Column: Saban restless in a way rest of us are not
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — At some point, all that success should have brought real joy, or at the very least, some satisfaction. Instead, it's only made Nick Saban chase each win more relentlessly than the last.
On the eve of Alabama's pursuit of its third BCS crown in the last four years, more than a few people wondered whether Saban might open up, the way Urban Meyer did while still coaching at Florida a while back, the way plenty of his predecessors have when their legacy, like Saban's, was secured. Saban did — just not the way most expected.
He began with a story about inheriting his uncompromising work ethic from a father that he and everyone else in their tucked-away corner of West Virginia always called "Big Nick."
"There was a bum that used to come to my dad's service station early in the morning because he'd give him free coffee and doughnuts," Saban said. "We had had a tough game the night before, I don't remember whether it was basketball game, a football game or whatever. The guy was giving me a hard time and I sort of sassed him. I was 17 years old. I got the strap right on the spot.
"It was the right thing," he added quickly. "I needed to learn a lesson. I was disrespectful to an older person, regardless of the situation."
Saban rarely comes off as a man who speaks from the heart. More often, he sounds like someone cobbling together bits and pieces culled from a shelf's worth of books on motivational speaking, which Saban, not surprisingly, has turned into a lucrative second career. Maybe that's what made that story he told about his father seem even more revealing when the subject came up a day later.
This time, the lesson was not about respect, but about always striving for "a standard of excellence, a perfection." Saban recalled being 11 years old, already working at that same service station by then. His responsibilities ran from pumping gas and collecting the cash to checking the oil and tires, and finally, washing the cars with great care.
"I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out. And if there were any streaks when he came," he paused, referring to "Big Nick" once more, "you had to do it over."
Sports is hardly the only place where the father-son dynamic ignites a spark of ambition that grows and grows until it becomes a consuming flame. And there are men like Saban at the top of every profession. They clamber up the ladder without regard for the consequences, treating each job like an audition for the next one. His story is especially instructive that way.
Saban played defensive back at Kent State, despite standing only 5-foot-6, and the determination he showed won him a job as a graduate assistant there in 1972. Next came a half-dozen more stops as an assistant — including a season with the NFL's Houston Oilers — before Saban landed his first head-coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He brought the school a Mid-American Conference title in his one and only season there, bailing out to take a job as defensive coordinator with the NFL's Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick.
In the ensuing 15 years, Saban burned through three more jobs, each one good enough to be considered a "destination" among his peers — first at Michigan State, then at LSU, where he won his first national title, and finally with the Miami Dolphins. Instead of feeling like he'd arrived, Saban remained restless in a way the rest of us are not. After two years, including his first losing season as a head coach, he flat-out denied he was leaving for the vacant job at Alabama — and then lit out for Tuscaloosa in 2007, anyway.
Saban is still there six seasons later, longer than his tenure lasted anywhere else. He's been so successful that he not only owns the town and the state; he's even won over those fans and alumni who once insisted once that no coach deserved the Crimson Tide job without some connection to the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant. Some of the most stubborn hold-outs now even use the "D-word (dynasty)" to describe what Saban has accomplished there.
In the meantime, he sunk roots in the community, including relocating the "Nick's Kids Fund" charity he and wife Terry set up more than a decade ago. It's actually named for "Big Nick," the blue-collar taskmaster and former Pop Warner League who taught his son never to take on a job unless he intended to do it right.
Whether Saban has learned that lesson might be open to debate, though measured strictly by his winning percentage, he's certainly done right by nearly every team that hired him. The only remorse Saban feels when he remembers the debt he owed "Big Nick" is that he didn't figure it out sooner.
"Probably when I was a senior in college, that's probably when I realized it," he said. "And my first year of graduate school was when he passed away. I never really ever told him," he said, "which I regret."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.