Coaches don’t usually, especially the batch who tested positive for coronavirus this season, but on went Saban at age almost 69, three days after testing positive, maybe 16 hours after three negative tests had wiped out that positive: “I gained a lot of respect thinking that I had this, even though we’ve done everything we can to set a good example relative to social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands … I think everybody should have the proper respect [for the virus], ’cause I’m gonna tell you, when they tell you you’ve tested positive, that’s not a good feeling.”
He tacked on a hand to the heart for emphasis.
And through that and his eventual positive test for real in November, which left him homebound for the Iron Bowl, a new phase of his long tenure in public did seem to turn up. From his masks to his words to his words about masks, he steered the statesmanlike path to another College Football Playoff berth while the disruptions made some peers go full banshee.
Florida Coach Dan Mullen, 48, greeted a hard loss to Texas A&M by calling for a full home stadium the ensuing week, an act of obliviousness rash enough to bolster the winking hypothesis that college coaches shouldn’t get voting rights. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, 51, went childlike tantrum on being unable to go outside and play in the yard at Florida State, even when such possibilities and responsibilities always hovered over the misshapen season. Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly, 59, up and suggested a potential boycott of a Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., if players’ parents could not attend, a comment so jarringly in its myopia that it showed how even a mind generally excellent and listenable can go lost.
That October night back in Tuscaloosa, Saban said this: “The norm now is disruption. It’s the norm. It’s gonna happen.”
Now, what’s funny about that is, at the moment the pandemic elbowed spring practice 2020 right off the calendar and down the drains, any brain afflicted with a lifelong invasion of college football might have thought quickly about Saban. How in the world could one of the world’s ultimate practitioners of routine handle such severance from routine? How can one pursue a standard when one can’t even pursue a meeting?
Might he go fundamentally haywire?
Sometimes, he went with humor. From his home office chair in October after the false positive, he said of that day’s practice, “I can tell you we’ve had a lot worse practices when I’ve been there, so maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t there,” his delivery understated enough to achieve mild comic success, especially given a source not prone to such frivolity. When he apologized that Saturday night for failing to provide a pregame injury report, he said, “I was home taking orders, rather than giving orders, so I just kind of messed up on that.”
By November and Iron Bowl week, he looked almost like some sort of wise and amiable uncle when he rocked in that office chair on video and wished everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, encouraged everyone to practice utmost gratefulness and thanked everyone for the well wishes. By December, with the win over Florida in the SEC championship game, he dug out that word “love” and kept saying, “I really love this team.”
“He allowed his inner mensch to emerge,” Ivan Maisel, the estimable writer who has covered Saban since around 1997 at Michigan State, wrote in a text message.
The man who hired him to Alabama an eon ago on Jan. 3, 2007, in those stormy days when Saban left the Miami Dolphins, has watched from (sort of) afar.
“What we saw, from my perspective, has always been there, just not visible,” Robert Witt, the president of Alabama from 2003-12 and chancellor of the Alabama university system from 2012-16, said by telephone from Tuscaloosa. “And it took what our country, the university, and this team is going through to make it visible.”
Witt said, “I was both pleased and impressed, but most definitely not surprised. From the beginning, since 2003 (when Witt became president), when Coach Saban joined the Alabama family (in early 2007), I have not worked with anyone in my career, and that is saying something, because that career is over 50 years in higher education, who genuinely cares more about the people he worked with, than Nick Saban.”
In American psychology, such a thought might gain fuel from five national championships at Alabama (plus another won at LSU), two further runner-up finishes in the playoff and another further final four berth, all of which lend fuel to the number of applications. Coaches with great hearts and gross records have gone unappreciated and then fired. But in Saban’s lengthy case, with its serial snarls and hurled headphones, you’d hear the heart bits either after tragedies (such as the tornado in Tuscaloosa in 2011), or in the hidden stories, like the quarterback from Toledo in Saban’s one season there (1990), who told of walking across campus with Saban while the coach wondered out loud if he committed an unfairness by accepting Bill Belichick’s offer to go coordinate the Cleveland Browns’ defense.
In advance of this Rose Bowl in Texas — yet more freakiness — Saban had quite some answer when ESPN mensch Tom Rinaldi asked the coach for one thing he learned this disruptive year.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to keep everything in some kind of a controlled mechanism that I thought was going to lead to better performance, better production, more consistency, and this year, that hasn’t been possible,” he said. “There was a time, in my career as a coach, I would have never been able to tolerate some of the things we’ve had to go through. So that has made me better, I think.”
Yeah, maybe he had it wrong all along, so wrong they already built a statue of him, standing out there in front of the stadium even on a night when almost nobody came and he wound up telling of fear.