When Nick Saban was hired to coach the Crimson Tide his skeptics, for either envy or sheer doubt, were quick to call him an overrated and overpaid mercenary. As Alabama loyalists, we largely ignored this talk, focusing on what Saban had accomplished at LSU and his reputation as a dominating recruiter. We dismissed his stint as the Miami Dolphins' head coach for many valid reasons.
Like any coach, Saban is often judged not by the big games he has won but the little games he's lost. At Michigan State, for example, his skeptics point out that without a 9-2 season in 1999, Saban had only a 25-22-1 record from 1995-1998. They don't mention that he inherited an NCAA sanctioned team that hadn't had a winning season since 1990.
Coming to Louisiana State in 2000, Saban replaced Gerry DiNairdo, who'd recruited well but failed to retain and develop players.
Some LSU fans like to say that without the championship season in 2003, Saban compiled a respectable 35-15 record from 2000-2004, helped greatly by Alabama's decline, and marred by a number of games that should not have been lost. They also like to acknowledge that Les Miles absolutely dominated the football world in his first three years, winning three Sugar Bowls and a championship of his own. They argue that while Miles may have benefitted from having a full cupboard of talented players, he coached those players better than Saban would have. Obviously these arguments can't truly be answered, because we don't know how well Saban would have done at LSU if he'd stayed. But we're certainly glad that he left.
Saban's 15-17 record with the Miami Dolphins--centered on quarterback problems and poor offensive production--and a 7-6 season in his first year at Alabama--including losses to the University of Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State--were quickly forgotten when he signed the nation's top recruiting class in 2008. We all know what has happened since, so there's no need mentioning any of that.
Statistics aside, it's supremely relevant to acknowledge the good Saban has done. At Toledo in 1990, Saban led the Rockets to a 9-2 record, their best in years. At Michigan State, he guided the program through probation and a dominant season in 1999. At LSU he solidified recruiting and player retention, and he won a National Championship, turning LSU from underachiever to powerhouse. At Alabama he has continued his successful recruiting, transforming our identity nationally into something it hasn't been since the '90s. Last year he produced the first 12-0 regular season and had our beloved Crimson Tide one quarter away from a national championship berth.
So, the question to ask is this: what is Saban's best work as a coach? Has he done a better job at Alabama, without even an SEC championship or major bowl win to his credit, than he did at LSU? To answer this question, you'll first have to decide whether LSU's problems entering 2000 were worse than Alabama's entering 2007.
I'm going to take the safe way out and say I won't compare the two until Saban's time at Alabama is finished. That's the only fair way in my opinion, and I hope it isn't for many years.