A grumpy control freak whose face might rupture if he ever smiled? Yes. A raging perfectionist who will spray spittle into the grill of a player even with a 28-point lead in a national championship game? Yes. A smart ass who has no good reason to hate the media but does anyway? Yes.
“Now if I had that record,” said Nick Saban, chiding reporters for being wrong, “I would be in West Virginia pumping gas at my daddy’s gas station.”
But the devil?
No, he is not the devil.
Somehow, that is one of many d-words being floated by those who resent Nick Saban, who has won three national titles the last four years in a complex era when a college football dynasty — and that’s what he has at Alabama, a dynasty — should be unachievable. Some of that sentiment is sheer jealousy, of course, but please … the devil?
I see no evidence of cheating scandals in his program. I see a solid rate of 75 percent in the NCAA’s most recent Graduation Success Rate statistics, ranking his program seventh nationally among Bowl Subdivision (big-revenue) universities. I see only rare instances of arrests among his players, unlike the sport’s previous multiple-championship program at Florida, where a staggering 41 players from Urban Meyer’s last national title team were arrested either during their college years or after leaving Gainesville. I see a seven-month-old SI.com report that several Alabama players were wooed before the 2012 national title game with deer-antler spray, which contains a performance-enhancing substance prohibited by the NCAA, but also see that nothing came of the story after the school sent cease-and-desist letters to the creeps with the juice.
All I’m seeing, honestly, are gleaming crystal trophies won by upstanding young men who obey the authoritarian grouch, go to class, stay out of trouble and routinely amass victories. They do so even while competing in the most dominant league in the sport’s history — the Southeastern Conference has won the last seven national championships and eight of the last 10 — and even when social media and other factors make it easier for college kids to find off-field trouble than ever before.
So why did one of Saban’s former assistants, current Florida offensive line coach Tim Davis, refer to him as “the devil himself” during a Gators booster function? And why would Vanderbilt coach James Franklin describe him as “Nicky Satan” during a high-school banquet? Both men say the comments were intended in jest, but really? Isn’t it more a case of “If you can’t beat him, smear him” warfare, intended for the ears of impressionable teenaged recruits and frustrated fans tired of watching their teams play for second and third place in Saban’s personal SEC sandbox? Say what you will about his personality, or lack thereof, but do acknowledge that the man works harder, demands more, recruits better and prepares more meticulously than any other coach in the college game. Regardless of context, Saban isn’t one who appreciates satanic comparisons, especially in the Deep South, where college football is a cross between cult religion and scary psychosis.
“Twice. On two occasions. It’s just disappointing,” Saban said of the devil talk during an appearance earlier this year. “If somebody has a problem with me, I’d appreciate it if they’d tell me. If I’m doing something to offend somebody, I’d certainly like to do whatever I have to do to fix it. It’s not our intention. It’s not what we try to do. We’re in a tough business. It’s very competitive.”
He should dismiss it all as envy and avoid stooping to their level. Those people, and everyone else in the sport, are far beneath Saban and his weighty accomplishments. With his three titles at Alabama and previous title at LSU, he’s the only coach in the modern era to win national titles at two major programs. If he wins another this season, the college three-peat will be the first since Minnesota did it in the mid-1930s. All that stands between Saban and his place as college football’s greatest coach ever is a very familiar legend, one whose statue happens to rest amid the same Walk of Champions outside Bryant-Denny Stadium as a 9-foot statue of, well, Saban.
Paul “Bear” Bryant won six national championships, the only modern-era coach to do so. He also wore a trademark houndstooth hat that defined the sport, the state and the American South — and still remains a top-seller on campus. He also helped melt the racial glacier in Alabama when he scheduled a home game against a talented USC team, with its racially diverse roster, and showed a segregated state why it needed to rethink things. Want to make Nick Saban mad? Ask him to compare his legacy to Bear Bryant’s.
“I don’t think I have any reason that anybody should do that. I think Bear Bryant is the greatest coach in college football in terms of what he accomplished, what his legacy is,” Saban said at the SEC Media Days confab, per the Associated Press. “There’s no way that we have done anything close to what he’s done in terms of consistency over time, how he changed what he did to impact the times. They threw the ball and won. They ran the wishbone (offense) and won. He changed tremendously to do what he needed to do to be successful.”
Nor will Saban acknowledge that the last two seasons, and three of the last four, have ended with January midfield celebrations. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, one of the few coaches with any hope of stopping the Crimson Tide this season, thinks the mechanism is in place for Alabama to win several more national titles. Want to make Nick Saban mad? Mention “dynasty” to him.
“I don’t think about it in that regard. I never, ever do,” he said. “I think the most important thing for me to do is to get our staff, the people in our organization, our players to be as good as this team can be. Can we get them to make a commitment to a standard that is going to let them play at a high level on a consistent basis that they are capable of? And if we do that, maybe we’ll give ourselves a chance, and I think that’s the goal. That’s what I think about. That’s what we focus on. That’s what we try to get accomplished with the players.”
Boring. Very boring. But that’s him, focused on now and nothing else. “Every team stands on its own, and every team has something to prove,” Saban told ESPN.com. “It’s not a continuation. We’ll find out about this team this year, and that’s the only thing any of us are concerned about.”
The man won’t even wear his championship rings. Why? He can’t let himself enjoy one perk of success? “Do you do it for the attention that you get and the accolades that you might get, and then do you show those things? Or do you get enough positive self-gratification from the accomplishment itself, being a part of a team that was successful?” he tried explaining to reporters.
“The only one that matters is the next one. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to me. I have them. They’re there. They are something that we’re proud of, and proud of the teams and all the people who worked hard — coaches, players, administrators in our athletic department that worked hard to help create the atmosphere to help make it happen — but it’s not something that I feel I need to sort of put out there.”
Inside a glittering new training facility that actually has an arcade — take that, Oregon, with your leather-from-Milan couches — Saban has posted several “29-24” reminders of Alabama’s only loss last season. That came in Tuscaloosa against Texas A&M, in the game that launched Johnny Manziel as a Heisman Trophy winner and eventual pop-culture freak show. When the rematch happens Sept. 14 in College Station, Saban will have had 10 months to prepare. With six weeks to prepare last winter, he effectively reduced Notre Dame to the Feeble Irish in a laugher of a championship game. We only can wonder what he has in store for Johnny Football, a reckless free spirit who wouldn’t last five minutes with Nicky Hardass. That’s assuming Manziel isn’t ineligible after allegedly signing autographs for pay, though there’s no sign that the NCAA’s doofus sleuths will finish their investigation anytime soon.
Alabama isn’t perfect. The secondary and offensive line have been rebuilt. Every team on its schedule, starting with Virginia Tech, visualizes a lifetime memory with an upset. Georgia came within a bungled ending of beating the Tide in the SEC title game. Maybe Johnny Football produces one last thrill before the cops, NCAA or otherwise, haul him away.
But the presence of Nick Saban trumps all concerns. It’s humorous how he sticks to old-school philosophies as the coaching new wave ramps up no-huddle, high-tempo, Chip Kelly-style paradigms. “Should we allow football to be a continuous game?” Saban asked reporters. “Is that the way the game is designed to be played? Is there a safety issue with that? They play 64 plays in the NFL; we play over 80 in college, and up-tempo teams play more than that. I don’t know the answer to that.”
The answer is in the math. They keep running more plays, and he keeps more winning championships, and while Alabama does happen to wear red, there isn’t a pitchfork in sight.