BEREA: Nick Saban wasn’t in the room, but his aura certainly was.
Although Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wouldn’t discuss specific candidates to replace coach Pat Shurmur, fired Monday along with General Manager Tom Heckert, it seemed obvious that University of Alabama coach Saban is the man Haslam is targeting.
In the next few days, we will find out just how powerful and persuasive Haslam and his millions can be. A University of Tennessee graduate, Haslam will need all his wiles, resources, Southeastern Conference connections and perhaps even wife Dee’s television background to pry Saban away from Tuscaloosa.
Because if there’s anything that can make Saban bigger than he already is — besides another $30,000 crystal BCS football — it’s his own cable TV show.
Saban already has a statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, a football palace that makes Cleveland Browns Stadium look like the Arena League. When Saban’s alma mater Kent State opened the 2011 season against the Crimson Tide, a Golden Flashes contingent that toured the athletic facilities left with mouths agape.
On Monday in Sun Life Stadium, Alabama takes on Notre Dame for the BCS title. A victory would be Saban’s third championship in four years. That would put him in the rare Crimson Tide air of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
It also would leave Saban with just one blemish on his coaching resume, his 15-17 stint as coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2005-06. That could irk Saban, especially if he looks at what Pete Carroll is doing with the Seattle Seahawks after going 33-31 with the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s.
There would be no better way for Saban to repair his NFL reputation than to resurrect the Browns, whom he worked for as defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick from 1991-94.
Saban, 61, will not come cheap. His contract extension in March made him college football’s highest-paid coach, according to USA Today, making more than $5.4 million without bonuses in 2012.
A bigger obstacle is his desire to stay at Alabama. On Dec. 18, he cited his age in a radio interview with Dan Le Batard on 104.3 The Ticket in Miami and said, “I don’t think we’ve got too many moves left in us.”
“I really enjoy what I’m doing here right now,” Saban told Le Batard. “You develop a lot of relationships and loyalties to the players you recruit and the players you have on the team and the people you have in the organization. I don’t think it’s really fair to leave. I regretted when I left LSU because I left a lot of relationships there. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay here for a long, long time.”
Of course, this is the same man who said, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” two weeks before he left the Dolphins for the Crimson Tide.
Haslam can take the aforementioned “right now” and pounce with all his Pilot Flying J might.
During a 35-minute news conference at Browns headquarters, Haslam said he is not going into the coaching search “with one person in mind.” But when asked the common characteristics his candidates share, his Saban-envy came bleeding through.
“Strong leaders, tough, demanding, organized, good attention to detail and able to motivate people,” Haslam said.
That might as well have come from Saban’s Alabama bio.
Browns running back Trent Richardson played for Saban for three years at Alabama, but said again Monday that he can’t see Saban returning to the NFL.
“I would love for him to be here,” Richardson said. “I do hope they make a run at him. But I doubt it. I highly doubt that it’s going to happen.”
Asked if he could convince Saban, Richardson said: “I doubt it if I can. It might be pretty tough to convince coach Saban. When he’s got his mind made up, he’s got his mind made up.”
Haslam seems poised to make it his mission to change Saban’s mind. Haslam said he wanted a strong leader as the Browns choose their coach first, then hire a player personnel director. The latter’s role could be diminished if the coach’s strengths include talent evaluation. In essence, they are ready to hand someone the keys to the castle and that someone has to be special.
Should Haslam’s pitch to Saban fail, another possibility could be Oregon’s Chip Kelly, the offensive guru who is 45-7 in four years with the Ducks. His team takes on Kansas State on Thursday in the Fiesta Bowl.
Kelly has no NFL experience. But Browns strong safety T.J. Ward, who played for Kelly for one season at Oregon, called him “a great motivator” and “a high-energy coach,” two traits mentioned by Haslam and Banner.
“I think he has what it takes to be successful in this league,” Ward said. “He knows what he wants to do and he gets his players to play for him and play hard. He has a great scheme, great system. He’s in your face and he wants to get the best out of you and you know that. He’s not a guy who screams for no reason.
“I think the players in the NFL would respect him and they will respect how he approaches you. He lets you do your job. In college he treated us like pros. I think that’s what players respect and appreciate about him.”
Not only will Haslam have to pull out all his ammunition for the likes of Saban or Kelly, but he also will have to battle six other NFL teams that fired coaches Monday, including the Philadelphia Eagles, who employed Banner for 19 years.
“I think this is a very attractive job,” Haslam said. “This is going to sound self-serving, but I think you’ve got a stable ownership here now that is involved at the proper amount. You have a real NFL veteran in Joe. This is a tremendous football town that yearns for a winner. All of that makes for a job that a lot of people would have interest in.”
Although they tried to give few clues, Haslam and Banner sounded like they want to make a splash with their coach. If they do, it will say much about Haslam’s charisma and business skills.
Richardson, of course, hopes that name is Saban.
“You know, that would be a big run,” Richardson said.
Haslam has already taken on the monstrous task of making the Browns a winner. If what we’ve learned of Haslam since Aug. 3 holds true, a big run is right in his wheelhouse.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.