What's Changed During Nick Saban's Coaching Reign at Alabama? Almost Everything

BamaCentral wraps up its series looking back at the Crimson Tide’s last coaching transition with Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007.
Sep 29, 2007; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban during the first quarter against the Florida State Seminoles at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida.
Sep 29, 2007; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban during the first quarter against the Florida State Seminoles at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. / Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The traffic was bad. If you ask players who were on the 2007 Alabama football team something they’ll never forget about Nick Saban’s first A-Day with the Crimson Tide, the open scrimmage to celebrate the end of spring practices, many will mention that the atmosphere was like a regular season game day against a big Southeastern Conference opponent.

Others talk about how happy and relieved they were to have gotten through the grind of the brutal Fourth Quarter conditioning program, followed by the intense workouts and practices designed to maximize efficiency as the new coach wanted to set a new tone.

However, all of them rave about the fan turnover that day, which was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Even the most optimistic school officials had expected maybe 50,000 fans to show up to see Saban come out of the tunnel for the first time, and, just in case, planned for a record-breaking 60,000. There were no thoughts of opening the entire stadium, it was April after all, months away from the regular season.

But they did. The lower bowl filled, followed by the western upper deck, and people were still coming. The contingency northern upper deck was made available and finally the eastern deck, with closed concession stands and unprepared bathrooms, and they kept pouring in. Visually from afar they looked like a vast army of ants in a giant single-file line that extended from section to section until finally all the stands were full, not to mention the ramps where some could overlook the field and ongoing scrimmage while taking advantage of the shade.

Finally, the gates were closed and late-arriving fans turned away. Bryant-Denny Stadium had exceeded its capacity of 92,138. It was probably the greatest welcoming party in the history of sports.

“I thought it was awesome,” starting quarterback John Parker Wilson said at the time, while cornerback Simeon Castille called it “ridiculous,” as in a good way. “I never could have imagined that there would be that many people.”

Saban himself called it the moment that he no longer had any doubt about his decision to leave the Miami Dolphins and return to college football. It was also the beginning of what would become the greatest dynasty college football had ever seen. Six national championships for the Crimson Tide between 2009 and 2020 only begin to tell the story of the incredible 17-year run.

What’s changed in Tuscaloosa since then? Just about everything. The same holds true in college football, which is now entering a new phase with the expanded College Football Playoff, NIL and the transfer portal. We could demonstrate with a bunch of stats that you’ve seen before like being ranked in 261 consecutive Associated Press polls (the next best is 114) including No. 1 at some of every season between 2008-2022, losing just eight home games out of 117, and going an amazing 36-14 against top-10 opponents since 2008. So consider some of the following, which you probably haven't seen before:

  • All-Americans: Through 2024, Alabama has had 85 consensus or unanimous All-Americans in its illustrious history, of which 46 came under Saban. The last All-American before his reign was in 2005, linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who is now an NFL head coach.
  • The NFL draft: Excluding the two supplemental, and two expansion picks, and counting Joe Namath once, there have been 82 first-round draft picks over the years. Saban had 46, and some of his former players who are still active have the potential to be first-round selections in future drafts.
  • Awards: Prior to Saban’s arrival, Alabama’s individual hardware collection of national honors was pretty sparse. Alabama had won a Butkus Award (Derrick Thomas), Lombardi Award (Cornelius Bennett), Lott Trophy (DeMeco Ryans), Outland Trophy (Chris Samuels), Jim Thorpe Award (Antonio Langham), and a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. Not only had a Crimson Tide player never won a Heisman Trophy, it had been completely shut out of the two other major player of the year awards, the Maxwell and the Walter Camp.

It's now easier to count the national college football awards Alabama still hasn’t won, the John Mackey for outstanding tight end, the Ray Guy Award for best punter, and the Lou Groza Award for the top kicker are pretty much it. Alabama’s even won awards that were created after Saban’s arrival, including the Paul Hornung  Award for most versatile player (DeVonta Smith in 2020), and the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line (two of those, 2015 and 2020), and even added the academic Heisman, the Campbell Trophy (Barrett Jones, 2012) to the trophy wing of the football building.

Note that “wing” is not an exaggeration. With the complex having been updated more times than anyone can count (ok, that is an exaggeration), Alabama makes sure that incoming recruits get the full effect of accomplishments, which takes a lot more space than any mere room can provide. There’s also the overflowing Bryant Museum across the street,

As for the Heisman, Maxwell, and Walter Camp, the football building now has 12 replicas of the awards, including four Heisman Trophies. David Palmer’s third-place finish in 1993 was the best finish for the Heisman. Under Saban, Alabama had nine players finish in the top three. You see movies and TV shows go through reboots? This was ultimate one in real life, and possibly unparalleled in all of sports.

