Did NIL play a part in Alabama coach Nick Saban’s shock retirement?

The Alabama football coach — winner of seven national championships — retired with six years and $71.8 million left on his contract

Alabama’s Nick Saban has retired, seemingly at the top of his game, and some people in the sports world are wondering why.

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University of Washington football coach Kalen DeBoer coach will replace Nick Saban as Alabama’s head coach after Saban abruptly retired with six years and $71.8 million remaining on his contract, according to ESPN.

Saban, 72, is walking away from a Crimson Tide program with which he has won the most national titles in college football history and that is perennially among the top four teams in the country and thus eligible to play for the championship trophy.

After leading Washington to the College Football Playoff this season, DeBoer, 49, is taking over one of the most coveted jobs in college football.

Soon after Saban’s retirement announcement on Wednesday, some who know him came forward to say recent changes to college sports, such as players being able to capitalize on their names, images and likenesses — better known as NIL — and the more relaxed student-athlete transfer rules, could lie behind the decision.

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A.J. McCarron, who was an Alabama quarterback under Saban a decade ago, suggested the massively successful coach had grown weary of the new college sports landscape.

NFL legend and University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders theorized that changes to the collegiate game had “chased” away Saban, whom he characterized as the greatest coach of all time.

Micah Parsons, an NFL All-Pro linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys who played collegiately at Penn State in 2018–19, posted that he, too, believed NIL had played a role in Saban’s shock retirement.

The NCAA began allowing college athletes to earn name, image and likeness money in 2021, when student-athletes finally won a decades-long argument over the fairness of receiving no remuneration even as the games they played generated millions of dollars for the institutions in which they were enrolled — with football and basketball the big revenue generators.

On several occasions, Saban has publicly said that he’s in favor of compensation for athletes but is not a fan of a current system that rewards schools for their capacity to craft NIL packages that lure the most prized recruits.

Earlier this season, in a now-famous press conference, Saban asked: “Is this what we want college football to become?”

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Saban, having racked up championship trophies in a succession of college football eras, including under the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff systems, as well as this new NIL era, some experts think the most recent changes are creating unmanageable scenarios for coaches.

“The changing landscape definitely makes it more challenging,” Michael Rueda, corporate partner and U.S. sports and entertainment group head at the international law firm Withers, told MarketWatch. “It presents a factor that wasn’t there before.”

College coaches no longer have to map out how prospects will fit in on the field and in the classroom, but also whether their schools meet the NIL requirements of certain student-athletes.

“Most coaches are coaches because they want to create an environment for students to be successful both on the field and after college,” Rueda said. “With NIL and some of the later developments, it’s become, ‘How am I going to facilitate bringing more NIL dollars to my program and to my student-athletes?’ ”

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“When you go in and start talking to these younger kids, and you’re trying to recruit, the first thing they’re asking is, ‘What’s my NIL possibilities?’ ” George Washington University sports-management professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti told MarketWatch. “So he has to be not only pitching his esteemed value as a coach; he’s now going to worry about how much money they’ll have to pay these kids on the sideline.”

In addition to attracting high-school students to the highest-profile programs, lucrative NIL opportunities can inspire players transfers from one college to another, which is also being facilitated by the relaxation of transfer disincentives, Neirotti added.

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Saban — publicly — has said his retirement is not specifically about the changing landscape of college football, whether it’s NIL or the increasingly active transfer portal, but he did reiterate that he and his fellow coaches are not happy with the current system.

“To me, if you choose to coach, you don’t need to be complaining about all that stuff,” Saban told ESPN. “You need to adjust to it and adapt to it and do the best you can under the circumstances and not complain about it. Now, I think everybody is frustrated about it. We had an SEC conference call [on Wednesday] — 14 coaches on there — and there’s not one guy you can talk to who really understands what’s happening in college football and thinks that it’s not an issue.”

Saban led the Crimson Tide to nine Southeastern Conference championships and national titles in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020. He arrived in Tuscaloosa having won a prior national championship with Louisiana State in 2003.