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Eight Potential Candidates to Take Over for Nick Saban at Alabama

Dan Lanning? Dabo Swinney? Deion Sanders? Here’s a look at a few names that could be in the running to succeed the all-time great in Tuscaloosa.

Replacing a legendary coach is one of the most difficult tasks in college sports, but someone has to do it. Someone came after John Wooden. Someone came after Bear Bryant. Someone came after Mike Krzyzewski. And now someone will come after Nick Saban at Alabama.

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne might not have known exactly when this moment was coming, but he assuredly will not be caught flat-footed. At age 72, Saban clearly had been in his twilight for several seasons, so Byrne had a fluid pocket list of candidates going at all times.

The good news: The next coach of the Crimson Tide inherits a blueblood program in fantastic shape. The bad news: It’s impossible to win at the level Saban did for as long as he did in Tuscaloosa.

A short list of potential successors to the seven-time national champion:

Dan Lanning, Oregon

The résumé: Lanning is 22–5 and 15–3 in conference play in two years leading the Ducks, with the 2023 team finishing the year in the top 10 of all major polls.

The program ties: Lanning was a graduate assistant under Saban at Alabama in 2015, then joined Saban’s former right-hand man Kirby Smart at Georgia. Lanning rose to defensive coordinator at Georgia and was responsible for landing some key recruits who became cornerstones of the Bulldogs’ ’21 and ’22 national championship teams.

Other attributes: At age 37, Lanning is considered a rising star who quickly proved his ability to handle a major program in Oregon.

Drawbacks: Lanning is 0–3 against rival Washington, and rash in-game coaching gambles contributed directly to two of those losses. He hasn’t won a conference championship or advanced to the College Football Playoff.

Oregon Ducks head coach Dan Lanning looks on from the sideline during a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Lanning has quickly shown an ability to handle the pressure of a top-tier program like Oregon.

DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

The résumé: Ryans is 10–7 in his first season as a head coach, leading the Texans into the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2019. Ryans took over a team that went 3-13-1 in ‘22, inserted a rookie starting quarterback into the lineup and won the AFC South.

The program ties: Ryans is an Alabama native and was a star linebacker at Alabama before Saban arrived, playing for the Crimson Tide from 2002 to ‘05. He was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year in ’05.

Other attributes: At age 39, Ryans’s immediate coaching success hints at a great upside. He also would be the first Black coach in Alabama program history.

Drawbacks: While a former Tide player, Ryans is not part of the Saban Alabama fraternity. Ryans has no college coaching experience, having gone straight into the NFL coaching ranks after a 10-year career in the pros.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson

The résumé: One of only four sitting college football coaches with a national championship, and the only one with multiple rings, Swinney seemed for years like he’d be the heir apparent to Saban once he retired. The Tigers have dropped from their national title perch, but this is the first year he hasn’t won double-digit games since 2010. At his best, Swinney rolled two back-to-back top-five NFL draft picks in at QB and piloted a machine that beat the Tide multiple times in postseason clashes. He’s 170–43 overall.

The program ties: Few have ties that run deeper. Swinney grew up in Birmingham and won a national championship under Gene Stallings. He also coached in Tuscaloosa for seven seasons.

Other attributes: Few are more charismatic on the mike and speak their mind like Swinney does—for better and for worse. He is an easy cultural fit, but he would bring a departure from the process-driven atmosphere.

Drawbacks: Swinney has been slow to adapt to the transfer portal world, and it seems like it has held his program back in the current era. It also seems that there’s some in the Alabama fan base who aren’t exactly fans.

Steve Sarkisian, Texas

The résumé: Sarkisian is fresh off taking the Longhorns to the College Football Playoff in his third season at the school. His career head-coaching record, with stops at Washington at USC before Texas: 71–49, with a 48–36 record in conference play.

The program ties: Sark spent two seasons on Saban’s staff as an analyst in 2014 and ’15, then returned as offensive coordinator from ’19 to ’20. Those seasons rank as the two most prolific offensively in Alabama history, with the Tide winning the national title in ’20.

Other attributes: Sarkisian has experience leading high-profile programs, having done so at USC and Texas. Sark is regarded as one of the best play-callers in football.

Drawbacks: Until the 12–2 breakthrough this season—which included a win at Alabama—Sark’s record in three plumb jobs was fairly pedestrian. Would he want to leave Texas?

Lane Kiffin, Mississippi

The résumé: Kiffin has had an up-and-down tenure in five stops. But you can say this: It’s never been boring. He seems to have found his stride after a stop as Saban’s offensive coordinator after two great seasons at FAU and two double-digit win seasons at Ole Miss. Few coaches are more adept at operating the transfer portal reality. He’s 95–49 overall, but 60–28 in his last two stints.

The program ties: While it ended poorly, the three years that Kiffin spent in Alabama were the catalyst for change in the Bama program as they moved from three yards and a cloud of dust to RPO and a more modern system.

Other attributes: He’d certainly keep Bama in the news with his penchant for stirring the pot, especially on social media.

Drawbacks: Well, he’d certainly keep Bama in the news given the aforementioned pot-stirring. The other question is how he would be able to hold back a booster corps that has been previously pacified by winning at the highest level. And can he win the big game?

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban greets Mississippi Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin at midfield after a game.

Kiffin spent three years with Alabama in Tuscaloosa from 2014 to ‘16.

Kalen DeBoer, Washington

The résumé: DeBoer cut his teeth in South Dakota, and he’s a stone-cold winner, having won three NAIA national titles in four years at Sioux Falls. He also had successful stints as offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State, and Indiana. He returned to Fresno to go 12–6 in two years (one of which was the 2020 season), then restored Washington to glory and a national championship berth this season. He’s 104–12 overall.

The program ties: Absolutely, positively none directly, and perhaps that’s a positive in the post-Saban era.

Other attributes: His offenses are attractive and creative, and as the old adage goes: Winners win.

Drawbacks: Could he be too much of an outsider that his lack of ties make him unable to navigate the program’s politics successfully?

Mike Norvell, Florida State

The résumé: Norvell has won big as head coach at Memphis and at Florida State, and if Alabama hadn’t beaten Georgia, perhaps his Noles would have had the chance to play for a national championship. He’s 69–32 overall.

The program ties: None directly, but he did just win the Bear Bryant coach of the year award.

Other attributes: Is seen as one of the preeminent talent developers in the game with offenses that just flat-out score. What his staff may lack in high school recruiting, he makes up for in tremendous portal scouting.

Drawbacks: Surely his time with Auburn man Gus Malzahn won’t be held against him.

Deion Sanders, Colorado

Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders runs on to the field before a game against Arizona.

Sanders would bring his charisma to the Alabama job, but has coached only 12 games at the FBS level.

The résumé: Sanders went 27–6 in three seasons at FCS Jackson State and 4–8 in one season at Colorado. He’s also one of the great all-around athletes in history, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and also a Major League Baseball player for five organizations across 13 seasons.

The program ties: Other than appearing alongside Saban in Aflac commercials, Sanders has none.

Other attributes: Sanders certainly has the persona and charisma to handle the biggest of jobs and has proved to be an elite recruiter. Like Ryans, he also would break the historic head-coaching color barrier at Alabama.

Drawbacks: It’s hard to see a program like Alabama hiring someone with a 4–8 FBS head-coaching record, even if that record was an improvement over recent Colorado history. Sanders remains an unproven in-game coach and program organizer at the power-conference level. Roster and staff churn at Colorado might raise red flags with Alabama.