Saban still with leverage after Falcons move

Talk about a Thursday of mixed results for Nick Saban, arguably the highest profile candidate remaining, as NFL teams with coaching vacancies continue their searches.

On a day when Chicago Bears officials tacitly conceded what everyone has known all along -- that Saban is at the top of their wish list -- the LSU coach dropped off the Atlanta Falcons' chart completely when the club chose San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora as the successor to Dan Reeves.

Falcons officials had been scheduled for a Friday interview with Saban, a meeting they had established a few days earlier. But apparently the Falcons sensed that Saban, a name well known in the Atlanta area because the city is essentially the center of the SEC, was likely to rebuff them. That was probably a good read of Saban's sentiments, sources told ESPN.com, and the Falcons canceled the interview and went a different direction.

Atlanta's change of heart notwithstanding, Saban still sits in the enviable position of likely choosing between an NFL team that desperately wants him and a college powerhouse striving to retain him.

The logistics of the process with the Bears were still being discussed on Thursday night and many arrangements are still pending. But the plan is for Chicago team officials, principally general manager Jerry Angelo, to interview Saban within the week.

In the wake of LSU's victory over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Sunday night that earned the Tigers the BCS share of the national title, Saban has spoken to university officials about a new contract as well.

Published reports have indicated that LSU is prepared to offer Saban a 10-year contract worth about $3 million annually. Winning the national championship triggered a clause in his existing contract that makes him the highest-paid coach in the college game. The fact the Bears will pursue Saban almost certainly signals the club is prepared to consider what are sure to be lofty financial expectations on his part.

For weeks it has been assumed it will take not only a potentially solid football situation, but also a large contract offer, for Saban to even think about leaving Baton Rouge, where he will have a strong roster returning in 2004, supplemented by one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.

Saban has been a target of several league franchises over the past two years. Last year, he quietly interviewed for the Jacksonville Jaguars' opening. A year earlier, he had informal discussions with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after Tony Dungy was dismissed.

He is a close friend of Angelo, has been linked to the Chicago job for more than a year, and clearly is atop the franchise's wish list. It is doubtful the Bears will advance their search significantly before determining Saban's plans. Saban is familiar, as well, with Falcons general manager Rich McKay.
Saban, 52, has been attractive to NFL teams in recent years for a number of reasons. In 10 seasons as a head coach -- at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99) and LSU (2000-present) -- he has compiled an 82-39-1 mark and never suffered a losing season. Almost as important, particularly at a time when NFL owners seem to favor candidates who have past league experience, Saban possesses that coveted commodity.

He served for four seasons as Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator (1991-94) under Bill Belichick, and Saban was the Houston Oilers secondary coach for the two seasons prior to that.

At various times in the past decade, Saban has turned down NFL head coaching offers, but there remains a long list of league general managers and personnel directors who admire him and feel certain he would succeed in the pro game.

There is a good chance he would have been a top candidate for the New York Giants job earlier this week had some things come together from at timing standpoint. Team officials phoned him Monday morning, just hours after the Sugar Bowl, in an attempt to arrange an interview.

Saban asked for a few days to savor the BCS title victory and to collect his thoughts, but the Giants' search was on a faster timetable. Management feared that if its other leading candidate, Tom Coughlin, left town without the job and headed to Buffalo for an interview there, they could lose him to the Bills.

Convinced they should not head down the same road with Saban -- he turned down the Giants earlier in his career -- New York hired Coughlin, who had been their leading candidate all along.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.