As Nick Saban approaches his 72nd birthday later this year, questions will inevitably continue about his retirement plans.
Alabama fans might roll their eyes each time they are asked, but the latest came this week from perhaps Saban’s biggest ally among sports commentators in ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.
“I basically love what I do,” Saban told Smith during a wide-ranging interview on his “Know Mercy” podcast. “I love the relationships with the players. I love trying to build a team with a group of people. That’s a lot of fun. I enjoy doing that.
“I am also very aware that I don’t want to ever ride the program down. In other words, there’s going to come a time when my age and my circumstance — everybody is going to be able to tell somebody, ‘Well, he’s not going to be there. I mean, how long is he going to coach, until he’s 90?’ That will start to affect the program maybe in an adverse way. I don’t want to get there.
“I don’t ever want to be in this position where I don’t feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the program, because I can still do the work at a quality level that is making a contribution to the success of the organization.
“So, I’m not there yet. But all those things are factors that I would consider. Whenever the time comes — it hasn’t come yet, and I enjoy doing what I’m doing.”
Saban has provided similar answers to questions in recent years about retirement, including two years ago, when he noted his conditions of not riding the program down and being able to make a positive contribution to it. Saban has spoken about his fears of retirement being an “empty abyss” that remains a “scary thought.”
But Saban’s more recent answers have expounded on what he means by not riding the program down. That included an appearance on The 33rd Team podcast with former NFL coach Bill Cowher last month in which Saban, like he did to Smith, explained how his age could negatively impact recruiting even if his performance as a coach was still up to his standard.
“The one thing I think about some is I don’t want to ride the program down here,” he said. “In other words, I don’t want my age in some kind of way to be an impediment in continuing to be successful. Because people say, ‘He’s too old now and he won’t be the coach when I’m there,’ or whatever.
“When that starts to happen, I’m gonna say what I love to do is not as important as the program continuing to be successful.”
Smith also asked Saban if he feels confident he can compete with younger, successful college coaches such as Kirby Smart, both on the field and in his messaging to modern players remaining effective.
“I think better than ever,” Saban said. “I don’t think you can be successful if you can’t do that, if you can’t relate to the players, they don’t sort of trust and respect the principles and the values and the things you promote to help them be successful. But I think that part of it — the human behavior part of it that we talk about to try to inspire people to accomplish the things that they want to accomplish, and maybe they don’t even know what it takes to do it but you’re trying to teach them — I think that gets better with age.
“Because you have more experience. Some guys don’t have it in their DNA to do it. I don’t think that’s a disrespect to any person or coach. It just is what it is, and sometimes you have to more on. But we’ve had pretty good response from our players. That’s how we recruit them here. I recruit guys like that. I talk to them about creating value for their future. There’s only a certain kind of guy that comes here, so it’s usually a pretty good fit for us.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.