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Nick Saban remains the greatest mystery in sports

  • 3 min to read
Thousands party in streets after Alabama win, despite virus

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood hold the trophy after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama won 52-24.

There was a time I’d read most of the books John Feinstein had written. Since, time has gotten away.

Look him up if you need to, though one title may jog the memory.

Feinstein wrote “A Season on the Brink,” a tale of one year spent deep inside coach Bob Knight’s Indiana basketball program.

Though he let him in, Knight was not pleased by Feinstein’s work, but to read it was to be riveted, understanding one of the oddest ducks in sports history.

Five years earlier, 1981, for Sports Illustrated, the great Frank Deford profiled Knight in a piece called “The Rabbit Hunter.”

It was amazing, too, but I missed it at the time, getting to it maybe 20 years later, about the time Knight got to Texas Tech.

Well, Deford has passed, Knight’s no longer on the scene, but Feinstein’s still going strong and he must spend a year inside Alabama football.

He has to because we need to definitively understand Nick Saban's genius before he exits the game and Feinstein’s the author to do it.

He spent a year inside the Army-Navy rivalry (“A Civil War”), a year inside the tennis tours (“Hard Courts”), a year inside the PGA Tour (‘A Good Walk Spoiled") and a bunch of other athletic milieues, but now he must spend a year beside and around Saban, because somebody has to make sense of the man.

I’ve been in the room with Saban a couple of times, in day-before-the-bowl-game press conferences, and there’s something unreal about him. He speaks with his hands, but his shoulders don’t move. He answers questions, but it’s like some internal button’s been pushed and his lips begin moving, independent of the rest of him.

You’ve seen him in his AFLAC commercials? Pretty much exactly like that.

Indeed, Saban showed more life playing himself in “The Blind Side” than being himself the couple of times I was there to watch.

So we need the finest sports author of our time on the case.

Otherwise, we’ll never approach understanding the greatest college football coach the sport has ever known … and I can’t tell you how much it pains me to write those words.

Saban doesn’t appear to be an X’s and O’s savant. He actually appears to put complete faith in his coordinators.

Watching him on the sideline, there’s nothing about him that appears wholly unique. He doesn’t get rattled, but lots of coaches don't get rattled.

He would appear to be the best recruiter in the nation, though he’s now reached a point where his sales success feeds on itself, the Crimson Tide reaping an annual embarrassment of riches, typified this season by its claiming the best receiver, quarterback, running back, center and interior lineman in the nation if you’re willing to go along the committees that select the Biletnikoff, Davey O’Brien, Doak Walker, Remington and Outland trophies and awards.

Sure, Alabama develops players, but Saban lands more five-star athletes than anybody, like he’s Geno Auriemma, coaching the Connecticut women.

He wasn’t always the greatest college football coach alive.

From 1995 to 1999, Saban had yet to reach genius level, going 34-24 over five seasons at Michigan State. But he went 9-2 the last one, convinced LSU to hire him and split before the Spartans won their bowl game without him.

He wasn’t otherworldly at LSU either.

He beat the Oklahoma juggernaut for the 2003 national championship, yet in the three seasons that preceded it and the one that followed, he went 35-15.

Yet, put Bear Bryant’s ghost on his side, match him with maybe the nation’s most historic program and certainly the South’s, and he’s John Wooden in Westwood, only in Tuscaloosa on a gridiron.

There are coaches who do more with less and there are coaches who do more with more, yet Saban lives on an island of his own making, doing the most with the most.

The one time he sought to see what he could do with players somebody else picked for him, he went 15-17 over two Miami Dolphin seasons. Not that anybody remembers Saban as a mere mortal any more.

If I had one game to win, he’s not my coach. Give me an offensive guru, a master of adjustments, give me nimble rather than resolute. Give me Bill Walsh or Mike Leach or Lincoln Riley.

But a monster waiting to be fed as it was once fed again? A Southern Cal, a Penn State, a Miami, a Florida State, a Michigan, a Nebraska, a Texas?

The best guy for all of those jobs already has Alabama's.

How he does it, I can’t begin to tell you. Somebody should write a book about it. I think I know who it should be.

Clay Horning

405 366-3526

Follow me @clayhorning

cfhorning@normantranscript.com

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