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Alabama’s coaching search: West Coast vulnerable in wake of Nick Saban’s retirement

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

A legend is retiring, a throne is vacant and at least two West Coast schools have reason to fret.

The Alabama coaching search, which began Wednesday when Nick Saban announced his retirement, is expected to move swiftly and carry a wallop.

Not only were Oregon coach Dan Lanning and Washington’s Kalen DeBoer immediately linked to the vacancy – Lanning is the betting favorite at 2-to-1, according to – there are additional layers to consider.

On Thursday, FootballScoop cited multiple sources in reporting that DeBoer is one of three “serious contenders” – with Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Tide offensive coordinator Tommy Rees – to succeed Nick Saban at Alabama.

The criteria for being labeled a serious contender, according to FootballScoop, included “earning interviews” for the role.

Per the report, other options “with some measure of traction” include Maryland coach Mike Locksley and Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz.

The search itself will undoubtedly create negotiating leverage for any coach (and agent) who appears on Alabama’s radar and desires to squeeze every last dime from his employer.

Also, be mindful of the potential for collateral damage. One vacancy creates a second vacancy, which creates a third. Saban’s decision assuredly will cause a ripple effect through the sport that could last weeks.

(If Jim Harbaugh leaves Michigan for the NFL, the combined impact of vacancies at two storied football programs will be nothing short of breathtaking.)

Details of Alabama’s search are scarce. But we know this much about Greg Byrne, the Crimson Tide’s athletic director, based on his previous hiring decisions:

• His coaching searches are conducted with speed and stealth. Byrne will demand radio silence from candidates and their agents; any leaks to the media will result in that coach being removed from the process.

• Byrne values football acumen but also understands the need for candidates to have the right personality for the job in question. And in this case, the job in question features the sport’s largest fishbowl.

• With his deep roots in the Pac-12, Byrne respects the quality of football on the West Coast and the standards Lanning and DeBoer cleared to be worthy of the tasks in Eugene and Seattle.

• He favors coaches with something to prove.

A good example: As Arizona’s athletic director a decade ago, Byrne hired Rich Rodriguez following his abrupt termination by Michigan. Rodriguez was desperate to restore his reputation and viewed the Wildcats as his pathway to salvation. Within three years, he won the Pac-12 South title.

Lanning and DeBoer are hardly on the downslope of their careers; both have plenty left to accomplish. But are they ideal candidates?

Lanning is 37, oozes energy and charisma, clearly relates well to players and excels in recruiting. Also, he understands Alabama football following one season on Saban’s staff and several years as Georgia’s defensive coordinator.

But his head coaching experience consists of 27 games. The bluest of blue-blood programs is seeking a replacement for the greatest coach in the history of the sport. There can be no learning on the job.

From that standpoint, DeBoer seems a natural fit. He is 49 years old, has been a head coach for nine seasons and claims success at three levels of the game: NAIA (with the University of Sioux Falls), the Group of Five (Fresno State) and the Power Five (Washington).

He went 3-0 this season against two teams, Oregon and Texas, that had as much, if not more talent than the Huskies. His coaching chops are beyond dispute.

The issue with DeBoer, in our view, is the personality fit. He grew up in the Midwest and has been a head coach on the West Coast; the SEC is foreign soil.

Saban’s successor will need a hard edge to deal with the scrutiny. Does DeBoer have the right temperament? Does he covet the spotlight above all else? Does his wife, Nicole, want to become the First Lady of Alabama – the state, not just the school?

We don’t envy Byrne, not for a second. The pressure to replace Saban will be so intense, the bar for success will be so high – 12 wins or bust – that many of the game’s top coaches won’t touch the job. They would rather replace the guy who replaces Saban.

That said, any coach on Alabama’s radar will use the search for leverage.

DeBoer is comically underpaid and earned just $4.2 million this season. Given the market, he stood to double that amount before Saban stepped down. The cost to buy DeBoer out of his contract is a relative pittance (reportedly $12 million).

Lanning’s buyout is more substantial ($20 million) after the Ducks smartly reworked his deal last summer in order to scare off potential suitors.

Also, Lanning’s public statements suggest he plans to remain in Eugene.

In November, after being linked to the Texas A&M vacancy, he told reporters: “Everything I want exists right here. I’m not going anywhere. There’s zero chance that I would be coaching somewhere else.”

And on Thursday morning, with rumors swirling and reports indicating that he was in Tuscaloosa, Lanning released a video on X, formerly Twitter, in which he declared, “I’m not leaving.”

Did that move come in response to word from Byrne that Lanning would not be considered for the job? For now, we’ll assume the impetus was from Lanning – that he was, in fact, a candidate but truly wants to remain in Eugene and has no desire to step into Saban’s massive shadow.

But make no mistake: The Alabama search could impact any number of West Coast schools.

Whichever football program loses its coach to Alabama will turn around and seek to steal from someone else, and so on.

Could Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, who’s negotiating a new deal, become a candidate for a vacancy created by Alabama’s search? We don’t expect Fisch to leave Tucson, but the development might provide him with additional negotiating leverage.

Might Washington State’s Jake Dickert become a candidate for a power conference job that opens in the wake of Alabama’s next move?

Deion Sanders doesn’t seem like the right fit, but what if Alabama hires Florida State coach Mike Norvell, who just went 13-1 and seems as qualified for the task as DeBoer or Lanning? In that case, Sanders’ alma mater might attempt to bring him home, leading to a vacancy in Boulder.

And let’s not forget about the potential for premier offensive and defensive coordinators – there are several in the Pac-12 – to get caught in the Alabama vortex.

Few schools are completely immune to the Tuscaloosa trickle-down.

And if Harbaugh leaves Michigan, as well, the coaching carousel could spin for weeks and cause incalculable damage on the West Coast.