Nick Saban is ready for another season -- and that's just the beginning

Saban: 'I've always just looked at the next challenge' (1:21)

Nick Saban sits down with Rece Davis to discuss his future in coaching after winning a sixth national title. (1:21)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Earlier this month, Alabama coach Nick Saban finally got to enjoy his first full day off in Tuscaloosa since the season ended. Sure, he'd spent a few days vacationing in Florida and even played golf at Augusta National, but this was the first time he kicked back and relaxed at the house, enjoying the aftermath of another national title.

At one point, Saban turned to his wife, Terry, and joked, "What the hell are we going to do the rest of the day?"

It was 8 a.m.

For a guy who hears with increasing frequency that he might be nearing the finish line -- perhaps wishful thinking from rival recruiters as much as anything -- the 66-year-old Saban isn't showing any signs of slowing down as Alabama begins another year of spring practice on Tuesday. For that matter, he can't imagine what he would do if he weren't coaching football.

"That's what everybody keeps saying, that I'm not going to be doing this for much longer, and all the people who say it have no idea what I'm going to do," Saban told ESPN during a wide-ranging interview. "I've been involved in some fashion with football and being a part of a football team ever since I can remember. I don't know what it would be like not doing it, and don't want to know."

One of Saban's former coaching rivals, Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier, said the rest of the college football world might want to take Saban at his word when he says retirement hasn't crossed his mind. The two talked after Spurrier stepped down during the 2015 season, and Spurrier said their conversation was telling.

"Nick ain't thinking about retiring, not even close," Spurrier said. "He can go into his 70s easy, and I think he will.

"I told him he won't retire until he loses three games in a season. He told me, 'If I ever lose three games around here again, they might kill me.' I think he was joking, but I'm not sure."

Kidding aside, Saban enters his 12th season at Alabama in tiptop shape. He's a notoriously light eater and weighs exactly the same (180 pounds) as he did during his senior season at Kent State in 1972. His pace -- be it on the recruiting trail, the practice field or one of his pickup basketball games -- remains as relentless as ever.

"The way I look at it is, as long as I'm healthy and as long as I feel that I can do a good job, I want to keep doing it because I enjoy doing it," Saban said. "What I don't want to do is just stay forever, forever and forever and ride the program down where I'm not creating value. I would never want to do that, and I think I'm a long ways from doing that. I don't want to talk about anybody else, but there have been a couple of coaches where their legacy was tarnished by them maybe doing it longer than they should have. That won't be me."

Saban's chase for coaching immortality is real, even though he shrugs it off as "clutter" that gets in the way of preparing his team each year. Yes, he's aware of the monster he's created at Alabama. And, yes, he's aware that you have to keep feeding that monster. But he doesn't agree that he and his program are defined purely by the number of championships the Tide rake in.

"I don't base being successful on what the standard is on the outside," Saban said. "I agree that the expectation is that we have to win the national championship every year. That's what it's become here. But I don't think having a good program necessarily is totally relevant to how many national championships you win."

Saban, who has guided Alabama to an unprecedented five national championships in nine years, also isn't naive.

"You've got to win games to survive. I get that," Saban said. "But to make that the standard anywhere, winning five national championships in nine years ... it's just not realistic. Nobody had ever won five championships in nine years, and now the expectation is that you're supposed to win every year? It's not going to happen."

As fiercely driven and competitive as Saban is, senior running back Damien Harris said one of the big misconceptions about Alabama's program is that everything is geared solely toward winning championships.

"People on the outside look at the winning and the success we've had and the dynasty Coach Saban has built, and then you get here and realize this place is about a lot more than that," Harris said. "Yes, we want to win, dominate our opponents and be the toughest team, but at the end of the day, this place is 100 percent about the grind, the buy-in from everybody and the commitment to excellence, and that's all Coach Saban.

"We're proud of the championships we've won here, but not once have I heard Coach Saban use that as motivation, that we've got to win championships. It's not about the destination. It's about the journey, and I think that's what keeps him going."

