The College Belichick

Fans of NFL teams without a head coach sat through the national title game dreaming of Nick Saban running their team.  Imagine him in Cleveland.  Or Philadelphia.  San Diego and Saban is a match I don’t think the human mind can truly process.   

From the outside, it would seem there is no real reason for Saban to stay at Alabama.  He won a title at LSU.  He’s won 3 in 4 years with the Tide.  The down year was a 10-3 season where the Tide had to settle for a New Year’s Day game.  Bama has put out big time NFL players.  The school hasn’t had any major investigations or issues in recent years.  Saban could leave proud of his record and knowing that the program is loaded with enough talent to win for the next few years.

There is one huge mistake that most people make in looking at Saban.  They think of him as an NFL guy because of his time with Bill Belichick and the Cleveland Browns, and then because Saban did leave LSU to coach the Miami Dolphins for 2 years.

Saban is a college football guy.  He spent 16 years as a college assistant before moving to the NFL.  He was then the Oilers DBs coach for 2 years.  Nick left there to be the head coach at Toledo.  That lasted one season and then he joined Belichick as DC in Cleveland.  Nick held that post for 4 seasons.

From 1995-2004 Saban was the HC at Michigan State and LSU.  He left for the Dolphins for 2 seasons and then headed to Bama.  He has 41 seasons of coaching experience…8 of them are in the NFL.  Saban is a college coach.

Saban is compared to his former boss and friend Bill Belichick all the time.  The comparison works on a lot of levels, but there is one huge difference.  Belichick hasn’t coached college football for one second.  He is all NFL.  That’s all he knows.

Would Saban want to go to the NFL now?  What is there left to prove at Alabama?  The first thing you need to know is that Saban has plenty left to accomplish at Bama, in his mind.  The 2012 team won a title, but the 2013 team hasn’t done anything.  Saban said in a recent interview that he would probably celebrate the bowl win for 48 hours before moving on to the new season.  That’s the way he’s wired.

Fans see the titles and accomplishments and just get overwhelmed.  Saban lives in the moment.  The title won’t mean much to him when he starts with recruiting later in the week.  That kind of laser-like focus is what makes him so great at what he does.  It also probably makes him a tough person to be around.  He’s the Gordon Gekko of college football.  Gekko didn’t have a monetary amount that would satisfy him.  The minute one deal was done, he was onto the next.  More, more, more.  That’s Saban and winning.  Who do we play next?

I also think people need to realize that Saban doesn’t coach against LSU or Auburn or Florida.  He coaches against perfection.  Who cares if you beat Western Carolina by 50 points if you played sloppy.  Winning isn’t enough.  Playing the perfect game is the true goal.  While Saban has the 3 titles at Bama, he’s only got one undefeated season, 2009. Even then, Bama played some sloppy games and you can bet those performances eat at him.

Like most coaches, Saban likes the wins, but is devastated by losses.  That mentality works better in college, where the team plays fewer games and an elite program like Alabama will lose a whopping 3 games in down season.  In the NFL, the best team will normally lose 2 or 3 games.  In a down season, you might only win a few games.

I wonder if Saban has the self-awareness to know that he’s better suited for the college game.  I certainly hope he does.  I have doubts about how well he would last in the NFL.  He led Miami to a 9-7 record in 2005.  They slumped to 6-10 the next year and he left for the Alabama job.  Did the losing get to him that much?  Did he simply see that the NFL was going to be a miserable existence for him?

Saban is an X’s and O’s guy.  He loves to gameplan.  He loves to scheme.  It is hard for an NFL coach to focus on just that side of things because of all the administrative duties there are.  Saban hired Scott O’Brien to be his assistant in Miami and take care of as many administrative tasks as he could.  One of O’Brien’s duties was to devise a seating chart for airplane trips.  Saban wanted the players to sit in certain seats and had O’Brien work that out.  That level of detail seems a tad insane.

Saban knew tasks like that had to be done, but wanted no part of them.  He wanted to focus on football.  Unfortunately coaches in today’s world have to balance being a corporate guy, an administrator, and an actual football coach.

