People have known it for years, even before the Miami Dolphins sent around a memo warning employees not to make smalltalk with him. It is part of his charm. From the outside, we never even see the man smile.
“Neither do we,’’ Alabama running back Eddie Lacy said Thursday. “He smiles randomly. I’m not going to be the guy to try to make him smile.’’
He said that as if it would be like poking a bear. Or making smalltalk with a Saban. But the smile is possible, and Lacy has seen it. What makes it happen?
“I have no idea,’’ Lacy said. “It’s random.’’
The thing is, this is Nick Saban happy, certainly happier than when he was the coach of the Dolphins, losing and making his own players cry.
It’s just not easy to tell. Meanwhile, Alabama and Notre Dame have arrived in Florida for Monday night’s BCS Championship Game, and the Saban speculation is already building.
Will he leave Alabama for the NFL? I believe that Saban should stay. I also believe that he’ll go. There is no way his massive ego will allow him to retire with his failure in Miami unresolved, unfixed.
It’s just his personality, best as we can read it. Saban said recently that at his age, 61, he doesn’t have many moves left in him. That was taken to mean that he is inclined to stay at Alabama.
I took it to mean just the opposite, that a guy who has moved around, searching for new challenges and championships, is getting bored and antsy again. And he’s running out of time to make his move to fix that one blot on his greatness. If he fails in the NFL again, he’ll still have time for one more college job.
And don’t underestimate the driving force that money has been in his career.
Coaches have been fired in bunches in the NFL, and Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have shown general managers that college coaches can make it in the pros. And Saban is the best college coach in the country. So it’s hard to believe that he won’t have another big-dollar opportunity soon, as in next week.
He hasn’t spoken to the media yet in Florida and isn’t scheduled to until Saturday. But we won’t get any hints from him anyway. He once coolly said, “I am not going to be the coach at Alabama.’’
And then, just like that, he was the coach at Alabama.
So he made the jump once before, from his national championship LSU team to the Dolphins. And then, miserable with the NFL experience, he jumped back, to Alabama. For $32 million.
That’s not to say he would fail if he jumps back again. The Dolphins were a messed up franchise, and I think Saban can probably do well in the NFL. It’s just not worth it to go to that misery when Saban has such a good thing where he is. Ego leads these coaches to think they can’t fail in the NFL. If Saban’s career ends with massive success at Alabama, he might see that as just half a success.
His personality isn’t just a funny story about gruffness. It’s part of what has worked for him, built him into the coach he is.
You’d think that it’s working so well at Alabama that he’d be satisfied now. He’d be home. His history says otherwise. It’s hard for some people to stand in one place for long stretches.
At some point, the move from college to the NFL is not going to be a given anymore. College football is booming, and is America’s No. 2 sport, albeit behind the NFL. Still, Chip Kelly, Oregon’s coach, already had three NFL interviews lined up – with Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo – before his college team had even played in the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday night.
Why? He is coaching at, roughly, Nike University, and must have incredible access to, well, pretty much anything. And when seven NFL coaches were fired by lunchtime on one day, Black Monday, that has to say something.
The question is whether the NFL is still the pinnacle for a coach. Do you have to reach the Super Bowl to be a successful coach? At Alabama, Saban has the BCS exposure, a title tournament coming, and all his regular-season games on national.
Saban can win his third national championship in four years, not to mention the one he got at LSU.
He has built a dynasty, which should be impossible in this day and age.
He is even closing in on the impossible: Being mentioned in the same breath as Bear Bryant. If Saban were to stick around for 10 more years, it’s completely possible that he could go down as the greatest college coach in history.
Will people say, “Yeah, but look what happened in Miami?’’ No. No one questions Bobby Knight’s legacy because it didn’t include the NBA. No one questions Mike Krzyzewski for not going to the Lakers.
Of course, Coach K had an Olympics for his legacy. And that was helped by the patriotic element of coaching American NBA stars to a gold medal again. And if Carroll wins the Super Bowl this year, think of how he will go down in history with his success at USC and Seattle.
But I’m not so sure Saban is that worked up about his legacy yet. At this point, it just has to gnaw at him that his coaching magic didn’t work somewhere.
On Thursday, I asked a few media types who have known Saban for years if they have noticed a change. They said they had. Now, for example, when someone asks a really stupid question, he no longer jumps all over that person.
Manners come in degrees, apparently.
But why not just stay where you are happy and can smile randomly every once in a while? Several recruiting services already are ranking his next class No. 1 in the nation. Saban brings players in with the promise that he can get them to the NFL.
It’s hard to see what is better about going 7-9 in Buffalo than contending for the national championship nearly every year at Alabama.
But we’ll never get inside the head of someone who only smiles randomly.