"I Don't Remember Him Ever Being Happy": The Joyless Dominance of Alabama's Nick Saban
College football coaches have never been a joyful lot, but the unauthorized biography of Alabama's Nick Saban reveals a man who is both brilliant and perpetually unhappy.
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Back in 2014, a Vine surfaced of Nick Saban doing the electric slide at a party for recruits. He's wearing a crimson blazer and a vaguely constipated look on his face; midway through, something like a grin appears, but quickly vanishes as he bears down on the subsequent hip turn. It is the closest thing college football has had in recent years to a Zapruder film: an entirely new angle on the most successful and inscrutable college football coach of the 21st century. And yet, in the end, it still doesn't reveal much of anything, except that the University of Alabama football coach is never going to open himself up to the world, not even on the dance floor.
This Vine is not mentioned in Monte Burke's recently released biography of Saban, but virtually every other aspect of his life is explored, and it is not difficult to view Saban's electric slide as a metaphor for everything that's contained within. Burke's book is fascinating but overarchingly dour, veering from worshipful remembrances to vexing condemnations of the same man. It's difficult enough to write a biography of a person whose career is still in progress; Burke had the added burden of writing about a contradictory and closed subject whom no one, aside from his own wife, seems to really understand. That said, Saban is as well-reported as it could be, given the circumstances: Burke spoke to roughly 250 sources, though he did not speak to Saban himself, who last week went on an unsolicited rant decrying biographies that are not authorized by their subject, which is sort of like David McCullough issuing a pointed critique of the 4-3 defense.
Saban's misgivings about the book are not exactly surprising, given that Burke goes into intimate detail about his serious flirtations with the Texas job a couple of years ago, a narrative that Saban has insisted is false. But the most disconcerting part of the book has nothing to do with Texas, or any of the other dozens of coaching positions Saban has flirted with over the years in an attempt to mollify his ambition while fortifying his salary and power. It doesn't even have to do with the low moment of Saban's ignominious stint in the National Football League, when he literally walked over one of his own Miami Dolphins players in the midst of a frightening heat-induced seizure.
No, the most disconcerting part of Burke's book is that Saban doesn't appear to have any idea how to be content. Even now, at Alabama, where's he built perhaps the most efficient machine in modern college sports, he cannot help but wonder why people don't respect him even more than they already do, which may have been why he even considered going to Texas. "I don't remember him ever laughing or smiling. I don't remember him ever being happy. I really don't," says a friend, describing Nick Saban as a 10-year-old.
At some level, I imagine, Saban tells the kind of story that could belong to many successful people, particularly college football coaches. In order to push yourself the way Saban does, there has to be something inside you that is never entirely comfortable with your own successes. For Saban, it goes back to his relationship with his father, Big Nick, who owned a service station in West Virginia and died long before his son succeeded as a head coach. Big Nick was domineering and overbearing; Big Nick had an impossible standard of perfection. His son carries that on. Saban, in grading recruits, has never given any of them anything even close to a perfect score. Saban has complained that winning national championships detracts from his recruiting time, even as he repeatedly laments that he's neglected his own family (and forced his coaches to do the same). "You don't coach with him to have fun," one of Saban's assistants tells Burke. "You do it if you want to win and be successful."
This is not to say that college football coaches have ever been a joyful lot. Who can forget the story of Woody Hayes blaming a Friday night screening of Easy Rider for the fact that his Buckeyes did not beat the hell out of Minnesota by more points? But there's something different, something of the moment, about Saban's automaton-like success in a sport that, at its best, is crazy and chaotic and youthful and entirely unpredictable. There is a cold utilitarianism to Saban's methods that defies romance (unless that romance is with Hillary Fucking Rodham Clinton). He doesn't have the irascible ultra-conservative spirit of Hayes or the fatherly soul of Paul "Bear" Bryant, his predecessor at Alabama; he doesn't have the spitting temper of Bo Schembechler or the nerdy visage of Joe Paterno. He is a blandly handsome man who can turn on the charm in recruits' living rooms, who is never not working, who, in Burke's words, "turned the Alabama football program into a corporation, with him sitting in the chief executive's chair."
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Saban is around, because his teams are a soaring marvel of brute competence. I'm also glad that Saban has foils, that there are coaches all around who view college football as a forum for experimentation and weirdness, that these black swans (see: Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn at Auburn, et. al) are purposefully creating offenses that disturb the brittle CEO sensibilities of a coach like Saban.
We all work too hard and too long these days; we all are slaves to the grind in the digital age. We've all met someone like Saban, who has no idea how to turn himself off from his job, who is both brilliant and unhappy, who will never really learn to appreciate the moment. Saban happens to work in a sport that requires a certain suspension of disbelief in order to go along with it in the first place. And so I want this sport to be of high quality, but I also want it to be unpredictable and exciting and fun, which is why I will continue to admire Saban's joyless competence from afar while hoping that, as happened against Auburn a couple of years ago, the whole thing falls apart in the end.