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For Alabama, Saban Worth Every Penny

Pardon the smirks in Alabama.

A few months before the start of the college football season, an NCAA-commissioned study concluded that money, for the most part, couldn't buy happiness on the athletic field or court. Schools were told they spent big at their own risk.

Most notably, the report found no connection between the millions of dollars poured into coaches' salaries and on-the-field success.

Alabama's rebuttal has been loud and convincing.

Hired three years ago for a then-unheard-of $4 million a year - peeving rivals and higher education watchdogs who complained of misplaced priorities - Nick Saban has coached the Crimson Tide football team to an undefeated record, No. 1 ranking and shot at the school's first national championship in 17 years. Alabama meets No. 2 Texas in Thursday's Bowl Championship Series title game in Pasadena, Calif. (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Saban took over a storied program that had fallen on hard times, delivered a first-year record of 7-6 and since has led Alabama to 25 victories in 27 games. But it's not just the Crimson Tide's winning percentage that has soared.

The demand for tickets to Alabama's home games is so great that Bryant-Denny Stadium is adding about 9,000 seats, which will make it the sixth college facility with a capacity of more than 100,000. Donations to the athletic program are up. So are marketing revenue. And overall athletic profits have more than doubled at a time when barely a fifth of all major-college programs are generating enough overall revenue to turn a profit.

University President Robert Witt and others at Alabama also point to the football team's enhanced profile as an ingredient in a record rise in applications to the 178-year-old Tuscaloosa institution.

"Anytime you shell out that kind of money, you wonder at first. I'm familiar with all the debates about priorities," Gene Marsh, a law professor at the school since 1981, says of Saban's contract.

"But at least at this university, based on dollars spent and returned and the sort of buoyancy it has given the whole campus, it's impossible to argue with. I just don't think it's much of a debate."

Witt is unequivocal.

"The salary was well-deserved when the offer was extended," he says, "and Coach Saban's success has justified the investment."

'We had to be right'

Alabama isn't some starry-eyed school out to make a name in football.

It's where Paul "Bear" Bryant became a coaching icon, winning six national championships in 25 Hall of Fame, houndstooth hat-wearing seasons. The Crimson Tide's 812 victories and .712 winning percentage rank sixth all time among major-college programs.

But the decade before Saban's arrival in January 2007 was fitful. Alabama endured an ugly recruiting scandal and crippling NCAA sanctions, lost more games than it won in the rugged Southeastern Conference and landed one berth in the BCS's array of top-tier bowls. Four coaches came and went.

The football-worshiping state suffered with the program.

By the end of 2006, when the school fired former Alabama quarterback Mike Shula - who as coach went 0-4 against arch rival Auburn and had one winning record in four seasons - the search for a successor carried a sense of desperation.

"We had to be right," athletics director Mal Moore says.

Moore approached former Florida and Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, but he was entrenched at South Carolina. A deal with then-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez fell through.

Moore turned his focus to Saban, who'd won a national championship at LSU in 2003 and was nearing the end of his second season with the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

Alabama upped the salary ante - $32 million over an eight-year contract - and landed Saban.

The athletic program is largely self-supporting, drawing a little less than $4 million in student fees at the time and now a little more than that in a direct institutional subsidy.

Nevertheless, the outlay for Saban's salary stunned even Chuck Neinas, the longtime college athletic administrator whom the school had hired as a consultant in the search.

"Originally, he (Moore) was talking a little less than that," Neinas recalls.

"He went to 4 (million), and that's when I said, 'Geez, Mal.' . . . I've been of the opinion most college coaches are overpaid. But the market dictates the price."

The first dividend came 3 1/2 months later. A record 92,138 showed up for Alabama's annual spring game, well more than double the previous year's turn out for the free event. Thousands of fans had to be turned away.

That show of renewed passion, says Ronny Robertson, the school's associate athletics director for development, "very much influenced" a decision to expand Bryant-Denny Stadium for the third time in 12 years, adding 36 high-dollar sky boxes and another 1,600 club-level seats.

The stadium's overall capacity will go to more than 101,000 when the $80 million project is finished by next season.

"He brought sheer excitement back to our alumni, to our people," Moore says of Saban. "They saw in him what could happen, and it has happened."

In his second season, Saban guided Alabama to a 12-0 record and No. 1 ranking going into the SEC championship game against Florida. The Crimson Tide lost 31-20, then fell to Utah 31-17 in an anticlimactic Allstate Sugar Bowl.

There've been no slips this season. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram rushed for 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns, junior quarterback Greg McElroy matured into a star and the defense allowed 11 points a game, leading the nation in the regular season. The Tide (13-0) secured their ticket to Pasadena with an impressive 32-13 win against then-No. 1 Florida in the SEC title game.