Could the Crimson Tide’s domination under Kalen DeBoer continue? Perhaps. Although it’s been three seasons since the Alabama last won the national title no one should rule anything out, especially with Saban still around and helping the new staff and with recruiting. Miami’s epic run that included four championships between 1983-91 featured three head coaches (Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson), and it won a fifth in 2001 under Larry Coker, so there is a sort of precedent.

DeBoer led Washington to the National Championship Game last year, he’s piecing together the best recruiting class of his career, and the roster is still loaded. Remember, last season Alabama had a roster in which about 20 percent of the players had been rated to be a consensus 5-star prospect as a recruit. Some left, naturally, but still in Tuscaloosa are Jeremiah Alexander, Zabien Brown, Jihaad Campbell, Jalen Hale, Justice Haynes, Domani Jackson, Keon Keeley, Jalen Mbakwe, Zavier Mincey, LT Overton, Damon Payne Jr., Yhonzae Pierre, Qua Russaw, Ty Simpson and James Smith, plus the Crimson Tide reacquired Kadyn Proctor, who transferred out. It still has tons of potential talent, but no one knows how well they all might mesh with the new coaching staff.

That may the biggest difference from 2007, when Saban inherited a 6-7 team lacking depth, as the program that had been hampered by NCAA penalties. Critics claimed he would quickly leave Tuscaloosa, or maybe last four years. No one seems to be saying that about DeBoer.

Saban brought in new schemes and a playbook that used to be described as being as big as a large city phone book. Players often said that it took about a year to get it down to the point that everything became second nature. Over the years Saban hired innovative coordinators, many whom were hired away to be head coaches, Alabama built facilities that were better than not just most college programs but pro teams, and the team had the complete backing of both the school and fans. 

However, one thing hasn’t changed significantly over the years, the expectation level. Yes, Alabama has a new coaching staff for the first time in almost two decades, and the 2007 fan base was desperate for a return to football glory. Yet the students have sort of come full circle as they’re once again grumbling that the Crimson Tide might not win a national title while they’re enrolled.

Things You May Not Have Realized About the 2007 Crimson Tide

1. Alabama’s offense scored on its first offensive snap of the Saban era.

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Terry Grant.
Apr 18, 2009; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama running back Terry Grant (29) carries the ball during during warm up drills before the start of the Alabama spring game Bryant Denny Stadium. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The 47-yard run was by Terry Grant against Western Carolina. He finished the season opener with 134 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. Grant went on to set Alabama freshman records for rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns. 

2. The cupboard wasn’t completely bare

Ok, it’s nothing like this transition, but the 2007 team returned 18 starters from the previous season including nine on offense, five on defense and four on special teams. Some of players including Freshman All-American Andre Smith, Javier Arenas, Glen Coffee, John Parker Wilson, Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington.

As for the recruiting class of 2007, with Saban having roughly a month after he was hired until National Signing Day, the key holdover commitment was Rolando McClain. Among the players he quickly added included Josh Chapman, Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze and Kareem Jackson.

3. The changing passing landscape

Wilson’s 2,846 passing yards in 2007 set an Alabama single-season record. It’s now 10th on the Crimson Tide leaders list. Also, he finished his collegiate career with 47 touchdown passes, the same number as Bryce Young had in 2021 when he won the Heisman.

4. First win against a ranked opponent

If you’ve been paying close attention to this series, you already know it was Week 3, 41-38, against No. 16 Arkansas, thanks to Matt Caddell’s touchdown catch with 8 seconds remaining. It started the winning streak against the Razorbacks that’s still ongoing.  A week later, the Crimson Tide was No. 16 in the AP Top 25, and it played four games that season as a ranked team.

5. The NFL draft, part I

Everyone seems to remember that Alabama didn’t have a player selected in the 2008 NFL Draft, the first time that had occurred since 1970, but it also hadn’t had a first-round selection since 2000, tackle Chris Samuels. Saban was on the job during the 2007 draft, when the first Crimson Tide player selected was fullback Le’Ron McClain in the fourth round. Running back Kenneth Darby and defensive back Ramzee Robinson went in the seventh round. 

Alabama has had two Mr. Irrelevant players, the nickname for the final selection in the NFL Draft. Robinson was the first during Saban’s first few months, and defensive back Jaylen Key the other this year after Saban’s final season.

