Alabama football coach Nick Saban now facing the toughest adaptation of his career | Opinion

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

Defining what has made Alabama football coach Nick Saban as much a threat to win a national championship in 2022 as he was when he won his first at LSU in 2003 isn't hard. The dictionary does it best:

Adapt (verb): to change behavior so that it is easier to function in a particular place or situation; to make fit for a new use, often by modification.

One more time, he has to change stripes.

Saban is faced with the challenge of not only conquering opponents but conquering a new era in the game itself: recruiting in the age of players profiting from name, image and likeness. It is remarkable, yet somehow unsurprising, that NIL has upended the sport this much in just 11 months since the NCAA invoked it. But this is where we are: high school recruits are getting paid big dollars to sign with the high bidder, and veteran players are free to find a new high bidder through the transfer portal, which essentially makes every player on the roster a recruit.

Alabama coach Nick Saban watches players warm-up for the College Football Playoff championship NCAA football game against Georgia on Jan. 10, 2022.

The Saban recruiting engine has always made for the fastest car in the race, annually placed at or very near the top of any recruiting service's national rankings. But this offseason, he's having to spend some time under the hood, and we're not talking about a tune-up job. It's an overhaul. Now that guarantees of cash have entered the recruiting picture, the engine must be rebuilt entirely. And it's unquestionably the most challenging adaptation Saban has had to take on.

He's been the best with a fairly simple formula: on- and off-field developmental success + top-shelf facilities + championships = recruiting success. But now that recruits can be bought, and each will be swayed on their college choice to varying degrees by NIL money, the formula has become calculus, not simple addition.

Last week, Ohio State coach Ryan Day told a group of Buckeyes boosters that it will take $13 million a year to maintain OSU's roster. He didn't just mean for recruits; by roster maintenance, he no doubt was also referring to the cost of doing transfer portal business, as well.

Saban has changed as the game has changed at virtually every turn, embracing the uncomfortable when necessary, on the way to winning more national championships than any coach in history. When the NCAA changed its recruiting rules in 2008 to prevent head coaches from visiting high schools in the spring evaluation period, Saban didn't like it a bit, but he adjusted. When fast-break, RPO offenses took over the college game, he wasn't crazy about that either, but he adjusted. When technological advances avail themselves to coaches – such as the GPS data that now tracks each player's explosiveness in practice – he's been willing to learn and install them.

Retooling recruiting efforts to account for the NIL factor, and how much it impacts each recruit individually, is a trickier adjustment than any of that.

Recruiting better than any school in the country has been a hallmark of Saban's tenure since his first full signing class in 2008. It has filled his roster not only with star-studded starting lineups, but also with depth none could match, which pays off in high-stakes, late-season games when a few key starters are often sidelined with injury.

Over the next six months, ahead of the initial signing period in December, Saban's modified recruiting engine will roar out of pit row and get back on the track.

And if it races him first to the checkered flag once again, it will easily be the most impressive adaptation of his career.

Reach Chase Goodbread at cgoodbread@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread