Rob Oller: Alabama's Nick Saban has made the most of not wanting to coach
Hard to imagine, but Nick Saban never wanted to coach, which is like a fish not wanting to swim. Alabama’s supreme leader is so cut out for his chosen life’s work that choosing anything else does not compute.
Not that Saban would fail at alternate careers. As a real estate agent he could sell luxury homes next to a sinkhole. Nick the bartender would whip up a chichi cocktail that would have millennials paying top dollar. Obsessed with winning and gifted with the drive and force of personality to achieve top results, the Crimson Tide coach likely would succeed at anything he tried.
It’s just that coaching football initially was never on his radar.
“I never really wanted to be a coach. I have to give all the credit to Don James, who was my college coach, calling me in one day and saying, I’d like for you to be a (graduate assistant),’ ” Saban said, recalling a conversation with James, who coached Kent State when Saban played there in the early 1970s.
“I immediately responded that I’m tired of going to school,” Saban continued. “I don’t really want to go to graduate school, and I don’t want to be a coach, so why would I do something like this?”
Maybe because 50 years later he would be considered among the greatest coaches in college football history, and would be going for his sixth national championship at Alabama when the No. 1 Crimson Tide plays No. 3 Ohio State on Monday in the College Football Playoff title game.
James saw the intensity and intelligence in Saban that over the decades have turned the former defensive back and West Virginia native into an Alabama legend on par with Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Who knows how fate works? Are coincidence and providence related? How many of life’s outcomes are simply determined by dumb luck? For Saban, timing helped determine the turning point in his life.
As Saban tells it, his wife, Terry, had another year of school left, which meant her husband had nothing on his plate. And Nick Saban with nothing to do is a volcanic eruption waiting to happen.
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“Plus, we had promised our parents that if they let us get married that we’d both graduate from college,” Saban added.
One foot in the door was all it took for Saban to see his career path swing open.
“When I did it I just absolutely loved it,” he said. “It was a lot like being a player, except you didn’t have to run wind sprints after practice. I liked the competitive nature of being a part of a team.
“The preparation that goes into it was different, but it was something that was very self-satisfying — the relationships that you develop with the players. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been in a profession where I don’t feel like I’m going to work every day, because I really enjoy what I’m doing.”
Apparently so. At age 69, the same age as Bryant when he retired after the 1982 season, Saban is still going strong. He said last month he will coach as long as he can perform to the high standards he has held himself to over 14 seasons at Alabama and five at LSU, where in 2003 he won the first of his seven national titles.
The sticky question is, can Saban can be objective enough to see the exit sign when it finally appears? Or will he hang on past his prime, like Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden did?
Saban seems more self-aware than those two legends, based on his ability to adapt to the times. The adjustments are best seen in how Alabama has evolved offensively. Saban might prefer a ball-control offense that complements a rock-solid defense, but the college game has changed so much that conservatism is less effective.
“I think the advent of the spread, RPOs, blocking downfield when passes are caught behind the line of scrimmage, all those things have dramatically changed the style of play offensively, and that affects every part of the game,” he said. “You have to defend how you pick players to play certain positions, because the game is so much more a perimeter game now than it used to be.”
Saban also still feels young at heart, especially around his players, who see a lighter side of their coach than he displays to the media.
“He’s very funny. It may not seem like it to y’all, but he has a sense of humor,” Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith said.
“Every day at practice,” Smith said.
Saban as stand-up comic? When he sets his mind to it, anything is possible.