6. The NFL draft, part II

Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Rolando McClain before the 2010 BCS national championship game
Jan 7, 2010; Pasadena, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Rolando McClain (25) before the 2010 BCS national championship game against the Texas Longhorns at the Rose Bowl. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being shut out in the 2008 draft, Alabama still had 11 players from the 2007 team eventually drafted: Andre Smith, Coffee, Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Johnson in 2009; Rolando McClain, Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, Mike Johnson, Marquis Johnson and Brandon Deaderick in 2010, and and Greg McElroy in 2011.

7. Catching milestones

When DJ Hall finished with 1,005 receiving yards, he became the first Alabama player to notch back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons. Actually, before Hall, the only Alabama player to reach 1,000 was David Palmer in 1993. However, Hall’s 1,005 yards and Palmer’s 1,000 no longer rank in the Crimson Tide’s top 10 in the statistical category.

8. Coaching insecurity

The rest of the SEC went through more than 50 head coaches during the Saban era at Alabama, topped by Tennessee with seven, but check out the head coaches the Crimson Tide faced in 2007. Just two years later, most of them would no longer be at their schools, and within four years all but two would be gone (Art Briles was hired away by Baylor, but fired in 2016 following a scandal).

School, Head coach (Last year on job)
Western Carolina: Kent Briggs (2007)
Vanderbilt: Bobby Johnson (2009)
Arkansas: Houston Nutt (2007)
Georgia: Mark Richt (2015)
Florida State: Bobby Bowden (2009)
Houston: Art Briles (2007)
Ole Miss: Ed Orgeron (2007)
Tennessee: Phillip Fulmer (2008)
LSU: Les Miles (2916)
Mississippi State: Sylvester Croom (2008)
ULM: Charlie Weatherbie (2009)
Auburn: Tommy Tuberville (2008)
Colorado: Dan Hawkins (2010)

9. Here’s one for the defense

 Alabama defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry in the Third Saturday in October rivalry game against Tennessee in 2005.
Oct. 22, 2005; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Rick Clausen (16) scrambles into the Alabama Crimson Tide secondary pursued by Alabama's Wallace Gilberry (92) in the first half of action at Bryant-Denny Stadium. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Wallace Gilberry’s 27.0 tackles for a loss remain a program record for defensive linemen. It’s the ninth most at the FBS level since 2005, with linebacker Will Anderson Jr. first with 35 in 2021. Moreover, Gilberry’s 10 sacks in 2007 that season are still tied for 10th among Alabama single-season leaders. 

10. Do you remember who scored the final touchdown of the 2007 season?

It was wide receiver Nikita Stover on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Wilson, to give Alabama a 27-0 lead over Colorado in the Independence Bowl. The Buffaloes came back, but Alabama held on for the 30-24 victory in Shreveport, La., where Saban supposedly said the Crimson Tide would not being coming back. Six months later, he was inducted into the Independence Bowl Hall of Honor. Saban had previously coached in the bowl game in 1995 with Michigan State, and lost to LSU, 45-26. In 1999, Saban left Michigan State for LSU.

Stover had just 28 career receptions for the Crimson Tide from 2006-08, but five were for touchdowns. In 2021, he was named the head football coach at Decatur Heritage Christian Academy.

This is the sixth, and final, story in a multi-part BamaCentral series looking back at Alabama football’s coaching transition in 2007 as the Crimson Tide prepares for a new head coach in 2024 with Kalen DeBoer.

What It’s Like When Alabama Football Gets a New Head Coach

Former WR Matt Caddell Looks Back on Alabama’s Last Football Head Coaching Change

2007 Alabama Football Provided a Glimpse of Something Special

Nick Saban's Arrival at Alabama Brought Anxiety, Rumors and a Different Mindset

A Decade of Changes: Former RT Mike Johnson on Alabama's Coaching Shifts

Christopher Walsh


Christopher Walsh is the founder and publisher of BamaCentral, which first published in 2018. He's covered the Crimson Tide since 2004, and is the author of 26 books including Decade of Dominance, 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Nick Saban vs. College Football, and Bama Dynasty: The Crimson Tide's Road to College Football Immortality. He's an eight-time honoree of Football Writers Association of America awards and three-time winner of the Herby Kirby Memorial Award, the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s highest writing honor for story of the year. In 2022, he was named one of the 50 Legends of the ASWA. Previous beats include the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Originally from Minnesota and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, he currently resides in Tuscaloosa.