Nick Saban is coming to town. There is no bouncy holiday music to mark the occasion, and no relationship whatever to that other visiting VIP, St. Nick.
There is nothing, frankly, but the hard edge of work and the blunt force of winning for a man who famously claimed Christmas for his own purposes on the day he became Miami Dolphins coach.
It was Dec. 25, 2004 when Saban called his LSU team together at their Capital One Bowl hotel in Orlando to announce he was leaving for the Dolphins. Merry Christmas, boys, here’s mud in your eye.
Not the most sensitive approach, but then Alabama fans don’t love Saban today because of his people skills. They adore him for getting the Crimson Tide to the Jan. 7 BCS Championship game at Sun Life Stadium, where a win over Notre Dame would mean nothing less than a third national title in the space of four years and a fourth overall for Saban.
“He (Saban) sets clear expectations,” said Barrett Jones, Alabama’s All-America center. “If you follow them, everything will be fine. If you don’t, he has no problem dismissing you from the organization.”
That approach brought cheers across South Florida when Saban, 61, first trained his laser focus on reviving the Dolphins. Then, after repeated denials that leaving was even a remote possibility, Saban quickly dismissed Miami from his mind with nothing but a 15-17 record to show for his two years as an NFL head coach.
“He’s not the Satan everybody tries to make him out to be,” said former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder, a third-round draft choice of Saban’s in 2005. “My general, every-day answer when people ask me about him is that he is one of the top three college coaches of all time. As a person, I wouldn’t put him that high.
”It’s not that he’s a terrible guy. He cares about football. He cares about his family. He just doesn’t really mix the outside world with football. That’s why he likes college. When he recruited me at LSU, he was coach Saban, national champion. When he got to the NFL, with guys like Jason Taylor and Keith Traylor and Zach Thomas being around 35 years old, he was Nick, just like Jimmy Johnson was Jimmy. Early on, you could see Nick Saban physically cringe when players called him Nick . . . In Birmingham his word is the Bible. In South Florida he was just the next coach of the Miami Dolphins.“
The ultimate authority and eminence of a top college coach is generally unavailable, of course, at the NFL level. It figures, though, that Saban would strive for the level of respect that Bill Belichick has earned in New England, and that he might chafe when it wasn’t always there. Saban calls Belichick ”my old friend and pal,“ having worked for him as the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator from 1991-94.
Will Muschamp at Florida and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State come from the same coaching tree. If you like the way that either of those coaches work at all, you have to appreciate Saban a little. He mentored them at LSU, demanding a great deal from his young assistants and developing a friendship strong enough to survive the occasional blowup.
”Nick’s not worried about perception,“ Muschamp said. ”He’s worried about reality.“
What’s real about Saban are his West Virginia roots. The grandson of a coal miner and the descendant of Croatian immigrants, he pounds away at every problem with an intensity that outlasts and sometimes intimidates others. Alabama coaching legend Paul Bryant, who wrestled a carnival bear as a teenager in return for a handful of pocket change, came from similarly humble beginnings in Arkansas.
”I think Paul Bryant would be totally pleased with Nick Saban and what he’s done with his Alabama heritage,“ said former FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger, who was Bryant’s offensive coordinator on three Alabama national championship teams.
”Irregardless of what the sentiments are here in South Florida, he has to be judged by the content of his actions. He epitomizes college coaching. The kids love him. Their fans love him. His opponents hate him, as well they should. They talk ill of him, as it will be, and they fear him, as it should be.“
Crowder remembers from his Dolphin days that Saban was ”a great halftime adjustment guy. On the football side of him, he was no less than an ‘A-plus-plus.’“
As for the personal side, Saban has more charisma than he’s willing to reveal during all those condescending press conferences.
Former Palm Beach Gardens High School coach Chris Davis tells of a campus visit that Saban once made to see former Gator star Avery Young. On a whim, Davis took a different player to join him in greeting Saban at the school parking lot, understanding full well that this one, a 210-pound offensive lineman, had neither the size nor the skills to get a look at Alabama.
”I told coach Saban, ‘This is another of our players. He wears No. 55,’“ Davis said. ”Saban immediately identified the kid and the position he played, left guard. He said, ‘Yeah, you’re the pulling guard. I love the power play. It’s my favorite play in football. I’ve been watching you pull the whole way over here on my iPad while I was watching Avery.’ The whole way to my office, coach Saban could care less about me. He was talking to this kid. It made him feel like a million bucks.“
Remember that Saban, whose latest contract extension is worth $5.6 million a year, once was an unknown grinder himself as a Kent State defensive back.
Here’s one more story from former Suncoast High School star Pierre Wilson, who played linebacker for Saban at Michigan State in 1999. It illustrates the evolution of Saban’s method in jumping one contract for another, beginning with an earnest effort to communicate and leading to that awkward string of deceptions in Miami.
”It was a shock when he left us, especially coming off the season that we had,“ Wilson said. ”We only lost two games. He pulled us in for a team meeting and shared with us that he really wasn’t considering leaving. Then he brought us back in for a team meeting the next day and said he was going to LSU.
“It was like one of those things breaking up with your girlfriend. It’s tough. His heart was with us. He developed us. I’ve never met somebody as thorough. He never left a stone uncovered. There were no surprises. He prepared us for every situation.”
Right up until those back-to-back and contradictory team meetings, anyway. Good luck preparing for that.
Now the rumor mill has Saban considering a jump back to the NFL and the Browns. It’s always this way because he has made it this way, and because these six years at Alabama represent his longest stretch of coaching anywhere.
That’s part of the buzz when Nick Saban comes to town. He’ll leave when he’s ready, and he’ll make even more noise on the way out.