To all those who think Nick Saban leads a joyless life, that all he cares about is winning football games, he’d like to set the record straight.
“I’m a very happy person.”
Of course, Saban spoke with his jaw tightly clinched, a steely glare and nary the hint of a smile.
It’s the face of college football.
Alabama will be going for its fourth national title in seven years when it takes on top-ranked Clemson in the championship game Monday night. Win or lose, it has been a staggering run for the Crimson Tide in this era of increased parity, where even the top programs slip up every now and then.
Not Alabama. Not as long as Saban’s in charge.
“He’s already won four national championships,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday. “This is the first one I’ve sniffed as a coach, and he’s going for his fifth. It’s incredible.”
At 64, Saban is closing in on retirement age but shows no signs of slowing down. He’s done what most thought was impossible in Tuscaloosa: carve out his own remarkable legacy alongside Bear Bryant‘s.
Love him or hate him, Saban is the best there is, one of the best ever.
After winning a BCS championship at LSU and a short-lived stint in the NFL, Saban took over at Alabama in 2007.
He spent the first season rebuilding a storied program that had fallen on hard times.
Since then, he’s been on cruise control.
The formula isn’t all that complicated. Recruit the best players. Hire the best assistants. Adapt to the times but never waver from your core beliefs.
“He’s great at recruiting, and he’s great at putting a staff together,” Swinney said. “The key to being successful, as far as maintaining consistency in your program, is your evaluation in the recruiting process and then your development of those guys. And especially developing those guys maybe when they’re not the starter. I think that’s critical, and I think coach Saban obviously does a phenomenal job of that.”
Alabama (13-1) has played only three regular-season games over the past eight years without some sort of national championship implications. The Tide is 97-12 during that span, with eight of the defeats decided by a touchdown or less.
More telling, Saban has the rest of the mighty Southeastern Conference playing catch up.
No one’s job is safe, not even a coach such as Mark Richt, who won nearly 75 percent of his games at Georgia over a 15-year period but wound up getting chased out of town, largely because the Bulldogs haven’t won a league title since Saban’s arrival. Tennessee is on its fourth coach since 2007. Florida and Auburn have each had three coaches during that time.
Florida and Georgia have even turned to Saban protégés. Jim McElwain is a former Alabama offensive coordinator who just completed his first season with the Gators. Kirby Smart, the Tide’s defensive coordinator, will take over at Georgia after the championship game.
LSU’s Les Miles is the only SEC coach who’s managed to survive in the Saban era, and even the Mad Hatter barely held onto his job this season. The biggest notch against him? Five straight losses to Alabama.
Saban might allow himself to smile if the Tide wins another national title, but the celebration won’t last long.
Maybe just a few hours.
“Coach has said it before: You win the trophy, you hold it up, you take a picture and you hand it away – and you go get ready to win the next one,” said Lane Kiffin, the Tide’s offensive coordinator. “That’s how he is. I’m sure (if) we’re fortunate to win this game, we’ll have a staff meeting at 7:30 the next morning.”
If that seems like a grim existence, well, so be it.
Saban makes no apologies.
“I’m a very serious person about trying to do the things to have a very good program that benefits the players personally, academically and athletically, helps them have more success in life for having been involved in the program,” he said. “So I’m a serious person, but I’m a very happy person. And I have a lot of fun, I really do.”
During the offseason, he finds time to fish and play golf. He enjoys spending time with family and a close circle of friends. He gets away to a beach house in southwest Florida and a lake house in the north Georgia mountains.
“It’s not like I like to go to the karaoke machine and sing and all that,” he said, “but there’s a lot of things that I enjoy.”
Of course, coaching comes first.
Saban has given no indication that the end is near.
If someone tries to get him to reflect on his legacy, he’ll quickly steer the conversation in a different direction.
“I’m so concerned about this team, these players, what they’ve worked to accomplish,” Saban said. “I’ve got no time to think about that stuff.”
If he ever finds the time, he’d see that he’s already one of the greatest coaches in college football history.
Right up there with the Bear.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.