Saban Leaves Dolphins to Coach Alabama

Nick Saban shakes hands with fans after getting off a plane in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he will be introduced today as the new football coach at the University of Alabama.
Nick Saban shakes hands with fans after getting off a plane in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he will be introduced today as the new football coach at the University of Alabama. (Michelle Williams - AP)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Nick Saban left the Miami Dolphins yesterday after two seasons as their coach to accept a $4 million-a-year contract offer from the University of Alabama.

Saban, who had repeatedly denied in recent weeks that he would take the Alabama job, told Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga of his decision during a morning meeting at Saban's house. Saban traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., later in the day and was scheduled to be formally introduced at a news conference there today.

"There's a lot of reasons why decisions get made in life," Huizenga said during a news conference at the Dolphins' headquarters in Davie, Fla. "But the net is, he's not coming back . . . and we have to move forward."

Under Saban, the Dolphins were 15-17, including 6-10 this season, and failed to reach the playoffs. He had three seasons remaining on his contract for salaries totaling about $13.5 million.

He becomes the highest-paid coach in college football with a deal at Alabama that a source said is worth about $32 million over eight seasons. Saban could earn as much as $800,000 annually in bonuses written into the contract, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the school had not released details of the agreement.

Still, Huizenga said that Saban's decision was not based on money. He said he never received an assurance from Saban that the coach would stay, and indicated that Saban never asked for a raise to remain with the Dolphins. He said he didn't feel betrayed by Saban.

"I'm not upset with Nick," Huizenga said. "I think Nick is great. . . . I'm a Nick Saban fan."

Huizenga lured Saban from Louisiana State, where Saban won a national championship, with a five-year, $22.5 million deal and a promise that he would have total control over football operations. Saban, a former assistant coach to Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns, had success initially in his return to the NFL. He repaired the organization's fractured relationship with tailback Ricky Williams and led the team to a 9-7 record as a rookie NFL head coach, barely missing the playoffs.

But when the Dolphins had a chance to choose between two quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Daunte Culpepper, last offseason, they made a selection that doomed their 2006 season. They chose Culpepper and traded a second-round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings for him. Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent and led them to the playoffs. Culpepper hadn't fully recovered from the serious knee injury he had suffered in his final season with the Vikings. He made only four starts for the Dolphins before being shut down for the season.

At Alabama, Saban replaces Mike Shula, who was fired in November, and inherits a team coming off a 6-7 season that included an Independence Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

"When I set out on this search, I noted that I was seeking a coach who has a proven record of championship success and achievement," Athletic Director Mal Moore said in a written statement released by the school. "Coach Saban brings that proven record of accomplishment and leadership to our program."

West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez rejected the job. Saban told his Dolphins players that he wouldn't accept Alabama's offer, and he said the same thing publicly. On Dec. 21, he said: "I guess I have to say it: I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."

But the school continued to pursue Saban, and Moore traveled to South Florida to deliver a formal contract proposal to Saban on Monday. Saban told friends in coaching that he missed college football, and on Monday the Dolphins began compiling a list of potential replacements. On Tuesday, Saban asked Huizenga for another day to make his decision.

Huizenga said the Dolphins would spare no expense to build a winning team as they launch their search for a new coach. They join the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons in looking for coaches, and there already was some speculation within league circles yesterday that the Dolphins might try to hire Bill Cowher if he resigns as the Pittsburgh Steelers' coach, as expected. They would have to compensate the Steelers, probably with a draft pick or picks, since Cowher's contract with the Steelers runs through next season.

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