2018-01-09 11:28:03
On College Football: Why Nick Saban Is the Ultimate Masochist

11:28, January 09 187 0

ATLANTA — Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban’s enduring paradox is that for all his historic accomplishments — six national championships (as many as Bear Bryant), an absurd five in the past nine seasons — he is undeniably a masochist.

Saban should not be a sympathetic figure. He is an extremely demanding boss of unpaid players who makes $7 million a year. He is never the underdog. He wins by brute strength, both literally — those titanic defensive lines — and figuratively, through recruiting, giving himself better teams. One site ranked all of Saban’s losses at Alabama “by how happy they’ve made the world.”

Yet even if you are a fan of one of the great programs that have been felled by Saban’s hand, you might feel bad for him. He of course looked thrilled Monday night right when his team dramatically won it all, beating Georgia in overtime, 26-23, in the national title game. Though as the confetti fell, Saban, surrounded by security and next to the ubiquitous state trooper, looked like a head of state who had just survived an assassination attempt, as he shuffled through the masses to hug his family.

The roots of the pathos? Pure masochism. Saban is a control freak who places himself in charge of unpredictable teenagers. He speaks in an affectless monotone, mournfully crosses his arms and rarely smiles. There is something about the healthily tanned skin and chestnut hair, which make him look at least a decade younger than his 66 years, that makes one wonder about the horrifically aged portrait of him collecting dust in some attic. His world has two outcomes — a championship or a failure. It will be ever thus.

Unlike his old friend, former boss and fellow 60-something Bill Belichick, he is not rumored to be in his last season in his job. He is not going elsewhere. Barring some radical change in his psyche, he probably is not retiring all that soon: He signed a contract extension last year that runs through 2024.

The interesting question about perhaps the greatest college football coach ever is why he keeps subjecting himself to all this.

He has nothing left to prove. He did not before Monday night, and he certainly does not after. No. 4 Alabama sneaked into this College Football Playoff, beat defending champion Clemson — avenging last year’s title game loss — and then, against Georgia, endured a first-half shutout before engineering a magnificent comeback that will be remembered for a single master stroke. In the third quarter, Saban boldly benched starting quarterback Jalen Hurts for a true freshman back-up, Tua Tagovailoa.

If the reason he stays is adherence to his famous Process, which emphasizes doing things the right way over results, then winning games and championships cannot serve as a salve. As Saban said a few years ago, “We don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be.”

At its worst, this philosophy is nihilism. It once reportedly led Saban to complain that a national championship game had “cost me a week of recruiting” — as though the point of recruiting was not to win national championships.

At its best, the philosophy coexists uneasily with gratifying results.

“It’s not just about winning the championship,” he said after Monday’s game, his voice firmly returned to the monotone. “”There’s more to it than that.”

Associate Head Coach Burton Burns, an assistant during Saban’s entire Alabama tenure, had a subtler, more persuasive parsing of the Process.

Defining Saban as “a competitor” rather than a winner, Burns said, “If you compete, the other thing is going to happen.”

Still, Monday night seemed like the worst of competition, competition as a form of addiction, which can be a form of agony. It was more agonizing for Georgia and its fans, of course, but they had no choice; Saban does.

The Crimson Tide had 94 yards and zero first downs in the first half. Saban replaced Hurts with Tagovailoa, inviting armchair coaches over for some sweet tea Tuesday morning. Then Alabama improbably came back somehow in a hostile stadium teeming with Georgians, outscoring the Bulldogs by 20-7 in the second half. But it was hardly preordained or without its agonizing moments. A Tagovailoa interception resulted from the rookie trying to pass when the play-call had been to rush. (Teenagers!!!) Poor clock management nearly scuttled an attempt at a game-winning field goal.

Then, at the entrance to the Holy Gates, with a kick to win the game with three seconds left in regulation, Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos somehow missed a 36-yard chip shot. The penultimate play was a 16-yard sack so frustratingly needless that Saban threw a tantrum. Then came the payoff — the virtuosic 41-yard bomb to win the championship.

Is Saban in as much pain as he appears?

“Well, it is hard,” he acknowledged afterward.

Saban lost last year’s national title game to a much younger protégé, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Monday night he faced the prospect of losing this one to a much younger protégé, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Saban’s former defensive coordinator. Next year he faces the prospect of losing future games to a much younger protégé, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who, as Tennessee’s head coach, will helm a potential power that Alabama plays every season.

Yet this dude abides.

Saban said it is to keep teaching his players.

“The message to the team tonight after this game was, I hope you take something from this game and the resiliency that you showed in this game and it helps you be more successful in life,” he said.

Hurts will have to find another lesson in the experience, but that’s a separate matter. This philosophy — of football, of life — can seem like a low-fat version of Buddhism.

It also recalls Existentialism in a more hopeful variant. The French Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote of Sisyphus, the figure of Greek myth condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down, at which point Sisyphus renews the endeavor, forever. There is absurdity in the task but also, maybe, joy, Camus wrote: “The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing,” Camus wrote, noting, “The rock is still rolling.” (Camus would doubtlessly have said the same of the Tide.)

Sisyphus has a task. He does it, with unimaginable “resiliency.”

Camus concluded: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

One must also imagine Saban happy, without even counting the six times he has rolled the boulder up the mountain and it has stayed put. He also has the multimillion-dollar salary and the sweet Georgia lake house. Beyond that, though, he focuses his energies monomaniacally on doing the thing at which he is the best in the world. If the downside is that he does not get to do it forever or that it has its brutally frustrating moments filled with heartache, well, life is absurd that way.

“The eye of the storm is the calmest place,” said Karl Dunbar, who was on his first Saban staff nearly 20 years ago and is Alabama’s defensive line coach. “You don’t listen to the periphery. You just stay in there and do your job.”

“We’re in the eye of the storm right now,” Dunbar added. “I hope it lasts for another five years.”