I don’t normally write a sports column, but a few words would seem appropriate after Alabama’s football coach Nick Saban announced his retirement last week. Simply put, love him or hate him, Nick Saban was the nation’s best college coach in recent years, and maybe the best college coach ever.
Now, many LSU football fans don’t want to hear this and seem to be consumed by an abhorrence of the former Tiger coach who took LSU to a national championship back in 2003. Sabin left the Bayou State for what he considered greener pastures in the NFL, then returned to the Southeast Conference to take the head coaching job at Alabama. Many LSU fans consider Saban a traitor for taking on the post coaching the Tiger’s archrival.
But the proof is in the pudding, and Saban has now won six national titles, tying former Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s all-time record. So what’s the reason for Saban’s success? Simply put, he is unquenchable in his approach and commitment to coaching. And losing, in Saban’s mind, is never an option. In fact, one can argue that he hates losing more than he loves winning.
His entire focus is preparation for the next game or next season. I know one of his assistant coaches here in Baton Rouge who told me he felt embarrassed taking off Christmas Day or any other holiday, knowing full well that Coach Saban would be in football office that day at LSU. His only hobby is coaching football.
A story I was told by a close friend of Saban’s is an example of his insatiable commitment to coaching. Both Sabin and his friend were out to dinner on a Saturday evening with their wives. About 10:30 pm, Saban’s cell phone rang. The coach excused himself from the table and stepped outside the restaurant, staying on the phone for almost 30 minutes.
Later, as they were leaving the restaurant, Saban’s friend asked him was there any problem because of a long phone call. No, Saban responded. It was just one of his recruits who was calling to talk about a personal problem. Sabin said he gave all his recruits his private cell number and told them he was always available to talk about football or any personal matter. Now how many coaches at major college programs will give out their personal cell phone number to a high school recruit? Simple. A coach like Nick Saban who wants to be number one.
In 2012, Alabama played LSU for the College National Championship at the Superdome in New Orleans. Our family had booked early rooms at the Hilton hotel, which was also the team hotel for LSU. Many of the players were on our same floor, and the night before the game, they were hanging out with girlfriends and cruising throughout the hotel. Nothing rambunctious, but just “hanging out” before the game. One of the players told me they had no team meetings scheduled the night before kickoff.
Coach Saban had bused the Alabama team to a movie theater outside of town that was owned by my father-in-law. Sabin’s office had called to arrange for a private showing of the World War II movie, “Red Tails,” about a black flying squadron who faced long odds fighting German air attacks. After the movie, Coach Saban went up on the stage and repeated word for word the movie’s rallying cry.
“From the last plane to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man, we fight!”
The next night, Coach Saban’s Alabama team was behind the entire game until the last second of the overtime. They fought and fought as Saban’s intense energy and coaching momentum urged his players on. In Nick Saban’s words, “to the last minute, to the last man, we fight!”
His team did just that, and Alabama continued its reign as, year after year, America’s premier college football program. These are the reasons why Coach Saban retires at the top of his game. All of us, even LSU fans, wish him well in the years to come.
Peace and Justice