past-his-prime Brown. But Saban's final act as a football coach is nearing, and thus we are not far removed from a definitive answer to the question of whether his wandering football eye is attracted to the one un-met goal that could immortalize him further.
So now that realignment has stalled and the future of the postseason has been temporarily resolved, the most important figure in college football is not a conference commissioner or a university president, not Mark Emmert or Texas' new athletic director. The last week proved that the most powerful man in the sport is -- and may remain for the foreseeable future -- Saban.
Only Saban can claim the throne as the person who would be the No. 1 candidate for any college job if athletic directors had their wish. Only Saban could have set up a new reality by going to Texas, potentially priming the Longhorns for a dominant run, while also opening the Alabama job -- arguably the second best in college football -- which could also open up someone else's job … and on and on. The entire football landscape is at the mercy of Saban, who not only could go anywhere he wants, but also is apparently capable of resetting the market by himself (with the help of agent Jimmy Sexton) in securing a salary higher than almost every NFL coach, let alone the entire college crowd.
In the past week-plus of drama, we finally learned that Saban's professional goals apparently do not involve coaching Texas, but that's still about all we know about his motivations. The nation's best coach is also its most unknowable, and the question of what Saban's motivations are may define the rest of the decade in college football, where the center of the sport's universe continues to be in the state of Alabama, but the lingering question remains for how long.
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Leaving college football for the NFL wouldn't be a new experience for Saban. He did it after the 1990 season, when he left his first head coaching job at Toledo after only one 9-2 season to become the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick. He did it again a year after winning his first national championship at LSU, bolting the college game for a short, unsuccessful stint with the Miami Dolphins marred by controversy, before finally landing at Alabama, which has been as close to a perfect marriage as possible for someone largely seen as a coaching mercenary.
Whether there may have been serious interest in Texas beyond Sexton's desire to make Saban one of the highest-paid coaches in all of football, pro or college, is only up to conjecture. Saban and his wife, Terry, have stayed committed to Alabama, of course, with Terry telling the Wall Street Journal, "We're staying; we're not going anywhere," and Saban saying back in September that he's "just too damn old to start over somewhere else," all before receiving a new mega-deal that on the surface confirms such statements.
But even when Saban chooses to stay put, past history still causes us all to continue to speculate wildly and ponder a future in which Saban actually does leave Alabama.
For as machine-like as Alabama's success under Saban is, it can dry up in a hurry, and probably will at some point. No dynasty lasts forever. Florida State needed a decade to get it right after losing the 2000 national championship; Florida is directionless post-Tebow/Meyer; USC went into NCAA purgatory post-Pete Carroll; Texas fell of a cliff after Colt McCoy got hurt at the Rose Bowl. Even the best situations go bad, and while Saban remains at the height of his power, perhaps with greater control over his situation than any coach in history, there is a finite window for new opportunities. Carroll, who's also 62, saw that and found a perfect new -- and probably last -- opportunity for himself in Seattle, where he's rebuilt his pro coaching reputation.
Saban really isn't "too damn old" just yet, but he's already one of the oldest coaches to ever win a national championship. All available evidence indicates he is staying at Alabama, but sustained excellence is only possible for so long, and, like Halladay, Saban doesn't seem to be the type who will prolong his career once he loses his fastball. At some point, the toughest decision has to be made.
For now, time is still on his side, and the secretive nature of Saban's ambitions make the future still a mystery filled with what-ifs that could drastically alter the football landscape. But like an athlete, a coach is in firm control of his fate for only so long.
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