Nick Saban’s three national titles at Alabama arguably are more impressive than Paul Bryant’s six. The Bear never had to contend with scholarship limits, early entries to the NFL draft, or a conference in which football and breathing are equal in importance.
Under Saban, the Crimson Tide have become a marvel to behold. He has created a standard of excellence that shows no signs of eroding. The good folks in Tuscaloosa extended his contract in March — making him the game’s highest paid coach at $5.5 million per year though 2019 — and they’ll dole out another raise if NFL teams sniff too closely.
No, he doesn’t have the warmest personality in fulfilling his media obligations. Saban comes across as an insufferable control freak, an automaton programmed to coach as passionately as possible while doing everything else as dryly. That makes him easy to root against, unless you’re a fan of Bama or a team he left in the past.
But something about the way he approaches his job is very appealing at its core. Not on an average, human level, but in terms of pursuing perfection.
Saban blew a gasket on the sideline Monday when Bama was called for a delay penalty with 7:51 remaining in a 42-14 game. At halftime, Notre Dame trailed 28-0 but Saban erupted nonetheless. “Nine and a half [on a scale of 1 to 10],” tackle Cyrus Kouandjio told reporters. “It wasn’t funny.”
Not much seems to tickle Saban, but having him at your alma mater would be a blast. Fans and players could whoop and holler like they did Monday night — their third such celebration in the past four seasons — as Saban held another championship trophy aloft.
Everyone else appeared to enjoy the evening more than him.
“You know, it’s not about me,” Saban said at the postgame news conference. “It’s really about seeing all those people being happy and being proud of what this team was able to accomplish. That’s the thing that makes me happy, and whether I look it or not, I’m happy as hell.”
I’d be delirious in his position. He’s faced with the possibly of winning two more national titles to tie Bryant’s record (Saban also won one at LSU, giving him four), or adding a couple of million to his annual salary by returning to the NFL. Continue building a dynasty at Alabama, or try turning, say, the Cleveland Browns into winners?
Saban has swatted down suggestions that he’ll bolt for the NFL, but he has little credibility. The last time he was in the vicinity of Monday’s BCS title game, he coached the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and said he wouldn’t be Alabama’s next coach.
Shortly thereafter, he was introduced as Alabama’s next coach.
NFL teams hold him in high regard for good reason, despite his 15-17 record. Few if any coaches could overcome Gus Frerotte and Joey Harrington taking the majority of snaps over the course of two seasons. But as a Bill Belichick disciple, Saban offers attention to detail and obsession with organization that make him perfectly suited for the pro game. The league prefers coaches like him who remind you of CEOs more than X’s and O’s.
He could stay at Alabama and be an emperor for another 10 years. As for quality of life, it’s hard to argue that NFL jobs beat college fiefdoms. Keeping the Tide among the nation’s top programs would be much easier than being a perennial Super Bowl contender.
But high achievers like Saban don’t always take the easy way out. They’re often driven by meeting challenges and beating the odds. Having conquered one space can create wanderlust for something new. Besides, Saban is a young 61. He can sign a five-year contract in the NFL and finish his career with another plum college job if he so desires.
Two seasons with the Dolphins, however, might have been enough. Maybe he’s convinced that he’s a college guy at heart.
“I didn’t feel like I could impact [the Dolphins] the same way that I can as a college coach in terms of affecting people’s lives personally,” he said Tuesday during a news conference. “There’s a lot of self gratification in all that.
“So I kind of learned through that experience that maybe this is where I belong, and I’m really happy and at peace with all that. No matter how many times I say that, y’all don’t believe it, so I don’t even know why I keep talking about it.”
It’s his fault that we’re skeptical. But no one would blame him for sticking around.
If he does, it’s a good bet that the Tide continue to roll.