The Miami Dolphins got the coach they wanted when Nick Saban, after three days of consideration, announced yesterday that he had decided to leave Louisiana State University and jump to the NFL.
Saban, who won a share of last season's collegiate national championship at LSU, agreed to a five-year contract with the Dolphins that will pay him close to $5 million per season and give him final say over the team's football-related decisions. The club offered Saban, 53, the job on Wednesday, and he spent Thursday and Friday deliberating with his family in Baton Rouge, La., and wrestling with his decision before announcing his choice last night, soon after he and the LSU team arrived in Orlando for a New Year's Day meeting with Iowa in the Capital One Bowl.
"I've always been driven by challenges . . . and I think the Miami Dolphins are a great organization with a great owner who's committed to winning," Saban said during a news conference in Orlando.
Saban, who was making about $2.3 million per season at LSU, had rejected previous overtures from NFL teams, including one by the Chicago Bears a year ago. But some of his associates said from the outset of his dealings with the Dolphins they thought there was a good chance that he would go to Miami to oversee the prestigious franchise if he was offered what he wanted in terms of control over football operations.
Saban had an interview with Dolphins officials 12 days ago, and spoke to team owner Wayne Huizenga by telephone Wednesday. Huizenga spent Wednesday negotiating contract terms with Saban's agent, Jimmy Sexton, in Florida, and Huizenga traveled to Baton Rouge to speak with Saban again Friday.
There were indications that LSU might have been willing to offer Saban a raise. But school officials said they never spoke to Saban about renegotiating his contract, and Saban told friends his decision wasn't about money.
He said last night his time at LSU had been his "most rewarding time" in coaching, and added: "Everybody is presented with difficult decisions in their life, career decisions that affect a lot of people in their life, and this was certainly one. . . . We weren't seeking [this] opportunity. It's never a good time to do these things when you're happy. . . . I just felt like this opportunity with this organization was one of the best that's ever been offered to me."
Saban has a record of 48-15 in five seasons at LSU. He is 91-41-1 in an 11-season career as a college head coach that also included stints at Toledo and Michigan State.
His background as an NFL assistant made him an attractive candidate even after Steve Spurrier's failure with the Washington Redskins in 2002 and 2003 produced a virtually league-wide wariness of hiring college coaches. Saban was the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick, now the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the New England Patriots. He will now coach against Belichick in the AFC East.
Saban said he plans to visit Miami on Monday and then return to Orlando to coach LSU in its bowl game. He might attend the Dolphins' season finale next Sunday in Baltimore.
The Dolphins have a record of 3-11, and coach Dave Wannstedt resigned on Nov. 8 when the club was 1-8. Last week, the Dolphins interviewed former Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell and their interim coach, Jim Bates, who could be retained by Saban as defensive coordinator. Saban and Bates coached together in Cleveland and have remained close.
The interview of Shell satisfied the league's requirement that each team conducting a head-coaching search interview at least one minority candidate. The leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group formed to promote minority hiring in the NFL, have asked the league to investigate whether the Dolphins gave legitimate consideration to any minority candidates.
Saban's front-office chief in Miami could be Floyd Reese, the Tennessee Titans' general manager who is a former Houston Oilers coaching peer of Saban and has had his differences with Titans Coach Jeff Fisher, or Atlanta Falcons assistant GM Tim Ruskell. Rick Spielman, the Dolphins' general manager, probably will be dismissed or reassigned within the organization.
Former Browns coach Butch Davis probably will be among the favorites to replace Saban at LSU. He was on the school's list of candidates before Saban was hired. Davis has indicated that he plans to take a year off from coaching, but even before he left the Browns on Nov. 30, NFL sources said that he was gauging the possible interest in him at LSU and the University of Florida. The Florida job was filled by Urban Meyer.