FORT LAUDERDALE–He is 61 years old, has been a head coach for the past 22 years and never had a losing season–at least in college football.
He has won at Toledo. He has won at Michigan State. He has won at LSU–producing a national championship in 2003. And he has most certainly won at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide is chasing its third national championship in 4 years.
It is only during a 2-year sabbatical in the National Football League with the Miami Dolphins that you can find even the hint of a blemish on Nick Saban’s resume–a 6-10 record in 2006, which was no doubt a factor in Saban making the life-changing decision to return to college football at Alabama rather than working through the process with the Dolphins.
Who knows? If Saban had stayed, maybe he would be talked about with the same reverence that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is talked about in NFL circles. The irony is that both men have similar public and private personas, revealing little in public, while displaying a much funnier and warmer side privately.
To listen to Saban, who is on the cusp of winning his 4th national championship if Alabama can beat Notre Dame in Monday night’s BCS title game, you hear someone who is as focused as any coach since legendary Alabama coach Paul Bear Bryant in achieving the ultimate goal in college football-win games and championships.
On Sunday, at his final press conference before the game, Saban opened a small window into his personality when he talked about growing up in West Virginia.
“”I was very fortunate growing up, and my dad was a coach but he never went to college,” said Saban. “” But he coached Pop Warner, American Legion baseball, all those kinds of things. But he also had a service station and a little Dairy Queen restaurant, and I started working at that service station when I was 11 years old pumping gas. But in those days‑‑ notice I said it was a service station; it wasn’t a self‑serve. So you cleaned the windows, checked the oil, checked the tires, collected the money, gave the change, treated the customers in a certain way. We also greased cars, washed cars.
So the biggest thing that I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly. There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. If we washed a car, and I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out, and if there were any streaks when he came, you had to do it over.
So we learned a lot about work ethic. We learned a lot about having compassion for other people and respecting other people, and we learned about certainly the importance of doing things correctly.
And when I started to play for him in Pop Warner football, he was the same way as a coach; attention to detail, discipline, do things what you’re supposed to do, the way you’re supposed to do it, when you’re supposed to do it, the way it’s supposed to get done, all those things that we’ve all heard about, discipline was engrained in just about everything that we did. And I think that sort of perfectionist type of attitude that my parents instilled sort of made you always strive to be all that you could be, and that’s probably still the foundation of the program that we have right now.
We hope that every player in our program has a better opportunity to be more successful in life because he was involved in the program and that we create an atmosphere and environment for his personal development, his academic development and his athletic development that actually is going to enhance his future chances of being successful. ”
Saban has created an atmosphere at Alabama which increases those chances. Saban’s teams at Alabama have compiled a stunning 60-7 record in the past 5 seasons. They have won two national championships and established themselves as the closest replica of a dynasty that currently exists in college football.
To put Saban in the icon level at Bama is not a stretch. Just check out the statue of Saban outside of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. It is not even a reach to suggest that when Saban’s tenure at Alabama ends, it will be Nick Saban Field at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Of course, none of that matters to Saban, who is paid very well–he will make almost 6 million dollars this year as the Alabama football coach, including a bonus of more than $400,000 if the Tide is celebrating another national championship on Monday night.
Ask Saban about the comparisons to Bryant, who Bama records state won 6 national championships and 14 SEC titles during his coaching career at Tuscaloosa from 1958-82, and he will disagree quickly and emphatically.
“I wouldn’t agree with that at all,” said Saban. “I wouldn’t agree with that at all. I mean‑‑ and it’s not about that. It’s about this team, these players, all they’ve done all year, embracing the challenges that they’ve had, especially after having success a year ago, to get themselves in a position to have this opportunity, it’s all about trying to help those players be successful, and that’s really all we’re focused on and all we care about. I don’t think it would be fair at all to Bear Bryant and the tradition that he created and the standard of excellence that he sustained for years and years and years to‑‑ really there’s no one that I know that I would say should be even spoken of in the same sort of circumstance at all.”
Ask him about the term “dynasty” and Saban also squirms.
“Well, you know, I think to this team, this is about what this team can accomplish,” he said. “”You know, two days after we won the game last year, we had a team meeting, and the first thing I said to this team was, you guys are not the national champions. Some of you played on the National Championship team, but the challenges that this team has are all in front of you in terms of what you’re able to accomplish and what you’re able to do to sort of set a standard for this team, this year, and what you did last year is not going to have any impact or effect on what you do next year other than make the game that you play against whoever you’re playing against a target. You’re going to be the target. Everybody is going to bring their “A” game to beat you because of what you’ve accomplished.
So you need to be focused on what you need to do to be all you can be as a team, and see what this team can accomplish.
So it’s sort of separate. This team is separate from everything that’s happened in the past and anything that can happen in the future.”
Saban is not one for much small talk with strangers. There are stories of his cold, aloof, almost arrogant demeanor. Warmth and humor are not part of his public DNA.
Saban will not hear universal cheers on Monday night from the South Florida fans at the game. They are still fuming over the method of his departure from the Dolphins when he stepped into a major public relations pot hole by publicly stating “I am not going to be the next coach at Alabama” three weeks BEFORE he became the next coach at Alabama.
None of that really matters at this point–as long as Alabama wins. And Alabama obviously has done that as well as anyone at the FBS level right now.
There is also some chatter that Saban might want to cap off his resume by going back to the NFL and chase a Super Bowl, so he can achieve that rare coaching Daily Double.
Saban didn’t say NEVER, but he made enough points to make it sound as if it NEVER will happen. And why should it.
Championships, statues, money, respect, and yes, love, all are within his kingdom in Tuscaloosa.
When you include all of that, you can’t find a better coaching job anywhere else, which is what Nick Saban is basically telling us.
He is also telling us that Nick Saban is the right guy in the right place at the right time.
© 2013, Mark. All rights reserved.