By Jim Weber
Well, that didn’t take long.
Immediately after Jimmy Haslam officially became the new owner of the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday and announced that team president Mike Holmgren would be replaced with Joe Banner at the end of the year, rumors started flying that Haslam will target Alabama’s Nick Saban as his next head coach (the rumor has since been denied by a Cleveland radio station).
If you are unfamiliar with Haslam, he is a Tennessee alum and huge Vols booster who has gotten a good look at Saban since 2000 while Saban has coached LSU (2000-04) and now Alabama (2007-Present). Saban is 5-0 against the Vols while in Tuscaloosa and will surely move to 6-0 after playing UT in Knoxville this weekend (you can bet Vols fans are hoping Haslam hires Saban away).
If Saban were ever to return to the NFL, this would appear to be the best fit. He coached for the Browns before as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator from 1991-94 and has further local ties from playing at Kent State in the 1970s. Saban is also arguably the hottest NFL coaching name aside Jon Gruden, who grew up a Browns fan but signed a five-year extension with “Monday Night Football” last year, and Bill Cowher, who already turned down the Browns job two years ago.
But would Saban really consider a return to the NFL after an experience with the Miami Dolphins he speaks so disdainfully about?
On the surface, there appears to be no way Saban would return to the NFL. He openly talks about how much he hated his time in the league, already makes an NFL-worthy salary of $5.32 million per year, is a god in the state of Alabama and has the Crimson Tide on track to win its third national title in four years. Meanwhile, the Browns are a train wreck with limited young talent and a long history of losing since the franchise was rebooted in 1999.
Of course, this could all be a moot point if Gruden is interested or Andy Reid is fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Or maybe it won’t be.
And if the Browns are interested, Nick Saban’s word that he’s staying at Alabama for life doesn’t hold a lot of weight. He’s the guy who routinely said he wouldn’t leave LSU for the pros only to take the Miami Dolphins job and then insisted he wouldn’t ditch the Dolphins to take the Alabama job, which he did.
So what could possibly lead Saban back to coaching on Sundays? I give you three reasons that could lure Saban back to the NFL against all odds.
#1: The Challenge
Watching Nick Saban coach college football is like watching clips of LeBron James in high school: They are so much better than everyone else that it’s just not fair. Even in the best conference in college football, Saban out-recruits, out-coaches and out-executes everyone to the point he has created a dynasty. His first season with Alabama aside, Saban is 54-6 at Alabama, which is an absurd 90% winning percentage.
The Crimson Tide had no business competing for a national title this fall after losing Trent Richardson and half their defense to the NFL, but here they are again at No. 1 and steamrolling their way to Miami.
While Saban should be content collecting wins and national titles until he is one day proclaimed the greatest college football coach of all time, there are too many instances of college coaches not being able to turn down a bigger challenge despite their better judgment.
Look no further than Urban Meyer, who came out of stress-induced retirement after one year to coach at the ultra-high pressure job of Ohio State. Or how about Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who both initially failed in the pros only to leave college again for a second try.
Now look at Carroll. A coach everyone assumed would fail after leaving USC in 2010, his Seahawks are 4-2 and have beaten the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots. And if Carroll’s second stint in the NFL can be a success after the disaster of his first go-round, surely Saban can succeed as well.
#2: The Dolphins Weren’t That Bad
While Saban’s stint with the Miami Dolphins from 2005-06 certainly wasn’t a success, it wasn’t nearly as bad as people now portray it. Steve Spurrier’s time with the Washington Redskins was a disaster. Nick Saban’s tenure with the Dolphins was just a disappointment – at least on the field (off the field, he burned about every bridge he could find).
In his first season, Saban took a team that went 4-12 in 2003 and won its last six games to finish 9-7 and barely miss the playoffs. During his second season, the Dolphins went 6-10 mostly because the Daunte Culpepper experiment blew up in their faces. While the season was a failure, Cam Cameron’s 1-15 mark in 2006 showed the kind of talent Saban was working with in South Beach.
The biggest mistake of Saban’s time in Miami was giving him the final say on all player personnel decisions, something he never had to deal with at LSU. If someone had convinced Saban and Miami’s medical staff to sign Drew Brees instead of trading for Culpepper, Saban might still be in south Florida.
As a former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Haslam clearly gets it. In his first day on the job, he shoved Holmgren out the door and replaced him with former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner. You know, the guy that oversaw an Eagles team that went to five NFC Championship Games and a spot in Super Bowl XXXIX.
You better believe that whoever Banner brings in as the Browns’ general manager to replace Tom Heckert will be top-notch and light years ahead of Saban as an NFL talent evaluator. With a big-time owner, president and general manager, this would be nothing like the situation in Miami, which was a mess under Wayne Huizenga.
Haslam can show Saban that his second trip to the NFL as a head coach would be completely different with a team around him to build a playoff-worthy roster. Just as important, Haslam can prove to Saban that, unlike the always-frugal Randy Lerner, he’s willing to spend whatever it takes to build a winner with a family net worth of $3 billion. An owner with deep pockets and a great president and general manager tandem are an NFL coach’s best friends.
The Browns are definitely a massive rebuilding job. But at age 60, Saban has plenty of years left in the tank and already admitted to considering other jobs this past offseason before deciding to stay at Alabama for life, supposedly. If Haslam and Banner can shower him with a contract similar to Belichick’s NFL-leading $7.5 million annual pay check and prove that the above three points will make Saban’s second time as an NFL head coach different, the Browns just might have a shot.
Because although Saban has repeatedly said that Alabama will be his last coaching job ever, this is still the same guy who repeatedly told us he’d never coach the Crimson Tide in the first place.