College football is still reeling from Nick Saban’s stunning decision to retire from Alabama on Wednesday. His impact on the sport cannot be understated, and the ripples could continue throughout the state (sorry, Florida State fans).
Here are three Florida-focused thoughts on the seven-time national champion and his legacy:
Florida State’s Mike Norvell should be a top target
That’s in part because Saban’s exit comes at a time when the candidate pool isn’t as deep as you’d think.
Five years ago, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (an Alabama native who played and coached for the Crimson Tide) would have been the obvious choice. But the Tigers have tapered off as Swinney failed to adapt to the transfer portal era. Four years ago, Georgia’s Kirby Smart (Saban’s former top ‘Bama lieutenant) would have made sense. But that would be, at best, a lateral move now,
Former Saban assistant Steve Sarkisian just took another blueblood, Texas, to the College Football Playoff. Another Sabanite, Lane Kiffin, has assembled a playoff-worthy roster at Mississippi and doesn’t seem to fit the ‘Bama brand. Two others, Mario Cristobal and Billy Napier, have struggled at Miami and Florida.
We can poke holes in other outside possibilities. Oregon’s Dan Lanning and Washington’s Kalen DeBoer have only spent two seasons each as a Power Five head coach. Penn State’s James Franklin has been good but seldom great at a traditional power.
Which leads us back to Norvell who this week (coincidentally) won a national award named after the Tide’s other all-time great coach, Bear Bryant. Norvell took FSU to the brink of the playoff in his fourth season and led Memphis to the Cotton Bowl. He also has familiarity in the Southeast and a proven track record in the portal, though his high school recruiting hasn’t been elite. He seems like the safest feasible hire for ‘Bama. Whether he’s interested is a different question.
Nick Saban forced the state to modernize
Some of the effects are visible on a drive through Gainesville or Tallahassee. Florida’s Jim McElwain and FSU’s Jimbo Fisher both pushed — hard — for the programs to add and update facilities. Both schools opened their indoor practice facilities under them. Both coaches were Sabanites.
The discussions for standalone football complexes began under McElwain and Fisher, too, though the Gators’ building opened under Napier and FSU’s is still in the works. An operations center is a priority for Miami, too, under Cristobal (a ‘Bama assistant from 2013-16). All three schools have beefed up their army of analysts and support staffers; Napier’s organizational structure is a descendent of what he learned under Saban.
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Alabama wasn’t the only program to add more buildings and staffers. But Saban was one of the leaders, and his fruitful coaching tree saw the benefits of those investments. Benefits they tried to bring to the Sunshine State.
Florida’s recruiters won’t miss Nick Saban
Saban built his dynasty on elite recruiting, including 10 classes ranked No. 1 nationally. Florida’s fields were part of his kingdom. Saban signed at least 10 Floridians who were top-12 national recruits — stars like No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, four-time Pro Bowler Derrick Henry, All-America linebacker Dallas Turner, Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Berkeley Prep’s Keon Keeley. Other notable Floridians not on that list include Mac Jones, Amari Cooper and Jerry Jeudy.
Saban wasn’t the first out-of-state coach to recruit Florida well, but he did so better than anyone else and helped weaken the pull to stay home. His departure provides a chance for state schools to start rebuilding a recruiting fence at the border.
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