Nick Saban steps down as Alabama’s football coach

Stephen Raburn
7 min readFeb 1, 2024

When I first learned Nick Saban decided to retire as head football coach at the University of Alabama, I have to admit that I was a little surprised by my reaction — which was a wave of sadness. I took a minute to take it in — and a few days to wrap my mind around it and put some thoughts into words.

First of all, don’t ask me to explain why Alabama football is important to me. I don’t get it either. It’s “just” a game played by young men less than half my age I don’t know for a university I never attended representing a state where I haven’t lived since the mid-1980s and have very little connection to, aside from a few siblings who still live there. And a love for its football team.

There’s a lot to not like about college football these days, the unwieldy transfer portal and NIL and the emergence of the geography and tradition-defying super-conferences, etc. For the past few years, I’ve half-jokingly said I was going to “retire” when Saban does. Do I really have 3.5 hours to devote to a football game every Saturday in the fall? I tried once before. Back when I was living in California and Alabama wasn’t very good and I had little girls and was more likely to be watching Rolie Polie Olie on Saturday mornings than College Game Day. But even then I couldn’t shake it.

If I said it’s not easy being an Alabama fan, I doubt there would be too many people who feel sorry for me. It’s just that for the past 15 years or so, expectations have been so high and the vitriol so obnoxious among the trolls and haters, quick to pounce on any flaw or misstep, that whenever Bama wins a game it’s mostly a relief — more so than satisfying or joyous. And a lot of the wins were just frustrating — if they didn’t look great doing it or didn’t cover the spread or their Heisman front-runner didn’t put up good enough numbers or if some far inferior opponent scored a late touchdown to make the game seem closer than it really was. What a spoiled bunch we are!

And Alabama losses, few and far between as they’ve been, were always gut-wrenching, usually by a point or two, often decided on the last play of the game, and usually with a championship on the line. And/or the result of some flukish voodoo by Auburn (the kick-six, the Cam-back). It can be exhausting.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t “choose” to be a Bama fan. I was born into it. Babies in Alabama come out of the womb pre-ordained as either Alabama or Auburn fans, with a congenital disdain for the other side. By the grace of a loving and merciful God, I was born a Bama fan. My childhood was spent in the backyard pretending to be an All-American Crimson Tide quarterback running the triple option alongside imaginary teammates and Coach Bear Bryant, the original GOAT, looking on approvingly over by the chestnut trees.

Whenever a new kid stepped foot onto an Alabama elementary school, the first question they heard wasn’t “What’s your name?” or “Where’d you move here from?” It was “Who you for, Alabama ‘r Auburn?” The answer determined their position and status on the playground. Kids who said they didn’t know or didn’t care were assumed to be from “up north” and relegated to the corner with the other outcasts who wouldn’t get picked when choosing sides for softball at recess.

There’s no way to separate politics and the role of football in the state and the rest of the South. As the tumultuous 1960s gave way to a new decade, Alabama, like most southern universities, hadn’t yet integrated its athletic teams. And they were starting to lose more games than was acceptable. Coach Bryant knew his teams couldn’t compete nationally without Black athletes, a point emphatically reinforced when Sam “Bam” Cunningham and the USC Trojans ran all over the Tide in 1970.

Bear Bryant and George Wallace, the state’s staunch segregationist governor, were the two most powerful men in the state at that time, probably in that order. It’s been said that the Bear did more to end segregation in Alabama than anyone, and that’s probably true.

By the time of my earliest Alabama football memories, Blacks played prominent roles and the Tide was rolling again. I’m sure there were plenty of Alabama daddies slipping off to Klan rallies as their kids were in the backyard pretending to be Wilbur Jackson and Willie Shelby and Calvin Culliver and Ozzie Newsome and the winds of change were blowing ever-so-gently across the Heart of Dixie.

Football has always been a source of pride in the Deep South, particularly Alabama, which lagged behind most every other state in categories of well-being and was tainted by a legacy of firehoses and “colored” drinking fountains and church bombings. But we were really good at football. We had something of an inferiority complex and a chip on our collective shoulders. Football helped soothe the wounds. Then and now, it just means more.

