What do you do when you’ve done all there is to do? You came, you saw, you conquered.
Nick Saban is the greatest coach in college football today, and perhaps the greatest of all-time. As the head coach at Alabama, which was recently selected by ESPN as the greatest college football program to ever exist, Saban enters this season with a record of 141-21 with the Tide. If you shave off those first few seasons where Saban was just digging in, after rebooting the program, Saban has gone 103-10 since 2011, and won 4 of the 8 national championships that were available across that span. Bama hasn’t lost more than two regular season games in any season over that span.
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban speaks at the College Football Playoff Semifinal Head Coaches News Conference on December 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images.
I suppose you could argue that Saban is not the most creative or innovative coach in college football, but these days being a college football coach is as much about being the manager of a giant corporation as it is successfully installing a run-pass option. Saban runs a tight ship that prints money, and is able to focus on big picture stuff while he delegates responsibility for smaller things, such as the actual football, to people he has hand-selected, who can carry out his highly-honed vision of champion-ness.
I thought about Saban a lot last week while watching HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden was mic’ed up on the sideline of a preseason football game, and as the players got ready to kick off, Gruden leaned over to someone and said something like, “Isn’t football great? This is great, isn’t it?”
Gruden was clearly reveling in the moment, enthused to be on the sideline as toe was meeting leather. I wondered how much of Gruden’s zeal came from having been away from coaching for so long. Sure, he’d been calling games on Monday Night Football and making those weirdly intense videos where he broke down college game film with NFL Draft prospects, but being back on the sideline wearing a visor and a headset, struggling to transform Mike Glennon into a leader, seemed to really energize Gruden in a singular way. At one team meeting, Gruden stood in front of those guys and cursed them out. It didn’t necessarily seem completely authentic, as he went from calm to furious in a matter of seconds, but it at least showed that he seemed to care, and care a lot.
Alabama Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban hoists the College Football National Championship Trophy after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime on January 08, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.
In contrast, we rarely see much of that fire from Nick Saban. I thought about Gruden contrasted with Saban’s opening address on last season’s ESPN reality show “Rolling With The Tide,” where Saban calmly stepped up to prepare his team for the season team while wearing jeans and leather loafers. Even when Saban is on the sidelines, coaching football games, which is ostensibly what he is best at and what one can reasonably assume Saban enjoys doing more than anything else, he mostly just seems glum. Alabama wins by 40? OK, but dadgum we really need stronger line play and our quarterback has to do a better job taking care of the ball and I can’t forget to pick up a half-gallon of milk for Miss Terry on my way home this afternoon.
You have to wonder if Saban has reached the point that he set out to reach all those many years ago when he got into coaching. Saban arrived at Alabama after a two-year visit to the NFL, where he went 15-17 with the Miami Dolphins and generally did nothing to differentiate himself from any other coach. He turned up in Tuscaloosa on the heels of a decade of mostly indifferent football from folks like Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula, which for a program with the pedigree of Alabama will never be good enough. (Mike Price, we hardly knew ye!)
Saban put his process in place and doggedly stuck to his plan, and the craziest thing happened: It all worked perfectly. Alabama is now the greatest college football factory we’ve ever seen, winning games at breathtaking speed, stacking up five-star recruits at every position. The athletic department has so much cash that they switched out all the lights in the football stadium to make the dang thing a disco.
Now what? Saban could certainly stay at Alabama forever, if that’s what he wants to do. He’s 67 years old, and maybe he and his family are cool with puttering around their palatial lake home and taking the pontoon boat out on Lake Burton a few times a week.
Saban is already using his accumulated goodwill on campus to allow coaches with bruised reputations to come in and reboot their careers. A few weeks ago, Saban had Mike Tyson come in and address the team.
(Perhaps this conversation was for Mike Tyson’s new podcast, “Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson”?)
According to ESPN, Tyson was able to “captivate” the Alabama players with life lessons. This article, which has such a positive spin that it may have actually been written by the Alabama football PR staff, also notes:
Saban and Tyson spent time in Saban’s office before the speech, and their conversation was riveting and humorous. They talked at length about the sacrifice it takes to become a champion.
It’s not human nature to be a champion. Human nature is to be average, to get by, to do what you have to do to get by … You have to be special to be the best you can be. You have to be special if you want to be a champion. I guess you have to be a champion before you can ever win a championship.Nick Saban
My first takeaway wasn’t that you have to be a champion to be a champion, or whatever the heck this circular Successories logic Saban came up with there, because I was so distracted by Saban’s office. The rich mahogany walls, the plush couch, the trophies casually scattered throughout — it’s like if Vito Corleone was crossed with Hayden Fox. If a working space like this is what champions get, then sign me up, buddy.
I believe Alabama is the most talented team in the country this season. I believe they will finish this season with the best record in the country, and they will play for another National Championship, which they will likely win. Getting blown out by Clemson in last year’s title game probably left Saban with some gently simmering rage, feeling like he has something to prove.
Does he actually have something to prove? Not really, but when you’re thirsty for motivation, you can find it in the strangest of places, even in a conversation with a former heavyweight champ-turned-weed enthusiast.
So what do you do when you’ve done all there is to do?
If you’re Nick Saban, I guess you just keep winning. For how long? Maybe just as long as he wants to keep rolling. After all, you have to be special to be the best you can be.