Nobody from Alabama can quite remember when “Nick Satan” became a part of vernacular. Or if they do, they will not say for fear of him making their life hell.
Suffice it to say that enough people believe the nickname fits that T-shirts were made, pitchfork and all. There are a lot of people who do not like the Alabama coach, though none of them are the houndstooth-clad masses cheering for the Crimson Tide. He does a fair amount to warrant this identity. He also wins, which is a huge “suck it” for people who do not like him.
Watching Alabama slap around Michigan 41-14 on Saturday at JerryWorld, I found myself appreciating the man of the exceptionally pleated pants and few funny words. And in this time of fallen saints among college football’s coaching ranks, I feel compelled to write in praise of Satan.
Saban is viewed exactly as he is, as a mercenary who cares about one thing and one thing only — winning football games. I find that kind of truth in advertising refreshing in this post-Joe Paterno era, as should you. Saban is not his players’ father or friend, the bag guy or the bail man. He’s their coach, and he’s kind of a jerk at times.
“I have a hard time remembering all the players’ names,” Saban said, “other than what I call them.”
These are not the cute little nicknames that have personal stories and denote hours in his office sharing tales of childhood. These nicknames are born of necessity. Saban called linebacker Nico Johnson 3-5, as in his number, until Johnson became good and then he became Nico. By shedding this phony father-mentor narrative, Saban actually teaches the valuable lessons guys like Paterno were supposed to be teaching.
Life has winners and losers.
Effort matters, but only sometimes.
What you do defines you. So don’t screw up.
“The expectation we have and the standard we want to play to in business or in sports is about who you are,” Saban said. “You know, it’s good to look good. It’s good to wear the jersey, but it’s the guy in it and the character that you have and who you are that probably makes the biggest difference.”
There is no grand experiment going on in Tuscaloosa, just an intensely driven, sometimes mean-spirited, often obsessive football coach trying to win games. I do not know if his house is ranch style or if he has lived there his entire life. I do not think he has ever uttered the phrase “How much money does one man need?” I do not know if Saban gives to charity or has done a charitable thing in his entire life. Actually, I do. I looked it up out of curiosity. He has a foundation “Nick’s Kids” that raises money for local charities. But this is not what people talk about when they talk about Saban or what he talks about when he talks about him.
They talk about him winning, which is really how college football coaches should be judged. We do not give football too much power when we praise and pay them for what they do on the field but rather when we try to make their sphere bigger, when we talk about them as makers of men and teachers and moral compasses. This is where the whole thing gets screwed up, because it is patently false. Coaches are selfish like the rest of us, and they do things like lie and cut corners to win. They are more likely to feel like they can get away with it if everybody is running around praising them as saints.
There is no mythology in Saban. His value is in the statistics, the wins and the losses, the number of Alabama fans that travel to see him, in how much money he helps make the university.
He is not running an experiment. He is running a business, a very successful football business.
So what is Nick like to play for?
“Are you guys on a first-name basis?” Bama center Barrett Jones quipped.
“We’re not on a first-name basis, either. Let me clarify that,” he said. “When you get to know him really well, he’s got a dry sense of humor. He really cares about his guys. People really do not see that side of him about how much he cares about us. We love playing for him. People see the side of him that demands a lot out of us. That is certainly true. . . . He’s the best coach in the country, and that is why.”
Just like we do not demand the CEOs of News Corp. or Coca-Cola or Apple produce good people — only profit and results — we should not expect the coach of a football team to do anything besides coach football. We should actually be wary of the football coach who touts himself as something more, talking about saving souls and teaching men, just like we would be wary of a pastor talking safety blitz.
Everybody needs to stay in their own lanes. This is not to say Saban is not an influence on these players or that they do not love him. He is, and they do. He just never pretends about what his objective is — winning games. And he is damn good at that.
Why some people hate Saban is why I have come to respect him. There is something admirable about the man who lays it out there. This is who I am. No pretending. No pretense. No sainthood BS.
There will never be a mural with a halo above his head. There may very well be one depicting him with a pitchfork. No one worships Nick Saban who does not have a rooting interest in Tide football. Quite the opposite, which is how it should be.
Better the Nick Saban you do know than the JoePa you think you do.