SABAN STILL A BARGAIN FOR BAMA
By MATT BROWN
Fifty-nine years ago, the University of Alabama made the best investment in school history.
After a proud football program bottomed out under Jennings Whitworth, Alabama lured back Bear Bryant, star player in the early 1930s, as its new head coach. When Bryant left Texas A&M, he signed a 10-year contract worth $17,500 per year, according to newspaper reports at the time, to coach the Alabama football team and be the athletic director.
Long before television money took over college football, Bryant's original base salary would be worth about $150,000 today. Bryant went on to become arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport, emerging as an iconic figure who led the Crimson Tide to 232 wins and six national championships before retiring at the end of the 1982 season. He was merely a football coach, sure, but nobody has ever been a better publicity agent for a university. It was as good of a deal as any college football program has ever made.
This season, Alabama coach Nick Saban will be paid over $11 million, a number that at first glance feels exorbitant now, let alone a decade ago, let alone six decades ago. And yet it's still a good deal, too.
Back in 1995, Bobby Bowden became the first college football coach to make $1 million per year. Now, Alabama's fourth-highest paid coach makes almost that much, as linebackers coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi has been given a raise from $550,000 to $950,000. The other assistant salaries announced on Tuesday include $1.3 million for defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, $1.2 million for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, $600,000 for receivers coach Mike Locksley, $535,000 for strength coach Scott Cochran, $490,000 for running backs coach Burton Burns, $405,000 for defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley, $400,000 for offensive line coach Brent Key, $375,000 for tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio and $275,000 for defensive line coach Karl Dunbar.
The assistant salaries are eye-popping -- particularly Lupoi's -- but the headlines still belong to Saban. Saban arrived at Alabama for the 2007 season with a $4 million per year contract. He made just shy of $7 million last year. With a three-year extension through the 2024 season, Saban will, including bonuses, make an average of around $8 million per year, with the $4 million signing bonus pushing him over $11 million for 2017 alone. Overall, the deal could pay Saban over $65 million in eight years. Saban will turn 66 in October, meaning the new contract will end when he's 73 years old.
Saban's entire career shows that there are no guarantees that he'll stay in one place for a long time, and contract extensions never mean that a coach won't leave (or get fired). It happens all the time. And yet, Alabama has reached the point where it seems highly unlikely that Saban will finish his career anywhere else. After earning a reputation for years as a program builder, Saban has settled into a job at one of the most prestigious football schools in the country for the long haul, a coup in itself for Alabama, given his nomadic career previously in which he never stayed anywhere longer than five years.
"This has become our home and we are looking forward to finishing our career at Alabama," Saban said in a statement released by the university.
In a decade, Saban has orchestrated nine straight top-10 AP finishes. From 1982-2007, Alabama had seven top-10 AP finishes. In the 10 years before Saban arrived, Alabama lost at least five games seven times. Saban has five losses in the past five years total. A program like Alabama has the resources and history to succeed with a lot of coaches, but the Mike DuBose and Mike Shula eras showed that sustained success is hardly guaranteed. Saban has not only succeeded; he has built one of the greatest dynasties in college football history, winning four national championships in the past eight seasons and dominating the recruiting trail, making Alabama the preseason favorite most years.
While Alabama always has the potential to be nationally competitive with the right coach, Saban has done the unthinkable. Bryant's record was seemingly unmatchable, and yet Saban has come along and crafted a legitimate argument for being the best coach in college football history over the Bear. Bryant may always be more iconic because of his personality and because he came first, but Saban is an adaptable coach building national championship contenders ever year in an era of college football in which the widespread influx of television money and the 85-scholarship limit theoretically should make it more difficult to be dominant than it used to be in Bryant's days.
Announcements like Alabama's salary list on Tuesday often lead to bewilderment over the fact that a college football coach could make that much and that the players themselves continue to have their compensation unfairly capped. The latter point is true, but it's a separate argument from whether Saban is worth this much money. The former argument may be true as well, but in 10 years, Saban has proven to be one of the most valuable people in all of sports, players or coaches, which makes his salary look like a bargain in the current market. If coaching salaries are going to be this high, then it's hard to argue that Saban doesn't deserve this much, enough to push him back ahead of Michigan's Jim Harbaugh among the nation's highest-paid coaches.
In 2015, The New York Times published an article headlined "Alabama Is Rolling in Cash, With Tide Lifting All The Boats," detailing the various impacts that Saban's success has had on the university, from athletics to academics. For better or worse, successful football teams have always been viewed in part as publicity engines for universities, dating back to the early days of the sport over a century ago. Saban's success has undeniably bolstered the University of Alabama as a whole, and with athletics revenue continuing to skyrocket, Alabama is right to pay Saban what's he worth. In fact, it's hard to even come up with a number that shows what he's worth to Alabama, but it's more than $8 million per year.
Perhaps a bubble will burst soon. Perhaps TV rights fees have peaked and college sports revenue will plateau. In the current market, however, Saban's new deal is a good one for Alabama. Any deal that locks him up until he retires is a good one.
So much has changed since Bryant took the Alabama job for what looks like pennies compared to Saban's contract today. Alabama's results, however, have not changed. That Saban has built something comparable to Bryant -- arguably even better -- makes any deal that keeps him in Tuscaloosa a no-brainer. It's not the bargain that Bryant was, but given the state of the game today, Saban is more than worth what Alabama is paying him.