SEC-ya: Nick Saban’s goodbye comes at just the right time for the Sooners

SEC-ya: Nick Saban’s goodbye comes at just the right time for the Sooners

Alabama comes to Owen Field next November, and the Tide will come bearing a robust roster, even if the transfer portal isn’t kind to Bama’s new coach, whoever he may be. But that roster won’t be led by the man who created the SEC monster.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 11, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 11, 2024, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma highways and byways, the boulevards and the back roads, the avenues and the roadways, were not flooded Wednesday evening with revelers.

I assume that’s because they passed out from merriment before ever making it to the streets.

Ding Dong, the Nick Saban era is over at Alabama, just as the Sooners are about to enter the colosseum. OU’s Southeastern Conference adventure just got a little easier, except for the little part.

The greatest college football coach of them all — greater than Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes or Bobby Bowden; greater than Bud, Barry or Bob; greater than Knute Rockne or Tom Osborne or Red Blaik; greater than Pop Warner or Amos Alonzo Stagg or Walter Camp — no longer will command the Crimson Tide sideline.

And the lion with the sharpest fangs and the surliest attitude will be gone from the SEC arena. 

Alabama comes to Owen Field next November, and the Tide will come bearing a robust roster, even if the transfer portal isn’t kind to Bama’s new coach, whoever he may be. But that roster won’t be led by the man who created the SEC monster. 

Alabama will hire a stud, of that there is no doubt. One of the Pacific Northwest dynamos;  Oregon’s Dan Lanning or Washington’s Kalen DeBoer. One of the Deep South’s current hotshots; Florida State’s Mike Norvell or Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin. Or maybe Bama will hire away Steve Sarkisian from Texas, weakening both programs.

Doesn’t matter. OU’s SEC assignment was smoothed with the Saban news.

Saban took Alabama to the highest heights in college football history. Heights no one knew any program could reach. Hired in January 2007, Saban had the Tide a national contender by 2008, a national champion by 2009 and a runaway locomotive by 2011.

While the likes of Bear Bryant and Barry Switzer and Woody Hayes won national titles with spectacular regular seasons, Saban’s teams won seven national championships (six at Bama, one at Louisiana State) and won them via a true playoff, be it a two-team or four-team affair.

Saban’s playoff record as a coach: 13-5. That’s a .722 winning percentage against the very best teams in the country in any given season. Incredible.

No way his successor matches that success. 

When Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa on January 3, 2007, the SEC had won one national title in eight years — Saban’s 2003 LSU team.

Florida beat Ohio State for the championship five days after Bama hired Saban, and LSU and Florida won the next two titles, giving the SEC tremendous momentum. But Saban won championships in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020.

What I call the SEC mythology — not necessarily untrue — was fueled by the Crimson Tide.

And when news broke in summer 2021 that OU and Texas were SEC-bound, both Red River rivals knew the challenge they had accepted. Take down Godzilla to get where you want to go.

Soon enough, Georgia, too, became a Godzilla, and the Sooners and Longhorns appeared to have sold their birthright for a cash-filled porridge.

Saban’s retirement changes that script. Alabama remains Alabama, the same way Oklahoma remains Oklahoma even when legends like Switzer and Stoops no longer inhabit the big office.

Sure, sometimes programs dip when legends leave — Bama entered the wilderness without Bear Bryant, Florida floundered after Steve Spurrier and after Urban Meyer, Georgia slumbered post-Vince Dooley — but it’s not automatic.

Osborne following Bob Devaney at Nebraska. John Robinson following John McKay at Southern Cal. Les Miles following Saban at LSU. Lincoln Riley following Stoops at OU. Lots of success stories.

But Bama’s next coach cannot possibly approach Saban’s success. Saban raised the bar too high. Lightning can strike the same place twice. But Saban was an electric storm the likes of which the sport never has seen.

Even in his final year, Saban coached his butt off. An Alabama team that looked lost in September — remember the 10-3 lead on South Florida with two minutes left in the game? — was a terror in January.

The Michigan team that took apart Washington in the national championship game Monday night trailed Alabama 20-13 with two minutes left, before winning in overtime. The Tide was this close to playing for another title and perhaps winning.

So now you know why there is joy in Soonerville. Whatever is ahead for Alabama, it can’t match the Saban Crimson Tide. The Bama machine at least has shut down for maintenance. 

OU can catch its breath, knowing that while the Tide awaits, Saban does not, as the Sooners prepare for the SEC gauntlet this autumn, playing Tennessee, Texas, Ole Miss, Missouri, Alabama and LSU in the span of 11 Saturdays. 

And long-term, the SEC surely will be at least a little more egalitarian. Georgia remains a hungry lion. LSU might remember how to tackle. Florida always is capable of waking up. Texas A&M recruits well and Ole Miss portals well.

Plus Texas is back.

But Saban is gone. Put on the party hat. Dance in the street. The Sooners’ SEC outlook just got a lot better.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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