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Saban splits for Alabama

    TUSCALOOSA, Ala.  — Nick Saban landed to chants of ‘‘Roll Tide,’’ then stepped off the airplane and made the long trek across the tarmac to greet throngs of screaming Alabama fans.
    That feverish reception Wednesday kicked off a ‘‘new era’’ for the Crimson Tide under a coach they’re hoping will finally restore the program to championship heights.
    Alabama lured Saban from the Miami Dolphins back to the Southeastern Conference with a deal reportedly worth at least $30 million over eight years, the most lucrative in college football.
    ‘‘When I set out on this search, I noted that I was seeking a coach who has a proven record of championship success and achievement,’’ Tide athletic director Mal Moore said. ‘‘Coach Saban brings that proven record of accomplishment and leadership to our program.’’
    Moore said the high-profile hiring ‘‘signifies a new era of Crimson Tide football.’’ Alabama scheduled a news conference for Thursday to formally introduce Saban, who didn’t field questions from reporters.
    Saban was greeted by hugs, handshakes and pats on the back by some of the several hundred fans celebrating the dramatic conclusion to a five-week search to replace the fired Mike Shula. Then the coach, wife Terry and daughter Kristen were driven away in a red Chevrolet Tahoe with Moore to the football building. He was greeted there by dozens more fans.
    The Tuscaloosa News put out a special edition trumpeting the hiring, with the blaring headline: ‘‘SABAN TIME.’’
    ‘‘Mal Moore didn’t just hit a home run, he hit a grand slam,’’ raved Tide fan Mike Ryan, sporting a Bear Bryant-style houndstooth hat and a T-shirt listing the program’s national championship years.
    The shirt said everything about Alabama’s expectations for Saban, who won a share of the 2003 national title at LSU, then bolted from the NFL after two seasons with the Dolphins. He has a record of 91-42-1 as a college coach at LSU, Michigan State and Toledo.
    Saban is the most high-profile coach the Tide has hired since Bryant’s retirement after the 1982 season, a steady stream that has included such names as Bill Curry, Shula and Mike DuBose.
    Neither Shula nor DuBose — both former Tide players — had ever been a head coach.
    ‘‘The last few hires were somewhat unknown going back to Mike DuBose,’’ said Lee Roy Jordan, a former ’Bama and NFL star. ‘‘We knew him as a player at Alabama and as an assistant coach but he never had any experience when he got the job.
    ‘‘We feel like we got a proven coach that can win an SEC and national title. That’s the No. 1 thing for me.’’
    The Tide first approached Saban shortly after firing Shula. After Saban turned down the job in early December, the university offered it to Rich Rodriguez, who decided to stay at West Virginia.
    Saban punctuated weeks of denials with this declaration two weeks ago: ‘‘I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.’’
    He clearly had a change of heart, leaving Miami with three years remaining on his contract at $4.5 million a year.
    Alabama lost to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl to finish 6-7, the team’s second losing season in the four years since Shula’s hiring. Now, the Tide has its fourth head coach since 2000 — and eighth since Bryant’s last season in 1982.
    The timing was significant since the NCAA’s recruiting ‘‘dead period’’ ends Friday.
    ‘‘We have been through a period of uncertainty the last month or so and we finally have some stability,’’ Tide center Antoine Caldwell said. ‘‘Coach Moore said all along he was going to find us a proven coach with a winning record and he has done that with Coach Saban.
    ‘‘I feel like he is the right man for the job and he will be good in getting Alabama back on track.’’
    The Tide’s long search prompted questions about whether the program was still a coveted job, or if the high expectations and pressure put a damper on some coaches’ interest.
    ‘‘I was hoping he was the No. 1 guy on the target list from the beginning,’’ Jordan said. ‘‘I hoped we’d be able to get him. The people at Alabama are real excited and feel like we hired a coach that can win a national championship. He’s already proven he can do that. He’s a hands-on coach who really works hard and demands the same from his coaches and players.’’
    Former Tide kicker Van Tiffin said he initially had doubts about the decision to fire Shula, but was pleased with the outcome.
    ‘‘The problem sometimes with getting a renowned coach is timing,’’ said Tiffin, whose son Leigh is a current Alabama kicker. ‘‘I’m not sure we should have gotten rid of Coach Shula. I thought he just needed a little more time.
    ‘‘The timing obviously turned out to be pretty good with Coach Saban.’’
    Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson believes Saban can win quickly with the team Shula left behind.
    ‘‘He has won a lot of football games and he won the national championship at LSU,’’ Wilson said. ‘‘That makes it even more exciting for us.
    ‘‘We have a lot of guys coming back on offense and I think we have an excellent chance to make a run at it, especially with Coach Saban.’’

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