Appreciating the Greatness of Nick Saban

by Gus Griffin






Image courtesy of USA Today's FTW

Image courtesy of USA Today’s FTW

I missed a call the other day from my brother who is also a big sports fan.  He left a 3-word message that said more than we could have said in an actual hour conversation.

The message was: “ALABAMA IS ALABAMA!”

He was of course referring to the Alabama Crimson Tide smothering the Clemson Tigers 24-6. The same Clemson Tigers that were the defending national champs could not even score a touchdown against Alabama.

Why is Alabama, Alabama? That answer is easy:  head coach Nick Saban, who has 4 national titles there and will field a team to win a 5th on Monday against SEC rival Georgia.

His track record extends beyond Alabama, which is a card-carrying college football blue blood. Saban began his coaching career at Toledo in 1990 and went 9-2. In 1989, that same program won 6 games. In 1991, after Sabin left to be Bill Belichik’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland, it won 5 games.

After a stint at Michigan State with moderate success, Sabin went to LSU where he would lead them to essentially a co-national title, along with my USC Trojans in 2003.

Who knows how good of an NFL coach he would have been had he stuck it out or had the Miami Dolphins not passed on Drew Brees.

So, Saban’s resume is clear and even the most die-hard Auburn Tigers fan would not dare question his greatness.  What fascinates me is, how does he do this?

Never trust the pundits or self-proclaimed coaching gurus to answer that question. If they knew, they would be doing the same or bottling the formula for sale.

Sure, there are other great coaches. “The” Ohio State’s Urban Meyer actually has a significantly better bowl record than Saban and isn’t far behind him in any other category. But every now and then, the Buckeyes will simply lay an egg, such as was the case this year when they gave up 55 points to an average Iowa team, or when they were shut out last year in the playoffs to eventual champion Clemson.

You can’t find those games in Saban’s time at Alabama. Search for yourself. It won’t take long, since under him the Mighty Tide is now 131-20 over 11 years. Let that sink in for just a moment. In the toughest conference in college football, even if some of you still resists acknowledging this, Nick Saban’s teams haven’t even lost 2 games a year. Sure, he loses games. Only non-participants are spared that fate. What his teams at Alabama don’t have are total throw away games. When they lose, they simply get beat. His teams are ready to play every week.

Having been in education for nearly 25 years and also having coached myself, I can tell you from actual experience that keeping a group of 18-19-20 something young men focused enough to avoid such let downs is not only short of a miracle, it’s a biological aberration. By that I mean that the last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, which is responsible for impulse control, executive functioning, and appropriate social and emotional responses.  It is essentially to the brain what brakes are to a car, and in males it typically is not fully developed until about 24-25 on average.

This explains why, based on biology alone, we can foresee much of the unpredictable behaviors in the pre-24 male age group. We often wonder, “What was he thinking?”. The answer often is that he wasn’t thinking.  Thus, inconsistent behavior is the norm.

You simply don’t see this in Nick Saban coached teams.

In looking at Saban’s educational background, he earned a BA degree in Business and a Masters’ degree in Sports Administration, both from Kent State. That might explain his elite organizational competence and even his capacity as a salesman, which gets buy-in from the youth he recruits. But there is also a psychology necessary in that no sales pitch is cookie cutter. The ability to understand personality nuance from athlete to athlete or student to student is indeed rare among coaches and educators of all types.

Some will say Alabama gets the best talent. Yes and no. Alabama certainly gets the cream of the crop at every position…except the most important position, which is quarterback. Not one of Nick Saban’s QBs at Alabama has gone on to distinguish himself in the NFL. The best eventual professional QB he has ever had was Tony Banks at Michigan State. The same Tony Banks that could not hold off Trent Dilfer from taking his job with the 2000 eventual super bowl champion Ravens. Nick Saban even managed to make Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell look like viable NFL starting QBs. Either both the brass of the Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders were idiots or Nick Saban is a coaching magician.

Ok, in the Raiders case, it’s more likely the former. LOL

I don’t know if we will ever have a comprehensive answer to how Nick Saban does what he does. I do know that we are witnessing greatness on a high level that we may never see again in college football. Even those of us who are not fans of Alabama should appreciate it while we can.


Gus Griffin, for War Room Sports

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