Nick Saban didn’t appear to be saying it to boast, but only to illustrate a larger point.
When asked prior to a speaking engagement in Mobile Tuesday night about any changes he might make to the NCAA transfer portal, the Alabama head football coach first said he wasn’t in a position to make any adjustments to NCAA legislation. But then he delivered a staggering number.
“Somebody gave me a stat that our players have made $1.7 billion playing in the NFL since 2007,” Saban said prior to his participation at a fundraiser for Team Focus, a youth mentoring organization founded by former college football coach and broadcaster Mike Gottfried. “And all those guys didn’t play when they were freshmen. They didn’t all play when they were sophomores. They didn’t even all play when they were juniors, but they all developed.”
Alabama has had 106 players drafted by NFL teams during Saban’s tenure, 39 in the first round. The 10 players drafted in 2021 — including a record-tying six first-rounders — signed contracts worth a total of $135.671 million.
The transfer portal has changed the landscape of college football since it came into being in 2018, particularly since the NCAA passed an additional rule in the spring of 2021 allowing Division I athletes to transfer once during their careers without sitting out a season at their new schools . Alabama has been included in that number, in both directions.
Two of the better players on the 2021 Crimson Tide team were first-year transfers, wide receiver Jameson Williams (Ohio State) and linebacker Henry To’oTo’o (Tennessee). Williams is likely to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft later this month, while To’oTo’o passed up the opportunity to turn pro for one more season of development in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama has added four more high-profile transfers in this cycle: defensive back Eli Ricks (LSU), wide receiver Jermaine Burton (Georgia), offensive lineman Tyler Steen (Vanderbilt) and running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech), with more possibly on the way. All are expected to be major contributors in 2022, with Gibbs having already made his mark as the Most Valuable Player of last Saturday’s A-Day spring game.
But Saban also highlighted two recent players who stayed the course despite a lack of playing time earlier in their careers — quarterback Mac Jones and running back Brian Robinson. Jones sat behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa for three seasons before re-writing the Alabama passing record book in his lone season as a starter (2020) and later getting drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots. Robinson — a 2022 draft prospect — fought for carries with the likes of Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris before becoming the Crimson Tide’s featured back in 2021.
“Everybody has an opportunity to go wherever they want, to go whenever they want to go,” Saban said. “And if we think that’s good for the development of young people, I guess it’s OK. Um, but I think everyone’s successful in life has resiliency and perseverance. … Mac Jones was in a program for three years and worked and developed so he could be successful. (Robinson) was a five-year guy who didn’t play much and had a great career. And now he has an opportunity to play at the next level.”
Saban also took aim at so-called “NIL Collectives,” which schools such as Texas A&M — Alabama’s SEC West rival — Florida and Notre Dame have created to help athletes profit on their Name, Image and Likeness. Critics argue that such organized efforts seek to circumvent NCAA rules against offering financial inducements to potential recruits.
When asked if his opinion on NIL had changed in recent months, Saban replied that it had not. However, he said that in his opinion that collectives generating massive amounts of revenue were an “unintended consequence” of NIL’s original intent.
“I said in the very beginning that the concept of Name, Image and Likeness — for players to go out and get representation and be able to work and make money using their Name, Image and Likeness — is a good thing for the players,” Saban said. “And I think that was the original intent. Now people have started these collectives that raise money to create opportunities for players. I think that’s an unintended consequence.
“We didn’t do that last year and our guys made more money than anybody in college football. On their own, representing themselves, creating a good image, being good players, creating value for themselves. So we’re going to do the same thing but we’re gonna give everybody the same opportunity. Everybody in the organization will have the same opportunity and then they can go earn as much as they want.
“We give everybody the same medical attention, we give everybody the same nutrition, we give everybody the same academic support. They have the same scholarship, so we’re gonna give them the same opportunity in Name, Image and Likeness. Then they can go earn whatever they want. But I don’t know if it’s a sustainable model for me to start picking and choosing who gets what opportunities.”
Saban spoke for the 14th time at Team Focus, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. With the exception of 2020 — when the event was canceled due to COVID, he has appeared each spring at the annual fundraiser in Mobile, one of two charitable events on his calendar every year along with his own Nick’s Kids golf tournament in Tuscaloosa.
Team Focus helps provide mentors for young men who grew up without father figures, a cause near to Saban’s heart. Saban’s father, Nick Sr., died just as he was finishing college at Kent State in the early 1970s.
“The reason I come here every year is that Mike does something that serves a lot of young people, creates a lot of young opportunity for young people,” Saban said. “And it’s it’s kind of a little bit like our Nick’s Kids Foundation. (Gottfried has) always supported our foundation, and we’ve always tried to support his. I think it’s wonderful that people are willing to serve others. That’s a big part of leadership — service. Setting a good example is one thing that somebody can emulate — caring enough about other people to help them for their benefit. So my hat’s always been off to Mike. I really appreciate what he and (wife) Mickey have done for many years now, to create lots of opportunities for young people.”
For more information about Team Focus, visit TeamFocusUSA.org.