It is not out of the realm of possibility that Saban is coaching the Tide in 2029. His energy and will to succeed has never diminished at any point in his tenure. It is doubtful those traits will change.
If he were to retire in the 2020s, who’s next in the line of succession? Saban has built a kingdom so close to perfect that it is tantalizing to ponder who might eventually get handed the keys.
We look at some potential coaches-in-waiting using three criteria: record of success, availability and fit. “Availability” might be the toughest one for Tide fans to wrap their minds around. It goes something like this: Bill Belichick is not leaving the Patriots to coach at Alabama. Neither is a head coach at Ohio State, USC or Texas.
“Fit” considers culture or some previous connection to the university or Saban.
Let’s dive in.
Record of success: Swinney has won national championships two out of the last three years and has appeared in the final game four out of the last five years. Check.
Availability: Timing may be everything here. Swinney has two sons currently on the roster at Clemson with a third on the way. As someone who has emphasized family throughout his career, it would be difficult to see him leaving them behind. The further Saban coaches into the decade, the less availability becomes an issue for Swinney.
Fit: #NeverDabo has become a popular meme on social media in recent years among Tide faithful. This seems to be a reaction to a style which is markedly different than that which has brought Saban unprecedented success. Nevertheless, the connections to the program run deep. Swinney bled Crimson from an early age growing up in Pelham. He was a member of the 1992 national championship team, and he was a position coach under Gene Stallings and Mike Dubose.
Bottom line: Swinney has to be the first call. It seems more likely, though, that he is the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend.
Record of success: Cristobal now has two years under his belt as head coach for the Oregon Ducks, and things continue to trend upward. His team went 11-2 this year while claiming the PAC-12 championship. He has recruited notable upgrades in talent during that time, as well.
Availability: With roots in the Southeast, it would be tough to see him remaining anchored in the Northwest should an opportunity in Tuscaloosa open up for him.
Fit: Cristobal spent four seasons as Saban’s offensive line coach at Alabama. He has also sought to emulate Saban’s style in the Oregon program with a more physical brand of football, particularly along the line of scrimmage. Cristobal has held tight to his Tide lineage to the point that he has testimonials from Saban and three former Alabama players on his Oregon Ducks biography page.
Bottom line: Should his success continue, Cristobal may very well edge his way to the front of the line of succession.
Record of success: McDaniels has spent 11 seasons as offensive coordinator in the midst of the New England Patriots’ run to six Super Bowl titles. He had a brief stint as head coach of the Denver Broncos in the middle. He is regarded as Tom Brady’s favorite position coach. The football credentials are there with McDaniels.
Availability: There has long been speculation that McDaniels is hanging around to succeed Belichick in New England. Another line of thinking has McDaniels accepting an NFL head coaching gig within the next few weeks. It’s tough to know what his availability and interest in the Alabama job would look like a few (or several) years from now.
Fit: McDaniels is a Belichick disciple. And after watching HBO’s “The Art of Coaching” documentary featuring Belichick and Saban, it is hard not to think McDaniels would pattern a program based on what he has learned as part of that coaching tree. McDaniels also served one year as a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State.
Bottom line: Saban has transformed the Crimson Tide program into one that has the look and feel of an NFL team. McDaniels could provide some continuity to that approach. Even though he would be an instantly credible choice and bring stature befitting the job, McDaniels has never shown outward interest in the college game.
Record of success: Trending up. In his second season as head coach of the Louisian Ragin’ Cajuns, Napier led the program to a 10-3 season and a runner-up finish in the Sun Belt. This after a 7-7 finish in his first season.
Availability: Look for Napier to quickly climb the coaching ladder. A Power 5 conference job should be in the mix for him in the first half of the decade. From there, who knows.
Fit: This would be a really good fit. Napier was an assistant coach on Alabama’s 2011 and 2015 national championship teams. In all, he spent five seasons on the staff in Tuscaloosa. Not only that, his demeanor, work ethic, organizational skills and recruiting prowess are all cut from the Saban mold.
Bottom line: Napier is not going from Louisiana to Alabama. However, with several more years likely left in the Saban administration, he should be in a position by then to be in the mix for a big job like this. If you are looking for the best longshot bet to become the next head coach at Alabama, put something down on Napier — and find a safe place to keep the ticket.
Record of success: Kiffin can coach some offense. The jury is still out on him as a head coach. For all the hype surrounding the Lane Train, he has only recorded one season with double-digit wins. His head coaching record is 66-49 (61-34 in college). Yet, it feels like his record does not come close to telling the whole story.
Availability: Something tells us Kiffin is always available.
Fit: Alabama fans undoubtedly look fondly upon the success of the 2015 offense and the resulting national championship. He is also a relentless recruiter. But there is a lot of other stuff. Whether it is a burner social media account under the name “Joey Freshwater” or constant needling of opponents and conference officials, his act does not come without risk.
Bottom line: Things would really have to hit the fan in Tuscaloosa for Lane Kiffin to get hired as head coach.
Record of success: Rhule is one of college football’s hottest commodities for good reason. He took over a Baylor program that was a disaster and led them to an 11-2 record and a date with Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in only his third season. Previous to Baylor, Rhule led Temple to back-to-back 10-win seasons.
Availability: His name is frequently placed on lists of potential NFL hires. Maybe he sees an NFL job in his future. It is also possible he continues to build at Baylor. A devout Christian, Rhule has spoken often about how he and his wife felt called to be part of Baylor University, one of the largest Baptist-affiliated colleges in the nation. As the next decade moves along, it will be interesting to watch how open Rhule is to new opportunities.
Fit: Rhule is a driven individual and top-shelf coach. He will thrive wherever he ultimately lands.
Bottom line: If he is gettable in whatever year the job comes open, Rhule would be worthy of an offer which will close the deal.
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia