No country for old coaches

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Days before they were set to meet in the 2023 SEC championship, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban sat down for a brief roundtable on the SEC Network. Smart, in an incongruous blue suit, turned to Saban, in an on-brand crimson blazer, and asked, “What advice would you give me with what you’ve learned, from the point you were at the same age I am? I’m 48.” Smart then added, “I won’t be doing this when I’m your age.”

“That’s because you’re smarter than me,” the 72-year-old Saban said with a laugh.

Saban, New England’s Bill Belichick (age 71) and Seattle’s Pete Carroll (72) all ended their long coaching tenures, one way or another, in the span of a remarkable 24 hours this week. Their departures from the coaching profession — which might or might not be permanent — don’t just represent the end of an era in their respective towns. They also likely mark the end of coaches remaining in the profession until well into their 70s. The ever-changing nature of the game, impatient ownership/fans/boosters and astronomical paychecks will all combine to move coaches from the sideline to the recliner at an ever-faster pace.

With Saban’s retirement, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is now the longest-tenured SEC coach at 11 years. (Saban, of course, is directly responsible for ending the tenures of numerous SEC coaches.) Now 56, Stoops would have to coach into the 2039 season — with a recruiting class that is still in diapers right now — to be on the job at 72 years old.

In the NFL, Mike Tomlin — hired in 2007 — is now the longest-tenured coach. Five years younger than Stoops, he would have to coach into the 2044 season to match Belichick at 71 (and, likely, still counting). Think Steelers fans will be satisfied with that? (Then again, Tomlin is four years younger than Saban was when he took the Alabama job …)

To remain a head coach for as long as Saban (30 total seasons), Carroll (27 total seasons) and Belichick (29 total seasons) did, you need to have either a shelf full of trophies or a highly forgiving fan base. You also need to be motivated by more than just money; any coach in a job more than a few years is making generational wealth, and once you hit your number, it’d be perfectly normal to question whether you want to be answering to the whims of teenagers, working 30-hour days, seeing your players more than your family and dealing with the scorching criticism of fans at every bump in the road.

Granted, age doesn’t always bring wisdom; college football especially rewards coaches who can be nimble and upend their own biases and methodologies. Part of Saban’s genius was the way he could adapt The Process to whatever the times demanded. But he was, quite obviously, the exception rather than the rule. A coach too attached to The Way Things Used To Be winds up like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — spurning newfangled innovations such as NIL and the transfer portal and getting left behind as a result.

Still, Saban groused plenty in recent years about the changes reshaping college football. Power is a zero-sum game, and the portal and NIL riches yanked power from the hands of coaches and put it in the hands of players (and their advisors). Whether motivated by concerns about how the portal and NIL would harm the game, how they would make his job harder or how a 12-team playoff would increase the degree of championship difficulty, for Saban, the effect was the same: These changes are bad news for coaches.

Belichick, meanwhile, has learned the hard lesson of how difficult life is without Tom Brady as your quarterback. Brady patched over a whole lot of problems in the Patriots organization, and while it’s unfair to lay all of New England’s post-Brady woes at Belichick’s feet, the hard truth of the Patriots’ current, four-win incompetence is impossible to ignore.

Belichick’s departure, in particular, illustrates just how cruel football can be. Even the most successful coach in NFL history doesn’t get to go out on his own terms. The game comes for everyone eventually. Younger coaches see this, and if they can get their rings early, they don’t see the need to wait on the meat grinder to chew them up, too.

Two years ago, just before leading the Rams to a victory in the Super Bowl, Sean McVay was asked about the career longevity of Belichick and whether he himself would coach as long as the Patriots legend.

The response was immediate and definitive: “Hell, no. Not a chance.”

He’d rather retire and spend time with his kids — or perhaps get rich behind a mic — than coach deep into his golden years.

McVay, for the record, is 37 years old.

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