Nick Saban has long been one of football’s most enigmatic figures. The Alabama coach has been pilloried as a sellout, a liar, and a socially inept disciplinarian. He’s also won four college football championships, and is consistently regarded as one of the game’s all-time greats. In Saban: The Making of a Coach, writer Monte Burke manages to sift through the myths and mysteries to offer one of the most compelling portraits of the 63-year-old college football icon.
Far from the aloof, rant-prone coach that the media often portrays, Saban comes across as a caring, if extremely detail-oriented, leader — one offers second-chances to those in need. In fact, he’s not above crying with his players during one-on-one sessions. Even his press conference tirades seem a little less bombastic when you learn that they’re often calculated, designed by Saban to spur his players when he’s felt they’ve gotten complacent or praise them when they’re down. Even his frequent moves from coaching job to coaching job — at ever-escalating contracts — seems less about pure money than a desire to be appreciated by the schools he’s coaching for. Yes, Nick Saban has a soft side. But he would never want you to know that.
What surprised you about Saban?
I knew his father was a hard-ass, but I didn’t know to what degree — he was so demanding of his son. Also, he is pretty sensitive about what people think of him. There’s a couple times in the book where he cries, when he switches jobs, and also with his players sometimes. He cries particularly when talking about his father. That’s a side you don’t see when you’re watching him on the sidelines.
Did you ever make him cry?
No, but he did have this wistful moment. After his first game as a graduate assistant, the first game of his coaching career, Kent State beat Louisville, and he called home to his dad to tell them they won. Then he looked at me from his desk, and I remember him saying, “That’s the last time I ever talked to my dad.” He died shortly thereafter from a heart attack.
Saban often gets portrayed as a mercenary, going from one school to the next for the highest offer. But your book is more nuanced than that about his motivations. What are they?
It starts with his father again. He never got to satisfy his father, to prove that he could reach this pinnacle. Not to be all psychoanalytic, but I think that plays a huge role. Money plays a part, too — he didn’t come from much. But what’s fascinating to me is that when he won a championship, it wasn’t enough. He called up his psychiatrist buddy and was like, “Why am I not happy?” He’s one of the extraordinary people who finds true happiness in every inch of every step along the way. A lot of his players said “People think Nick Saban isn’t happy, but he is happy.” He’s happy when he’s on the field, when he’s watching tape of a recruit.
In many ways he’s a better recruiter than a coach. Is that a fair assessment?
There are two fundamental parts of recruiting. One is identifying talent, and he can assess talent the way those thoroughbred horse guys do — he can look at a baby horse and know that one’s going to be a champion. But the more important part is being able to reel the kid in. The high school coaches talk about how different he is compared to every other recruiter. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “These other guys seem like used-car salesmen, or televangelists — they promise these kids the world.” Saban just comes in and says, “This is what we’re doing. This is where I see you fitting in. Get on the train or we’ll see you down the road.” That business-like attitude seems to work.
You also mentioned that he’s surprisingly charismatic.
I’ve been writing about CEO’s and all sorts of folks for 15 years, and he’s one of the most charismatic people I’ve been around in a small setting. That’s something a lot of people just don’t see.
And how does this work with recruits?
Well, a recruit and his family think he’s going to come in and be a really hard guy, and then he drops a joke or has the kid’s favorite chewing gum ready. He lets his guard down and it plays to his advantage. That feeds into his nickname, “The Lord of the Living Room.”
You dug up a great anecdote about Saban and Patriots coach Bill Belichick meeting in secret while they were both working in the NFL.
I love the scenes with Belichick. They first met because Saban got a job at Navy, and Bill’s father Steve, a very-famous, longtime scout, is there. Those two guys just hit it off. They’re both Croatian, both immersed in football, and both love the defensive side of the ball. They had these front-porch sessions, just talking ball, like a couple of wine connoisseurs. And then, later, they met clandestinely when Saban was with the Oilers and Belichick with the Giants. They met in secret in hotels near West Point, New York. I love all that stuff. One real surprising thing for me is that little stint in Cleveland, where Belichick had hired Saban to be his defensive coordinator — it worked well, the defense had gone from worst to best in the league — but they clashed. In some ways their relationship has continued to be very strong probably because they don’t work together anymore.
Do you think Saban still has any desire to coach in the NFL?
That’s one of the great, unanswered questions. From his friends that I’ve talked to, there’s maybe something there, but not really strong. If a perfect situation came up, a team in the South, where he could get a piece of the ownership, coach for a few years, then move upstairs to the front office or something like that, maybe. But personally I’d be very surprised if he went back to the NFL. Recruiting is everything. He’s got that great quote, saying “You get one first-round draft pick in the NFL, but in college you can recruit ten first round draft picks every year.”
Do you think he thinks about his legacy at this point?
Absolutely. He’s way more concerned about that than people know. He’s going to have a great legacy no matter what he does. He’s won four national championships, and he’s been the best coach of the BCS era by far. But yes, I do think he’s begun to think about how he wants to be remembered. Traditionally, the Bobby Bowdens, Joe Paternos, Bear Bryants, they’re affiliated with one school.
With Urban Meyer having won championships at two different schools, does that stoke the rivalry from Saban’s perspective?
I think definitely. Those two don’t like each other all, and all of a sudden Urban Meyer is a lot closer in Nick Saba’s rearview mirror than he was a year ago. That will keep Saban recruiting and trying to coach to the best of his ability. The fire’s still there, and Meyer’s a huge reason why.
Any insights into Alabama’s upcoming season?
The defensive line is going to be amazing. The running back crew is not quite as deep as it was, but it’s still really good. The problem is quarterback. They overachieved last year with Blake Sims. He’s a perfectly serviceable quarterback, but he’s not elite like a Mariota or a Winston. The also have a brutal schedule. They could lose up to three games, which at Alabama would be a disaster — it’s almost like national championship or bust. But Saban’s the victim of his own success. He’s held to a standard that he created.