The downside to college is recruiting.  Most NFL guys don’t want to go to college and have to beg some kid to come play for them.  Saban is a great recruiter.  In The Blind Side there is story about him recruiting Michael Oher.  Saban went to the house and struck up a conversation with Oher’s mom about her drapes.  The mother was blown away by the depth of Saban’s comments on the furnishings.  There was no secret research.  Saban is one of those guys who can walk into a house and figure an angle to sell the kid and the parent about his school.

With Saban’s ability to recruit players, his ability to scheme, and his ability to develop talent, Alabama could turn into a historic type of powerhouse.  I think the lure of that will play a huge part in him staying put.

Can Saban succeed in the NFL?  Yes, but it isn’t as easy as you think.  Saban loves to get with players one-on-one and teach them about every little facet of the game.  It’s harder to do that in the NFL.  As the HC, you just don’t have as much time to be hands on with each guy.

Saban is able to be dictatorial in college.  He can rule with an iron fist.  It is his way or the highway.  He’s got so much depth that you have to fall in line.  You can threaten to leave, but he’s not scared of that.  Things are different in the NFL.  Players can’t automatically be cut or traded if they don’t listen.  You are dealing with millionaires that have a sense of entitlement.

Watch an Alabama game.  You don’t see a bunch of knucklehead antics.  Players are business-like.  In the title game, the C and QB got into a shoving match while up 28 points with 6 minutes left.  They were arguing over making the right adjustments and getting the ball snapped.  Saban has those guys wired so tight that they are intense with each other.  Now think about an NFL game where you saw a couple of guys on the sideline laughing while down 21 points.  Saban can control college kids.  NFL players are a whole other story.

Saban has the potential to be a great NFL coach because of his football mind and ability to organize and lead a team.  He doesn’t win in college due to scheme.  His team beats yours because they are more talented, more driven, and better prepared.

Those qualities can work in the NFL, but Saban’s personality may not.  He would have to fully embrace the challenge of the NFL and turn his wandering eyes away from college football, something he truly loves.  Saban would have to figure a way to deal with NFL players and keep them motivated, while not coming across as an over-bearing control freak.  Saban would also have to deal with the fact that losing is part of life in the NFL.  There are 4 preseason games, 16 regular season games, and as many as 4 playoff games.  There is simply no way to avoid losing several games a year.  Saban would have to make peace with this and learn not to die as much with each loss.

Part of me would love to see Saban come back to the NFL to see just what he could do, but I don’t know that he would be a special coach.  In college, he is on the verge of becoming an all-time legend, if he’s not already there.  Stay in school, Coach Saban.  It’s where you belong.

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5 Responses to The College Belichick

  1. Dan in Philly says:

    Well said, you know your Saban.

    As for what he has to prove at Alabama, remember he still has a ways to go to be considered the best coach in his own school’s history, and he’s only arguably the second best coach at the school (the great Wallace Wade might be #2 if Saban left now). If he’s looking for motivation, he can look at the name on the field his kids play on every Saturday.

    Your point about winning and losing is well made. Though being a college coach is very consuming, it’s not as hard as being a pro coach, ask Steve Spurier if you don’t believe me. In college you have 4 to 6 games a year you might conceivably win at a school like Alabama (or Oregon if you wonder why Chip Kelly might have wanted to stay). Focus on those games and you can almost let your assistants coach the others and watch cartoons on Saturdays and your team will still win. The NFL, not so much.

    • Tommy Lawlor says:

      College coaches aren’t on 24/7/365. Saban is on pretty close to that, but still has a much easier life than any NFL coach. Those guys are always grinding.

  2. Dan in Philly says:

    4-6 games you might conceivable LOSE, I meant to type.

  3. NFLGimpy says:

    I think Saban’s pursuit of perfection is what could lead him to the NFL. Simply being the best college HC might not be enough for his ego. The list of coaches with a NC and Super Bowl is only comprised of Cowboys coaches. Jimmy Johnson had 1 NC and 2 SBs. Barry Switzer has 3 NCs and 1 SB. Perhaps the chance of being the only coach to win multiple SBs and NCs is too much to pass up.

    He has nothing to lose really. If he fails in the NFL, there will be 100+ college teams knocking on his door to take over their program. He has the formula to win at college pretty much perfected. Ego is a powerful thing. Given that I’m a 6’4 male model who has turned down a career in the NFL to pursue a cure for cancer, I understand the power of how much an ego can drive you. Being an NFL superstar and model wasn’t enough, I have to do the impossible.

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