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‘Nothing better than watching Alabama lose’: Why millions rejoiced at coach Nick Saban’s loss to Clemson

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban after the game against the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship in Tampa on Monday. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

“America needed this,” read one tweet. “America needed Nick Saban to suffer tonight.”

The tweet came on the heels of Clemson University’s stunning victory over the University of Alabama in Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship game. For the uninitiated, Saban is the head coach of Alabama’s football team.

That tweet might seem like the unsportsmanlike gloating of a random Clemson (or perhaps LSU, Ole Miss or Florida) fan, but a quick scan of social media showed what we already knew — everyone except a few Alabama fans love to see Saban’s Alabama lose, an admittedly rare occurrence.

The tweets aren’t particularly surprising. After all, just Google “Why do people hate Nick Saban?” and the search engine returns almost 3 million results. Sports Illustrated once named Saban one of the most disliked figures in sports, alongside former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

And in this case, the coach and team are inseparable. That particular combination even has its own Wikipedia page.

The hatred for Saban’s Alabama originated with LSU fans in the swampy bayous of Southern Louisiana.

After taking a head coaching job at Louisiana State University and leading the team to its first national title in 45 long years, he quit to take a higher-paying, higher-profile job coaching the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

Oh yeah, and he announced that decision on Christmas Day 2004.

(It likely didn’t help matters that once, while speaking to reporters off the record, Saban used the word “coon-a‑‑” while relaying a story a friend told him. It turns out the conversation was recorded and later played on the radio. The term is an ethnic slur referring to Cajun people, likely deriving from the French insult conasse.)

Then, he left the Dolphins job — after publicly stating several times that he wasn’t going to become the head coach of Alabama — to become just that, the head coach of Alabama, LSU’s archrival.

As Wright Thompson wrote for ESPN, “LSU fans hate Saban more than store-bought jambalaya, more than FEMA, more than Yankees who confuse Creole with Cajun.”

South Carolina fans were jubilant on Jan. 9, when Clemson University defeated University of Alabama to win the College Football Playoff national championship. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

After he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he transformed a slightly average SEC team into a college football powerhouse. And with Alabama, he just kept winning.

That might sound like a success story, the stuff of hero worship. But LSU fans felt abandoned and betrayed, and their hatred for the man — and now their seemingly unstoppable rivals — only grew.

As Saban’s Alabama racked up four national championships and more than 100 wins during his 10 years coaching the team, much of the rest of the college football universe began to share these feelings.

As Sports Illustrated wrote, it wasn’t just that Saban wins games, it was that “Saban wins football games — and doesn’t seem to care what anyone else thinks.”

Because for all that winning, Saban never appeared too pleased about it.

As written in Quartz, Saban once complained “that the hoopla surrounding the national championships game gets in the way of recruiting.”

BuzzFeed once wrote: “The man doesn’t know how to feel happiness…. Has there ever been a championship-winning coach that enjoyed Gatorade baths less than Nick Saban?”

Saban, you see, doesn’t smile.

So much so that commenting on it has become an Internet meme. When the Miami Herald’s Greg Cote witnessed the man smile, he wrote of the moment, “There was a rusty creaking sound, an emission of hell’s gasses and then the release of screeching bats as Saban’s lips parted.”

He has no obligation to smile, of course.

But as the New Yorker wrote: “Charisma-wise, he is a void…. [He has] the public image of Satan’s dentist.”

Where other coaches give effusive, emotional or off-the-wall news conferences, the tight-lipped Saban keeps his cool so chilly, it comes off as icy.

More than that, he never gave fans any quirks to love — either personally or with his football team.

In an age where college football coaches are almost expected to be characters — take former LSU coach Les Miles’s odd behavior, such as eating grass from the field itself — Saban refused to play the game.

The quirks and heart of Les Miles, the recently fired, grass-eating former LSU football coach

One of the most telling examples came from a 2012 Fortune profile of Saban, which stated, “Every day, Saban sits at this very table and works through his lunch hour while eating the same exact meal: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing.”

Meanwhile, his football team always felt like a machine. Well-oiled and successful but, as SB Nation put it, “too perfect to enjoy.” And as BuzzFeed noted: “Alabama has one of the most boring and predictable offenses in the country. They’re going to run the ball and you aren’t going to be able to stop it.”

Machines are effective and incredibly useful, but no one wants to watch one for three hours each Saturday. When you already know the outcome of a game, a great deal of tension is sucked out of the proceedings — a lesson learned from the 27-championship-winning (and oft-despised) New York Yankees.

With the New York Yankees, people hated the brutal machine created by the combination of a team that seemed unbeatable led by an owner many didn’t care for. As Bleacher Report wrote: “As much as Yankee haters dislike the team itself, the man formerly in charge was despised even more…. George Steinbrenner [spent] as much money as it took to win.”

People often hate the best.

Of course, therein lies the real reason most people hate Saban’s Alabama football team — despite Monday’s loss, they’re easily the best team in the business (Writer’s note: Typing that sentence felt like ice picks under the fingernails for this reporter, an LSU fan).

In sports, fans often love to see a winner lose. There’s great satisfaction in watching the team on top tumble. And on Monday, that’s exactly what happened. An underdog came out of nowhere and disrupted the status quo.

And people couldn’t be happier.

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