It’s the start of college football bowl season, which also happens to coincide with the beginning of the annual game of head coaching musical chairs. Bryan Harsin, still under contract with Arkansas State, left Jonesboro to become head coach of his hometown team and alma mater Boise State. Meanwhile, Steve Sarkisian, who was still under contract with the University of Washington, bolted for another team in the Pac-12—his former employer USC. Harsin, Sarkisian, and any other head coach that voluntarily leaves for another program this offseason will inevitably be labeled a traitor.
Ironically, Nick Saban—often considered the most treacherous coach in America—might be spared that distinction this offseason, as he has purportedly agreed to an extension with the Crimson Tide. It is important to clarify that the word “extension” here is at best a red herring and at worst disingenuous code for “give me a pay raise and I’ll consider not leaving for Austin, Texas.” Prior to this most recent “extension,” Saban was already under contract with the University of Alabama through 2020, or the year of his 69th birthday. And given the fact that Saban’s contracts in Tuscaloosa have notoriously omitted buyout clauses, adding a durational term to a Nick Saban contract is like ordering a Diet Coke at an all you can eat Chinese buffet—it doesn’t really make any difference. Although the exact terms of the new contract have not been made public, reports indicate that Saban’s yearly salary will increase from $5.4 million to somewhere between the range of $7 and $7.5 million. Let’s call a spade a spade: Nick Saban tactically leveraged rumors of him jumping ship to Texas into at least a $2 million pay raise.
A brief look at Nick Saban’s coaching resume reveals just how much Saban understands the concept of strategic leverage. Consequently, that very same resume also explains why so many people abhor Nick Saban.
The year is 1999, and Nick Saban had just finished his fifth year of coaching the Michigan State Spartans. In Saban’s first four years in East Lansing, his team had finished with six wins three times and seven wins once. By the end of the 2009 season, however, Nick Saban had transitioned the Spartans from a middling Big Ten program into a nine win success story. Reportedly miffed at the Michigan State brass for failing to give him an owed bonus, Saban began listening to suitors—most notably Louisiana State University. Saban’s private listenings evolved into publicly available chatter, which prompted Michigan State officials to visit the home of Nick Saban to talk about his rumored desertion. While at the Saban residence, the officials questioned the coach about the whereabouts of his wife, Terry. Saban initially explained that his wife was simply at the store, but when asked explicitly whether Terry was in Baton Rouge, Nick Saban—caught in a blatant lie—admitted the truth and left for LSU the following morning.
The year is 2004, and Nick Saban had completed his fifth season as head coach of the LSU Tigers. Unlike his mediocre tenure in East Lansing, Saban had enjoyed nothing but success in the Southeastern Conference. Over just five years time, Saban had won two SEC championships and one national title. His worst season in Baton Rouge was an eight win campaign in 2002—a win total envied by a myriad of colleges across the country. Saban is coming off a nine win regular season and using his past successes as a primary recruiting tool in the homes of top recruits across the country. As Saban is on the road recruiting, no one at LSU had any idea that Nick Saban is about to test his luck in the National Football League. But while recruiting, then Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga approached Saban, offered him a truck load of money, and by Christmas Day Saban was an NFL coach.
It’s December 21, 2006, and Nick Saban is nearing the end of his second year at the helm of the Miami Dolphins. Coming off a 9-7 2005 season in which the Dolphins narrowly missed the playoffs, Saban’s squad is now 6-8 and without a shot at postseason play. Despite two years of Saban and two years without playoff berths, Huizenga is still on record as being confident in Saban. The University of Alabama had fired head coach Mike Shula on November 27th, and ever since then all signs pointed toward Nick Saban being the next head coach of the Crimson Tide—so much so that Saban is forced to go on record regarding the overtures coming from Tuscaloosa.
I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach. … I don’t control what people say. I don’t control what people put on dot-com or anything else. So I’m just telling you there’s no significance, in my opinion, about this, about me, about any interest that I have in anything other than being the coach here. — Nick Saban.
Despite the aforementioned reassurance, on January 4, 2007 Nick Saban signed an 8-year $32 million deal to be the next head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Because of his actions, Michigan State fans remember Nick Saban for his mediocrity, not his 9 win capstone of a season. Meanwhile, LSU fans despise Saban both for leaving Baton Rouge for the Dolphins in the first place and then for returning to the college ranks at Alabama of all possible schools. Then there’s the Miami Dolphins fans who hate Nick Saban for lying about his interest in the Crimson Tide—so much that “Benedict Saban” websites have been created in his honor. And now Crimson Tide fans, much like men acting as “rebounds” in relationships with women completely out of their league, have no choice but to love Nick Saban until the inevitable messy breakup occurs.
