John Clay

$aban good for Bama, but at a cost to game

With the exception of one, to every athletics director in the country, Nick $aban is now Nick $atan.

Here's why:

From the day $aban left the Miami Dolphins and signed an outrageous, eight-year, $32 million contract to coach the Alabama Crimson Tide, any athletic administrator with a tight budget and an ambitious coach hoped that somehow the 56-year-old $aban would fall flat on his face.

$aban hasn't fallen flat on his face.

In fact, he is now the face of just what a good head coach can do, satisfying the insatiable 'Bama fan base with an outstanding freshman class, a 5-0 start, and a No. 2 national ranking in just his second season.

Plus, he's not satisfied.

"I know somebody's going to ask me about this," Saban said Monday. "I don't even know what we're ranked. Nobody's told me. I don't really care because it doesn't matter. Whatever it is, can somebody tell me who was ranked on Sept. 29 last year at this time? Is it the 29th or the 28th today, I have no idea. All right, the 29th, who was ranked there last year at this time? Does anybody know?"

'Bama fans love that. The guy is so wrapped up in football, he doesn't even know the date. Whatever the date, it's just another day to get better at football.

There is a famous, more like infamous, story that early in his first season with the Miami Dolphins, Saban's secretary made the mistake of complimenting his new haircut. The coach let the secretary know he was never to be spoken to about anything other than football.

(Hence the nickname: Nick $atan.)

This is a man who declined dinner with the president because he would have missed a pre-season practice.


This is a man Forbes magazine dubbed "The Most Powerful Coach in Sports" in a recent cover story.

But is a coach worth $4 million a year? And is such a salary good for the game?

"Obviously, it's turned out to be good for Alabama," UK Coach Rich Brooks said Tuesday. Brooks' team travels to Tuscaloosa to play Saban's squad on Saturday. "Right now they're ranked second in the nation, and they've got a great coach."

Alabama can also charge anywhere from $40 to $65 a ticket, depending on the game. The UK-Alabama ticket is $55. If you want to see Alabama-Auburn, it's $65.

"I guess I don't know what's good for the game," continued Brooks, who was also the athletic director at Oregon in the early 1990s. "I didn't think there would ever be a million-dollar coach, and now I'm in that category, which is really shocking.

"It's just that everything changes. The importance that athletic directors are putting on the engine that pulls the wagon, to keep funding everything else, and the importance of keeping fannies in all of those seats, and paying premium prices — except at Kentucky, where our tickets are cheapest in the league. Is it bad for the game? I don't know."

Problem is where does it stop? After all, Saban's salary is not a reward for a job well done. It was a speculative salary, betting that the coach would restore a once-great program to national prominence. Through five games this season, Saban has done exactly that.

Wrote Tommy Hicks in the Mobile Press-Register this week, "The credit belongs to Saban, who is making that $32 million contract seem like a bargain."

If the Tide has succeeded by paying Saban millions, what's to stop another struggling program from paying even more, or a coach from demanding it?

"I think a lot of things are bad for the game — it's excesses," Brooks said. "But the game keeps being a great game, and it keeps getting better in a lot of ways."

Based on what $aban is doing in Tuscaloosa, it figures to get even better for the bank accounts of coaches.

And tougher on ADs.