By Ryan Chatelain
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Imagine for a second if a decade after Vince Lombardi left his mark on the NFL, the Packers had hired Bill Walsh. What if John Wooden was somehow followed at UCLA by Mike Krzyzewski?
No one team should be so fortunate, right? But that’s exactly what has happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant was the best coach college football had ever seen. Maybe Nick Saban is better, or will at least prove to be before he retires. Maybe not. But there’s no debating that Saban, whose Crimson Tide beat Clemson 45-40 for the national championship Monday night, ranks right up there with college football’s coaching titans.
Although, it’s not like he’s going to stop and reflect on his legacy anytime soon.
“As long as you do this, it’s always about your next play. It’s always about the next game,” Saban said, rather predictably, after Monday’s victory. “So I’ve never really ever thought too much about all that.”
So what makes him so great? It’s an answer that’s both simple and complex: everything.
Saban, 64, has an innate attention for detail when it comes to every aspect of the college game. It shows in his ability to recruit the top players (top 5 recruiting classes every year since 2008), the way he coaches up that talent (15 first-round NFL draft picks over the past five years), his hiring decisions (more than a dozen of his assistant coaches have gone on to become college or NFL head coaches) and, of course, his relentless preparation and brilliance when it comes to the Xs and Os, which have led to 196 career wins and five national titles — just one behind a certain legend in a houndstooth hat.
Saban is also a master motivator, one who demands his players strive for perfection with every task, no matter how small.
“We create a standard for how we want to do things, and everybody’s got to buy into that standard or you really can’t have any team chemistry,” Saban told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in 2013. “Mediocre people don’t like high achievers, and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.”
But with Saban, there’s so much more to him than those things. He also excels in the areas of the college game that often occur away from the stadium lights and TV cameras. He can fund raise with the best of them, he gets campus buildings built, he truly cares about academics and he sees the big picture when it comes to molding his players.
I had the opportunity to interview Saban just after he was hired at LSU in 2000. I remember him telling me a story about his time at Michigan State — although in true Saban fashion he was scant on some details. He told me one of his players got into legal trouble and the coach was facing intense pressure from the media and fans to kick that player off the team. But Saban pushed back. He said he knew if the player lost his scholarship, his path in his life would have been bleak. But if he stayed on the team, he could earn his degree and have a chance.
It was a cause worth enduring the firestorm, in Saban’s eyes.
That’s the kind of dedication to his players that resonates with high school kids and their parents, helping to feed the cycle of top recruiting class after top recruiting class. Of course, winning a ton of games and championships doesn’t hurt, either.
“We want these guys to succeed first of all as people, make the best choices and decisions, have the right thoughts, habits and priorities that help them make those choices and decisions so they can take advantage of their gifts, first of all as people,” Saban said Monday.
If you want to know why Saban works so well in the college game but flopped in the NFL, that’s it in a nutshell. There are plenty of football minds just as sharp as Saban in the pros. But on the college level, Saban has an incredible competitive edge because he knows what it takes to win not only between the white lines but also in a high school player’s living room and in front of a room of deep-pocketed alumni — and he never lets up.
I know how Saban comes across — no-nonsense, bristly, downright unlikable to many, especially when he’s telling the media to direct questions he doesn’t like to a Coke bottle on the podium. Heck, his smiles are spotted less frequently than Halley’s Comet. But it’s not fair to judge an intense competitor who is constantly focused on the immediate task at hand by the expression on his face alone.
If Saban were truly a miserable person to be around, would so many top young athletes who have their choice of schools to play for keep lining up to go to Tuscaloosa? Would so many assistant coaches be willing to jump at the chance to learn from him?
Like him or not, Saban has achieved the status of a sports legend, one who in time will be as revered as the Bear, if he isn’t already.
And oddly enough, they’ve held the same job.