Nick Saban’s assistant coaches don’t always follow him around the country. But the stories do.
Like the one about the secretary who saw him in the hallway and complimented the coach’s haircut, only to be admonished by one of Saban’s henchmen and told, “Don’t talk to the coach. Don’t look at the coach.”
Or the story, verified many times over, about Jeno James, the Miami lineman who was stricken and convulsing before a Dolphins practice. The medical staff placed James in a hallway while an ambulance was called — only to have Saban step over the player’s prone body, without stopping, on his way back to his office.
“The captain of the ship can never show fear or indecision,” Saban reportedly told the team at its next meeting.
He has been described by people who have worked with him as joyless ... detached ... and “the devil himself.” And those are the kinder adjectives.
But judging Saban for his bedside manner misses an essential point. Nick Saban doesn’t hear the criticism or see the critics. Nick Saban, focused only on the game or the practice ahead, doesn’t care.
Saban was asked at Saturday’s Media Day for the College Football Playoff championship game if he ever stopped to reflect on his already distinguished coaching legacy?
After all, he’s already won four national championships and is immortalized by a bronze statue on the Alabama campus.
Saban seemed pained at the question.
“You know, I really don’t,” he said. “Let me try to put it to you this way:
“At the banquet this year, I gave a speech about ‘thank you,’ but there’s a second part to ‘thank you’ that no one ever thinks about. When I was a kid, I was thanking my coach or my teacher or whatever, and my dad was picking me up after practice, and he said, ‘You thanked your coach. That was really nice.
“ ‘But there’s an IOU that goes with every thank you, which is that you owe them your best. You owe your teacher, you owe your coach the best.’
“Well, it’s just the opposite to me in terms of what I said to this team. I thanked them for all their hard work and togetherness in winning the SEC championship. But I owe them. I owe them our best as coaches and people who can support them.
“So I’ve got no time to think about that stuff.”
Saban brings that level of focus to everything he does. Nobody outworks Saban and Alabama at recruiting. Nobody outworks Saban and his staff at game preparation.
The way to beat Alabama, it’s been said, is to deviate from the normal. For everything normal, Saban already has a plan. Auburn was able to upset the Crimson Tide on, of all things, a missed field goal attempt. LSU won at Tuscaloosa in 2011 because the Tide kicker kept missing field goals.
Alabama annually schedules an off week before the LSU game. LSU supporters take that as a compliment.
That may be Clemson’s best chance in Monday night’s championship game. Saban has not had his customary full month to prepare for a postseason opponent.
Plus, in Deshaun Waston, the Tigers have an elusive quarterback who will bolt from the pocket, an X-factor that has occasionally puzzled the Tide’s relentlessly disciplined defense.
Anthony “Booger” McFarland played for LSU against Alabama teams in the 1990s, and now watches Saban closely in his work for the SEC Network.
“It’s the depth,” McFarland said. “Any time you can not only put five-star guys out front, but your second and third guys are also five-star and four-star, you’re not going to fall off as the game goes on.
“They get talent, they recruit talent, and also coach talent up. That’s what has them on top.”
Too much focus. Too many stars. Too many thank-yous to pay back.
Clemson looks to be in for a long night.