But what a journey it's been.

To win five national championships in nine years is dizzying enough, but Alabama's .899 winning percentage over the past decade is the best of any major college school over a 10-year span since Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma dominated the sport from the late 1940s through the late 1950s. Alabama's 125 wins over the past decade are the most for any FBS school during a 10-year span in the Associated Press poll era (since 1936), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Just as impressive is that Alabama never has a real letdown. The Tide have lost just one game to a team ranked outside the top 15 in the AP poll in the past 10 years, that loss coming to Spurrier's No. 19 South Carolina Gamecocks in 2010. For perspective, Ohio State has lost 10 games to teams ranked outside the top 15 during that same span, Oklahoma 13 games, Florida State 20 games, Clemson 21 games and USC 26 games.

Since Saban's second season in 2008, Alabama has played just three regular-season games in which it hasn't been legitimately in the national championship conversation: against Mississippi State, Georgia State and Auburn in 2010 after losing 24-21 at LSU on Nov. 6.

In the Crimson Tide's five national championship seasons under Saban, the team went 17-2 against top-10 opponents, and since the start of Saban's second season in Tuscaloosa in 2008 the Tide are 27-9 overall against top-10 foes.

"I know everybody has their own interpretation of who Coach Saban is, and people get caught up in all of the wins and all of the championships," Harris said. "But what separates Coach Saban is his ability to bring out the best in every one of his players."

Saban is the first to admit he's old-school in a lot of ways, but that doesn't mean he's unwilling to adapt. This will be his youngest coaching staff since he's been at Alabama, and despite massive turnover of his staff the past few years, there's been zero slippage in the program.

"Just because we change people, we don't change philosophy," said Saban, whose 2018 staff won't include a single on-field coach from the 2015 national championship staff in the same role. "We don't change what we do, how we want to do it or why it's important to do it a certain way.

"The people that we hire don't come in and reinvent the wheel. They implement the philosophy that we have. Now, they have input and we make changes. We change all the time. I'm always looking for a better way. And when you get new people, you get new ideas, and that's a good thing. But the basic core of what we do, we don't change. You define the expectation for everybody, and this is [Bill] Belichick through and through and where I learned it, because then it's easy for people who understand what the expectation is to be accountable to it."

Five of Saban's former assistants from the past three years are now head coaches elsewhere -- Kirby Smart at Georgia, Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee, Mario Cristobal at Oregon, Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic and Billy Napier at Louisiana.

So it wasn't by accident that this Alabama staff is so young. Newcomers Pete Golding and Karl Scott on defense and Josh Gattis on offense are all in their early-to-mid-30s, meaning five of the Crimson Tide's 10 on-field assistant coaches are under 40.

"I was making a conscious attempt to get younger," Saban said. "If you look through the years, until lately, I always had young guys. I had a real young staff at LSU, and look at all the young guys I've had over the years who emerged as really good coaches. They have more energy in recruiting, which is important, and they relate to the players better. It wasn't like we got rid of guys. They got better jobs, but I was looking to get younger."

That doesn't mean Saban is ready to say this infusion of fresh blood has given him more juice, although he has noticed one difference.

"I've got a little more patience than I used to have, but that's been a gradual thing through the years in philosophy of dealing with coaches and handling players and helping players," Saban said. "They respond better when you listen to what they have to say. Now, what is right for them or what is the right thing to do is still the right thing to do, but the approach is a little different."

Smart, whose first meeting against his old boss was the loss in the national championship game a year ago, said his enduring takeaway from all those years working under Saban was simply that you hold everybody's feet to the fire and hold everybody accountable.

"And that goes for every single meeting, every single drill, every single practice and every single day," Smart said.

Or as Saban likes to remind his coaches, "If you ain't coaching it, then you're letting it happen."

One thing we know about Saban is that he'll keep coaching it, the only way he knows how.

"He's as invested as he's ever been, and I don't see him leaving any time soon," Harris said.