Nancy Armour, USA TODAY
Published 10:21 a.m. ET Dec. 9, 2019 | Updated 10:24 a.m. ET Dec. 9, 2019
Even with this season, sub-par by Alabama standards, there has been no better coach this decade than Nick Saban.
Not Steve Kerr. Not Geno Auriemma. Not even Bill Belichick.
No doubt he’d dismiss the notion as more rat poison. And, in fairness, there isn’t much separating him from Kerr, Auriemma or Belichick, all of whom coached teams that defined the 2010s by their success.
Kerr’s Golden State Warriors made the NBA Finals in each of the last five seasons, winning three titles. Belichick’s New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl three times, and played in it twice more. Auriemma’s Connecticut teams made every Final Four in the decade, taking home the championship in half of their appearances.
The Huskies also went more than four years without a regular-season loss, winning 126 in a row from November 2014 to January 2019.
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But success is not all that set Saban apart in the 2010s – though he had plenty of it. Alabama won four national titles, and reached the championship game two other years. After the Iron Bowl, his record in the 2010s is 123-15, for a gaudy winning percentage of .891.
Unlike Kerr and Belichick, however, Saban has done this with a roster that is in a constant state of turnover. There are no long-term contracts in college sports – no contracts at all – and most of Saban’s best players leave early.
In fact, Saban had 28 first-round picks in the NFL draft between 2010 to 2019, including nine in the top 10. That’s almost twice as many first-rounders as he had losses, and is more than some schools will produce over five decades.
So while Kerr has had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for his entire tenure, and Belichick has had Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski (until this year), Julian Edelman, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski, Saban has had to play mix-and-match.
Mark Ingram gave way to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, who gave way to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who gave way to Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, who gave way to Najee Harris. Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw gave way to Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, who gave way to Rashaan Evans, Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams, who gave way to Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis.
Get the idea? Every year, Saban had to start over with at least one of his key starting position groups, and often several of them.
Auriemma had the same challenge, but with fewer positions. Also, considering UConn’s history and a competitive gap that remains wider in women’s basketball than in football, Auriemma was almost guaranteed of having his pick of the best players each year.
Saban gets more than his fair share of top players – note that stat about first-round picks again. But quarterback was, shall we say, an adventure until Tua Tagovailoa arrived in Tuscaloosa. Remember Jake Coker?
And let’s not even start on kickers.
But despite coaching in an atmosphere of constant upheaval, Saban piled up the wins. Double-digit victories every year, and six seasons with only one loss. This year will be the first since the College Football Playoff began in 2014-15 that Alabama does not qualify.
A more telling stat: This will be the first time Alabama won’t play for the title since that first year of the playoff, when the Crimson Tide lost to Ohio State in the semifinals.
There are plenty of good coaches across all sports, and a few truly great ones. In this decade, though, none was better than Saban.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.