Nick Saban is a lot of things. He is a tremendous college football coach. He is an average at best professional football coach. He is a tireless recruiter. He has proven to be either a liar or the most indecisive person on the planet. On second thought, let’s just call him a liar. He is not an individual that values loyalty—aside from his unquestioned relationships with wife Terry and his two children, Nicholas and Kristen. At the end of the day, Nick Saban is a great football coach who rubs people the wrong way because of his willingness to change coaching opportunities at a moment’s notice to advance his career. This does not make him treacherous, and he is absolutely not a traitor.
Human beings are, in virtually all circumstances, nothing more than self-interested actors. When someone leaves a job to take a position at another company offering more money, that person is rationally acting in her self-interest. Likewise, when a person turns down a higher-paying position, she is also acting in her own self-interest—as, presumably, the psychic benefits associated with the current, lesser-paying employer more than make up for the salary left on the table by denying the other offer. Even when someone performs volunteer work, more often than not that person will be acting with her own self-interest in mind. To be sure, how often does someone actually do something charitable and never let someone else know about it?
A traitor is someone who betrays the trust of another. An important condition to the definition of “traitor” is that the trust must be reasonable. In a country that has embraced capitalism like the United States, trustworthiness is of little value to the bottom line, so it is hardly rational to assume trust in the workplace—an arena in which the combatants all fight to maximize personal profits and successes. Nick Saban left Michigan State for more money and a better opportunity. That is to be expected. Saban then left LSU for even more money and a theoretically better opportunity. That is also to be expected. Saban next left the Dolphins to pursue $4 million per year for eight years at a historic college football program. Keeping true to pattern, this should again have been expected. Now, if and when Nick Saban leaves Alabama for another opportunity, he will be doing so for the sake of his career and his career alone—not due to some sort of irrational affection toward an institution that would assuredly fire him the instant he fails to live up to the lofty expectations he helped create. Just ask Texas head coach Mack Brown about that last one.
Semantical arguments concerning Nick Saban aside, many fans continue to struggle with the supposed interconnection between signing a contract and the creation of a supposed legally-mandated loyalty requirement. While such beliefs are understandable, they are also wrong. Additionally, they reflect on the business sophistication gap between the wealthy and powerful—e.g. Nick Saban—and the not-so-wealthy and those lacking power—e.g. a coach honoring a contract out of principle as opposed to seeking out better opportunities.
Rules should not be thought of as absolutes. By rule, holding is forbidden in the NFL. But despite the illegality of holding, one should never refuse to take hold of an opposing player solely out of some sort of misguided strict adherence to the NFL Rulebook. Instead, one should weigh the costs and benefits of the hold itself. For example, do the benefits of the particular hold outweigh the risk of being flagged for a ten yard penalty? Rules are nothing more than the manifestation of socially-determined carrots and sticks into writing.
The logic behind contracts is the same as the logic behind rules in general. A contract provides that one party perform an agreed upon service for another party over an agreed upon duration. The party performing the service is compensated pursuant to the terms of the contract—the compensation being the proverbial carrot. If either party chooses to either stop either the agreed upon service or the agreed upon compensation, then the contract will list measures of repercussion—such measures functioning as the stick.
When college coaches under contract choose to join a different academic institution, they are not just ripping up their agreed-upon contracts; rather, they are merely exercising the agreed-upon “sticks” within their contracts. It might be a multi-million dollar buyout payment in exchange for failing to satisfy the durational terms of the contract. The aforementioned Bryan Harsin had to pay a $1.75 million buyout at Arkansas State. Or, the stick might be adhering to an agreed-upon non-compete clause. Former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino had a non-compete clause in his contract forbidding him from leaving Fayetteville for any school in the Southeastern Conference.
Ultimately, if you are a fan of a school with a coach that leaves in the middle of his contract, you have every right to be pissed off, but you can’t really fault him for complying with the terms of his contract. UC Berkeley athletic director Sandy Barbour may have said it best:
Contracts are basically ‘prenups;’ if either party decides they no longer want to be part of the relationship, what are the exit fees? — Sandy Barbour.
Nick Saban has never been a traitor; he’s just always known negotiate and utilize his exit fees. And understanding how Nick Saban operates, until the University of Texas names its next football coach, first be on the lookout for any evidence demonstrating that Nick Saban has actually signed his new extension, and then focus on what it would take for Saban to get out of his Alabama contract in time for spring practice in Austin.
Rumor has it UT boosters have a lot of oil money laying around just asking to be spent by Terry Saban.