I was in third grade when my older brothers took me to Tuscaloosa for my first Alabama football game, undoubtedly the highlight of my young life to that point. I remember vividly seeing Bear Bryant in person for the first time, propped up against the goalpost on the field before the game started, my brothers pointing him out to me. I can still tell you the score of every game that year, an undefeated regular season that ended with a 24–23 loss to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. I cried like a baby that night and started hating Notre Dame almost as much as I hated Auburn.

Fortunately, the losses were few and far between throughout my childhood in the 70s and early 80s. I was a senior in high school when Coach Bryant announced his retirement. By then, his health was poor and the wishbone offense was becoming obsolete and the losses were starting to mount, including to Auburn, Coach Bryant’s final loss, for which I have never forgiven “that cow college on the other side of the state” as he was said to call them. His last game was a win against Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. He died 28 days later. Alabama mourned.

For the next +three decades, Alabama football was steeped in mediocrity. They had some good seasons here and there and a nice run in the early 90s under Coach Gene Stallings, even a national championship in 1992. But they could never sustain success and never came close to the “dynasty” Bama fans became accustomed to under Bear Bryant and believed was our birthright. The early 2000s was a hot mess of losing, probation, scandal, and embarrassment. I remember thinking back then that all I wanted was for Alabama to just be relevant again. ESPN barely mentions you if you’re not even ranked in the Top 25. Ask Auburn.

Then, everything changed. Nick Saban arrived on the scene in 2007 and went about exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations and imagination. Six national championships (and a play or two from at least a few more, including this year), 11 SEC titles, four Heisman Trophy winners (before Saban, there had been zero), and a ridiculous 206–29 (.877) win-loss record. Sure, he could come off as pompous and gruff, especially during press conferences and to sideline reporters, but Bama fans saw through the abrasive exterior to the side of him that truly cared deeply for his players. He softened (some) through the years, and we loved him like a grouchy but lovable Grandfather, misunderstood by envious outsiders, who graciously shared his wife, Miss Terry, the state matriarch, with us. Not only did he lead Bama’s return to prominence, but he created, quite possibly, the greatest dynasty in the history of college football. For this, Bama fans like me will forever be grateful!

Earlier this season, stumbling out of the gates with a loss at home to Texas followed by an uninspiring win against South Florida, as QB Jalen Milroe was getting benched and thrown under the bus, and the hiring of Tommy Rees as OC was being questioned… I have to admit, even I was starting to wonder if maybe the game had started to pass him by and, at age 72 and with absolutely nothing left to prove, perhaps, it might be time for Saban to start thinking about stepping down. What transpired thereafter was arguably the greatest coaching of his career, and pure brilliance. Along the way, Bama avenged last year’s losses to Tennessee and LSU, did their part to send Jimbo packin’ from Texas A&M, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat @ Jordon-Hare on 4th and 31, and restored the SEC pecking order by beating the presumably invincible Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game. Meanwhile, Jalen Milroe rose from the ashes and emerged as one of the best QBs in all of college football. Poetic justice.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” said Keats, and I’m pretty sure he was referring to Milroe, Bama, Saban, et al in 2023. Oh, how the storybook should have ended with another national championship. But it wasn’t in the cards. And that’s okay. It was a perfectly satisfying season in many ways, albeit exhausting. Saban said this year took a toll on him. Me too, Coach. Me too.

And now comes a new era. I expect I’ll eventually warm up to the new coach. I haven’t jumped on the DeBoer bandwagon just yet. I’ll need a little more time. Maybe I will actually “retire” this time. There’s much to do on Saturdays in the fall in North Carolina other than watch football on TV. Chances are, though, by the time August rolls around, I’ll be all in. Again. It’s in my blood. For better or worse.

Truthfully, I love Alabama football. It’s illogical, inexplicable, and unconditional. And I don’t expect anyone who’s reading this to understand. Unless you also grew up in Alabama.

Roll Tide!

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Stephen Raburn

Stephen Raburn is a writer, daydreamer, activist, and father of two amazing daughters. He lives in Durham, NC.