MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — At some point, this much success should have brought joy, or at the very least, a deep sense of satisfaction. It’s only made Nick Saban chase each win more relentlessly than the last.
If nothing else, it will be interesting to see him try to top this one.
Alabama’s Crimson Tide slipped on the BCS crown for the third time in the last four years Monday night, crushing Notre Dame 42-14 and almost as impressively, forcing a wide grin from its sometimes dour and always serious coach. Small wonder. The win was Saban’s fourth national championship, which left him tied with Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy for second on The Associated Press’ all-time list, and behind only Paul “Bear” Bryant, the most famed of his predecessors at Alabama.
“I’m satisfied with this team because of what they accomplished,” Saban said afterward.
But he has a rule that celebrations are cut short after 48 hours – and despite the biggest of wins – a rule is a rule.
“Two days from now,” Saban said without a hint of humor, “we got to start on next year.”
The weekend before the championship, more than a few people wondered whether Saban might finally open up, the way Urban Meyer did while still coaching at Florida a while back, the way some of his peers have when their legacy, like Saban’s, was secured. Saban did – just not the way most expected.
He began with a story about inheriting his uncompromising work ethic from a father that he and everyone else in their tucked-away corner of West Virginia always called “Big Nick.”
“There was a bum that used to come to my dad’s service station early in the morning because he’d give him free coffee and doughnuts,” Saban said. “We had had a tough game the night before, I don’t remember whether it was basketball game, a football game or whatever. The guy was giving me a hard time and I sort of sassed him. I was 17 years old. I got the strap right on the spot.
“It was the right thing,” he added quickly. “I needed to learn a lesson. I was disrespectful to an older person, regardless of the situation.”
Saban rarely comes off as a man who speaks from the heart. More often, he sounds like someone cobbling together bits and pieces culled from a shelf’s worth of books on motivational speaking, which Saban, not surprisingly, has turned into a lucrative sideline. Maybe that’s what made that story he told about his father seem even more revealing when the subject came up a day later.
This time, the lesson was not about respect, but about always striving for “a standard of excellence, a perfection.” Saban recalled being 11 years old, already working at that same service station by then. His responsibilities ran the gamut from pumping gas and collecting the cash to checking the oil and tires, and finally, washing the cars.
“I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out. And if there were any streaks when he came,” Saban paused, referring to “Big Nick” again, “you had to do it over.”
Sports is not the only place where the father-son dynamic ignites a spark of ambition that grows and grows until it becomes a consuming flame. And there are men like Saban atop every profession. They clamber up the ladder without regard for consequences, treating each job like an audition for the next one. His story is instructive that way.
Saban played defensive back at Kent State, despite standing only 5-foot-6, and the determination he showed won him a job as a graduate assistant there in 1972. Next came a half-dozen more stops as an assistant – including a season with the NFL’s Houston Oilers – before Saban landed his first head-coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He brought the school a Mid-American Conference title in his only season there, bailing out to become defensive coordinator with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick.
In the ensuing 15 years, Saban burned through three more jobs, each one good enough to be considered a “destination” among his peers – first Michigan State, then LSU, where he won his first national title, and finally with the Miami Dolphins. Instead of feeling like he’d arrived, Saban remained restless in a way the rest of us are not. After two years, including his first losing season as a head coach, he flat-out denied he was leaving for the vacant job at Alabama – and then lit out for Tuscaloosa three weeks later.
That was 2007, and Saban is still there six seasons later, longer than his tenure lasted anywhere else. He’s been so successful he not only owns the town and the state; he’s even won over the fans and alumni who used to insist no coach deserved the Crimson Tide job without a connection to Bryant. Some of the most stubborn have made that connection themselves now, mentioning Saban in the same sentence with Bryant, and adding the “D-word (dynasty)” at the end that was once reserved for Bryant as well.
For his part, Saban has sunk roots in Tuscaloosa, even relocating the “Nick’s Kids Fund” charity he and wife Terry set up more than a decade ago. It’s actually named for “Big Nick,” the blue-collar taskmaster and former Pop Warner League coach who taught his son never to take on a job unless he intended to do it right.
Judged by winning percentage, he’s certainly done right by nearly every team that hired him. The only remorse he feels is not having figured it out in time to tell “Big Nick” thanks.
“Probably when I was a senior in college, that’s probably when I realized it. And my first year of graduate school was when he passed away. I never really ever told him,” Saban said, “which I regret.”