"Why do you what YOU do?" (January 2012)

Nick Saban and college football's brave new world

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I.

I would like to imagine that I think about Nick Saban more than most human beings who reside roughly three thousand miles from the Alabama State Line—and perhaps more than anyone who resides in my current city, a place where college football is largely viewed through the lens of capitalist oppression (Go Ducks!). For several years, I wrote about and thought about and often wrongfully opined about college football for a countless number of media outlets; and during those years, Nick Saban has been its dominant force, an uptight and inscrutable and undeniably brilliant force of consistency, a man who can be veer from grindingly dull to scarily intimidating to endearingly fascinating over the course of seconds.

I have a longtime text thread with three friends, all of us utterly self-aware college football enthusiasts who wrestle with the sport’s inherent contradictions from moment to moment and day to day and year to year. That thread often comes back to Saban, as it did this week, after he gave an interview to The New York TimesAlan Blinder which mostly made headlines because Saban likened himself to Nancy Pelosi, which was almost as controversial in Alabama as if Saban had blamed the Kick Six on the lingering effects of trickle-down economics. This was big news to us, since we’ve spent a great deal of time over the years speculating on Saban’s political bent (he is longtime friends with moderate Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, so the general consensus is that he falls in the Manchin range), as well as which track off the Stones’ Black and Blue he listens to most often when he is contemplating coverage schemes against the run-pass option.

But to me, that Pelosi quote was not the most interesting part of the interview. The most interesting part of the interview was the last sentence, which I shall reprint here:

“But whenever I do quit…I’m not looking to be sitting on the side of the lake somewhere and just staring out into the water and wondering what’s happening.”

It was an intense coda to the discussion, and it reminded me of something that happened in 2012 and that I wrote about in my book and that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. It was before the national championship game in New Orleans, in a room filled with reporters, and a young reporter in the crowd asked Saban, in so many words, why the hell he kept doing what he was doing if he was already so good at it. And Saban replied, “Why do you do what you do? Are you driven to be the best at what you do?”

“Yes, sir,” the reporter replied, and while I have no idea what has happened to that reporter since, I can say that those words have crawled like an angry cable-news ticker through my brain nearly ever day since.


II.

Nick Saban turns 70 on Halloween, which is what prompted that reference to Nancy Pelosi, since Pelosi is 81 and is still intellectually vibrant and is still (objectively) quite good at her job. Saban is now unquestionably the Best At What He Does; there is little dispute now that he is the Best Who Has Ever Done What He Has Done. But you can feel the pages starting to turn, as programs like Clemson and Georgia chase after what’s long been his; you can sense that this simply will not last forever, that things will change eventually, and part of the reason for that is because everything is changing around Nick Saban.

In the Times interview, Saban spoke about how his approach to football has evolved as the sport has evolved: The cliche used to be that defense won championships, and Saban subscribed to that cliche until he realized that it no longer applied. He complained in the early 2010s about dynamic modern offenses and how they were peverting the sport, and when he realized that he couldn’t stop the change, he embraced the change by embracing the philosophy of Lane Kiffin, of all people. All of this seems to work in tandem with Saban’s personal evolution: For years, he was striving for the next job, and striving to make it as head coach in the NFL, and when he failed in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, it was presumed he’d go to Alabama for five years, turn the program around, and then chase the next gig. He was a traveling salesman, the college football equivalent of Larry Brown, until he became the modern equivalent of Knute Rockne—a man who will forever be associated with a single winning program.

But things are changing so fast now within college football—and far beyond college football—that I’m not sure anyone can keep up anymore, let alone Nick Saban. I know I can’t; the pandemic has taken all the threads of our lives and twisted them into knots and made us wonder why we chose to cling to those particular threads in the first place, which is partly why my era of writing about college football (outside of this newsletter) is probably over.

This week, as Matt Brown reported in his Extra Points newsletter, a fourth-string quarterback at Ohio State took in more than a million dollars in deals to market his name, image and likeness. That, I suppose, is progress, but it’s the kind of jolting progress that can make you reflexively embrace your inner curmudgeon. How did a sport that resisted alterations to its (admittedly exploitative) system see its walls come tumbling down so quickly? And what does it say about the changes happening well beyond college football, the embrace of new paradigms in culture and politics and climate and pretty much every other goddamn thing that guides the course of our daily lives?

“I’m not opposed to paying players — I don’t want you to think that,” Saban told the Times. “I’m concerned, can we continue to do things the way we’ve always done it because there’s only so much money to go around?”

It’s a fair question that I’m not sure anyone has a good answer to. And many of these changes—both within and far beyond college football—will turn out to be for the better. Ideally, they will lead us toward a more fair and equitable society. But the funny thing about college football is that it’s often been about the concentration of power—it’s been dominated, time and again, by dynasties, many of them led by endessly driven and inscrutable men like Nick Saban.

And I think that’s why my friends and I are so fascinated by Saban: Because somehow, he’s managed to embrace change without becoming a reactionary. He doesn’t always like this change, and he probably wishes a lot of it wasn’t happening, but he grudgingly accepts it.

In that way, he still feels connected to the past, to the era when football coaches were harsh disciplinarians with conservative values; but he also seems to have acknowledged that the future is no longer something he can control. He is the Best At What He Does, and there are a thousand reasons to find his program boring and robotic and uninteresting, but I don’t think any of those things anymore. I now fully embrace Nick Saban’s intimidating brilliance, his reluctant willingness to adapt, and his remarkable consistency in a world that feels as if its lost its moorings these past few years. And I’m going to enjoy it every single day until it no longer exists.


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