People used to say that God placed Michael Jordan on this Earth to play basketball. That’s likely somewhat true, and if you believe in arcs like that, then God probably placed Nick Saban on this Earth to coach college football. He has four national championships now (2003, 2009, 2011, and 2012), and is essentially on pace to get a fifth. The Crimson Tide are off this week, then play LSU; the game is in Tuscaloosa, and it likely represents the final hurdle (OK, possibly Auburn) between Saban and the national championship game. It’s not likely whoever comes out of the SEC East — be it South Carolina, Missouri, et al — is going to win the SEC Championship Game. This is all a fairly remarkable story, because immediately after Saban’s dad died of a heart attack (’twas sudden), it initially seemed that Nick would simply take over the family gas station and that would be that. Instead, with the help of his mom, he followed his heart into coaching. His dad had instilled an attitude in him that was singularly focused on goals: do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. It helped mold a man who complains about appearing in the national title game because it’s cutting into his recruiting time.
Here’s the interesting thing, though: most people know about Saban’s past history with Belichick on the Browns, but few people really remember (or openly discuss) Saban’s period as head coach of the Michigan State Spartans. He wasn’t really that good there: 6-5, 6-6, 7-5, 6-6 in his first four years; in his fifth and final year, he went 9-2. He got the LSU job shortly thereafter (it’s all about getting hot when the right jobs are open, especially in CFB). His first year at LSU, the team was 8-4; they lost by three to UAB. We now think of Nick Saban as a coaching machine, but his first 10-win season was the 2001 LSU squad — if you count his one year at Toledo, it took him seven years to get a 10-win season — and the next year (2002 Tigers), he was 8-5. (Then he won his first national title.) If you want a quick contrast, Urban Meyer got his first 10-win season in his third year.
In the 1996 Sun Bowl, Saban’s team got smoked, 38-0:
This is all a long way of saying … typically, greatness is the result of a ton of different factors all coming together at once (also known as “context”). I’m not sure there’s anyone out there today with the steely focus and determination — and uncanny ability to get first-round picks to come to Tuscaloosa, AL for 3-4 years — as Nick Saban, but there are a couple of guys who could be in the discussion for the next great college head coach. Remember: it’s totally acceptable to rack up a bunch of 6-5 seasons, so long as you get hot at the right time, get the next big job, and move to a place with more resources, where your focus will only be more sharply developed.
The most obvious choices here are David Shaw and Kevin Sumlin, both of whom are relatively young, and both of whom already lead amazing young teams (Sumlin beat Saban head-to-head last year, and almost went 2-0 on him in SEC play this September). Shaw has a big one coming up vs. Oregon on November 7 and took one on the chin earlier this year to Utah, but in terms of focus, he seems like a legit candidate. Another name that pops is Pat Fitzgerald; he seems enthused (way moreso than Saban) and driven, but he’s never had the talent around him at Northwestern to take the next jump. He’s an alum, so it may be tougher to pry him away from there, but if you gave him a loaded squad and some facilities, he could be the real deal, instead of coming close to defeating Ohio State most years but never really quite getting it. I thought about Chris Petersen here for a second, but I think his ideal arc may be in the rear view; he could get hot again in 2-3 years and end up landing the Texas gig or something, though. It’s all about timing.
Charlie Strong is another notable name (you just wonder what he’ll do once Bridgewater leaves Louisville; phrased another way, you wonder if he’ll jump this year), as is Willie Taggart at South Florida (formerly of Western Kentucky). I was about to put Darrell Hazell here off his one amazing year at Kent State, but then I realized he’s 17-16 as a head coach over three years, and the ’13 Purdue squad isn’t exactly keeping the games close.
Bob Diaco and Kirby Smart, the defensive coordinators in last year’s BCS Championship, are both young-ish guys you could see running a team successfully (Smart is obviously under Saban right now, although that hasn’t entirely worked out for Will Muschamp, whose UF teams aren’t amazing). Kliff Kingsbury and Matt Campbell (at Toledo, where Saban once roamed) are other good bets.
The broad answer to the question posed in the post? Probably no. But there is a guy out there, maybe already a head coach, racking up seven-win seasons here and there, who could someday be on the verge of three-four national titles. It takes a totally special confluence of events, but it’s happened once and it could happen again. These names are a start. But there might only be one Nick Saban … or maybe two.