Steve Sarkisian should stay put, because Texas is a better job than Alabama

Photo by Paul Knight

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Nick Saban shocked the college football world Wednesday with the announcement that he was retiring as head coach at Alabama. The 5-foot-6 Saban leaves elephant sized shoes to fill for whomever is hired as the next head coach of the Crimson Tide. He won six national titles in 17 seasons in Tuscaloosa and is widely considered the best college football coach in the history of the sport.

Attention now turns to the obvious question: Who is next? The rumor mill spiraled early. Dan Lanning. Dabo Swinney. Mike Norvell. Lane Kiffin. Steve Sarkisian. On Thursday, Lanning publicly denied any interest in the job and reaffirmed his commitment to Oregon. And why wouldn’t he? He has NIKE backing him and a move into the Big 10 on the horizon. It makes sense that Sark's next amongst the rumored candidates, he has a connection to the program. Sarkisian was integral to Saban's final national title in 2020 as offensive coordinator and schemed, statistically, one of the best offenses in college football history. He credits Nick Saban to saving his career that ultimately led him to Texas' first College Football Playoff appearance.

Sarkisian should also stay put at Texas

There is nothing that he would accomplish at Alabama that he couldn’t do at Texas. He beat the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa this season and led Texas to the College Football Playoff. Texas has more booster money and is in a bigger city with easier access to a wider talent base. With NIL and the transfer portal playing such a big role in the future success or failure of a college program, the correct bet is on the city next to Tesla and Dell. No one saw Sarkisian needing to beg donors to keep Jimbo Fisher at bay. 

The only other man to win multiple national titles at Alabama in the last 80 years is another all-time coaching great – Bear Bryant. He won his last national championship with the Crimson Tide in 1979. Saban won his first in 2009. In the 23 seasons between those championships, Alabama only won one national title – in 1992 with Gene Stallings.

With apologies to the great Wallace Wade, who won three national titles in the 1920s, and Frank Thomas, who claimed two between 1934 and 1941, the Legend of Alabama Football is due to two historically great head coaches. Had Bryant and Saban chosen Auburn, would the masses consider Alabama one of the destination jobs of college football? And furthermore, can the next coach keep the crimson ball rolling?

Law 41 from the “48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene compels us to “avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes.” There is no greater man than Saban in college football and there was no greater man than Bryant in this space when he left Alabama following the 1982 season. Ray Perkins followed Bryant and lasted four seasons after posting a .677 winning percentage. Bill Curry took over prior to the 1987 season and eventually led the Crimson Tide to a co-SEC championship season in 1989 – the first since the Bryant-led squad of 1981. From 1979 until 1992, Alabama didn’t win a single outright SEC championship.

Gene Stallings led the Crimson Tide to a perfect season in 1992, but he couldn’t keep Alabama on the mountaintop like Bryant. The program wouldn’t win another SEC championship until Mike DuBose led the Crimson Tide to one in 1999. They wouldn’t win another one until Saban’s in 2009. DuBose was 24-23 in four seasons at the helm. Dennis Franchione was 17-8 in two seasons before bolting to Texas A&M. Mike Shula followed and 26-23 for two seasons before the program was saved by Saban in 2007. 

Following legendary coaches is never easy. Texas struggled for over a decade once the end of the Mack Brown era. Florida State took a long time to rebound after Bobby Bowden retired. USC is still trying to reach the heights of Pete Carroll’s dynasty nearly 20 years later despite one of the most high-profile coup-hires in recent memory. Alabama’s birthright isn’t to win national championships. Unless Bryant or the next best coach of a generation walks into Tuscaloosa, the smart money is on Alabama regressing to the mean with the next regime.

It's today's college football, it's never been harder to win. The expansion to a 12-team playoff plus the introduction of super conferences means the route to the championship is bumpier than ever. Early on, Bryant and his contemporaries like Darryl K Royal could hoard the best talent. Now, the transfer portal and NIL means that talent distribution should return to pre-mega team years, which coincided with LeBron James and his move to Miami.

There may never be another Saban because it’ll be impossible to build those types of dynasties. Think the NFL where the shelf life is typically three or four years, and that’s without eligibility limits. Texas and Oklahoma are joining the SEC. Oregon, USC, and Washington are headed into the Big 10. Georgia is a monster. The days of sustained dominance are probably done everywhere, not just at Alabama.

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The only coaches who should jump at the opportunity to follow Saban are ones who aren’t in chairs capable of winning national championships. Think Norvell or Kiffin. That ruled out Lanning. It should rule out Sarkisian.

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