"You can't write it up any better, you know what I mean?" star cornerback and return man Javier Arenas says. "I think it's something that we'll notice after the season, when we look back on it as seniors: 'Dang, look how that happened.' "

His freshman season, under Shula in 2006, ended with four losses and a 6-7 mark.

Saban doesn't take stock.

"I'm not result-oriented. I'm more process-oriented. So every day, I'm thinking about what we have to do to continue to get better. Once you accomplish one thing, you've got to get to the next one," he says.

"Was (beating) Florida the end or the beginning? Was the U.S. hockey team beating Russia (in the 1980 Winter Olympics) the end or the beginning? It was the beginning for those guys; they had to beat Finland to go on and win the gold medal. It keeps growing, and you've got to stay focused on the process and not necessarily the outcome."

He spent four seasons in the early '90s with the NFL's Cleveland Browns as defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick, and he shares much of Belichick's fanaticism for detail, disgust for distraction and insistence on total control of his program.

There remains no better example of Saban's single-mindedness than his decision, the summer before his second season with the Dolphins, to decline an invitation to dinner in Miami with then-President George W. Bush. Saban was too wrapped up in his team's training camp, he said.

"I mean, this guy goes about stuff like a man killing snakes. He's got an intensity and a professional focus that you don't often see in any profession, whether it's lawyering or whatever," says Marsh, who spent six years as Alabama's faculty athletics representative and nine on the NCAA's punishment-doling Committee on Infractions.

It's not about the money, Saban insists.

"My pressure's all self-inflicted," he says. "Nobody talks about the two years I was a G.A. (graduate assistant at Kent State) and used to drive to Pittsburgh to get film developed and stayed up all night cutting it up for the offense, defense and special teams. Those first couple of years, I worked for $8,000 a year. I don't work any different now than I did then."

He shrugs off attention to his salary. "That's the business part of what we do," he says.

So is this:

- The waiting list for priority-seating tickets - requiring a donation atop the price of the seat - has jumped from about 1,200 four summers ago to 15,000.

- The school launched its first capital campaign for athletics in 2002, with a goal of $50 million in five years. By the 2007 spring game, it had raised $70 million. The drive ended, but the flow of money has continued, and donations total $102 million.

- Alabama's take from its media and marketing rights contract with Learfield Sports and ISP Sports will jump $1.3 million this year, to $8.5 million, according to senior AD Finus Gaston, the school's chief financial officer for athletics.

- Football revenue jumped 16% in Saban's first two years - from nearly $56 million before he arrived to almost $65 million in 2008 - and the sport turned a $38.2 million profit in 2008. Gaston conservatively projects a $39 million profit for 2009 and, with the expanded stadium and ticket demand, says he expects the climb to continue.

The school's overall athletic profits went from $10.5 million in 2006-07 to a little more than $22 million a year ago.

Even so, says Moore, a former Alabama player and assistant coach who took over as AD in 1999, "The greatest return on investment is our return to the national stage. . . . Everybody was anxious for that to happen and fearful it might not."

The coaching elite

Saban, 58, now has company atop the list of highest-paid coaches.

Total compensation for Southern California's Pete Carroll - including benefits - was nearly $4.4 million in 2007, the latest year for which federal tax filings by the private university are available. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops was guaranteed almost $4.3 million this season.

Texas just reworked Mack Brown's contract and will pay him at least $5.1 million starting next season.

In September, Alabama gave Saban a three-year contract extension and wrote in three staggered longevity bonuses that will take his future average annual earnings to a little more than $4.8 million if he stays at the school through January 2018. He will make at least $4.25 million in salary and incentives this season, $4.45 million if the Crimson Tide win Thursday - and further distance themselves from the NCAA's cautionary study.

That report, released in April, concluded that "we do not find a significant relationship between coaching salaries or scholar-ships and a team's winning percentage."

Co-author Jonathan Orszag, an economist who served on former president Clinton's National Economic Council and as assistant to the Secretary of Commerce, says throwing money at coaches is no guarantee of success and usually isn't cost-effective.

Nebraska, Texas A&M and Notre Dame are prominent examples, landing and later parting company with Bill Callahan, Dennis Franchione (who left Alabama for A&M) and Charlie Weis.

"People will look at Alabama and say, 'If I just spend $3 million on a coach or $4 million on a coach, I'll get these positive returns,' " Orszag says. "But this is just one example, and it doesn't hold for a lot of other schools. It's a very high-risk strategy."

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