Saban Still Has The “Fire in the Belly” to Keep on Winning Into The Next Decade
By: Larry Burton
His hair is getting thinner and in reality, it’s been white since his time at Michigan State. But hey, so has my beard been for years, but like Nick, a little dye will fix that. But Nick Saban isn’t your typical 66 year old man either. He can still run to keep up folks on the field, he can still throw a nice fade route and probably still wear blue jeans that have been hanging in his closet for 20 years. I’m just 61 and can’t do any of those things.
But it’s not the fact that Nick keeps himself in great physical condition, what’s astounding is that he still has what Alabama’s other famous coach once called the most important thing you can have as both a player and a coach, that “Fire in the belly.”
If any coach has ever earned the right to rest a little on their laurels, Saban has. But it’s not his style and it’s not the way he was raised. Nick was raised by a father he admired and revered who taught him to always do his very best in every task you do. It’s not only a lesson that Saban has passed down to countless players, it’s still the mantra he lives by himself.
Now at an age when opposing coaches want to paint a portrait of circling vultures on Saban’s career, there seems to be no end to both his desire to continue and his desire to keep winning. He still has seven more years on his contract that goes through 2025. That will put him at 73, at least in calendar years.
I talked to Nick Saban about an imaginary time table a few years back and I’ve read him repeat the same statements he gave me then when others since have asked the same questions. “I want to continue coaching as long as I’m still having fun doing it and as long as I’m still having success. I don’t know what else I would do. But I plan on retiring here. This is the last stop. From here, we go to Lake Burton.” Saban said. But a bit later when someone else asked a retirement type question, Saban let it be known that the decision wasn’t all his. “Well yes, there is Miss Terry and she does have a say in all this, but I don’t think she wants me home all the time, so we’re good.” he said with a smile.
He grinned when I told him to watch him on the sideline, it’s hard to tell you’re still having fun. He explained that the real fun wasn’t on game day, but on the practice field seeing the players learn and make progress. Deep inside Saban, there burn a fire as hot as just the coaching fire, it’s the fire to help take young boys and make them better men. Saban has never judged his success by wins and losses alone, but in the impact he’s had on boys who became great men, not just great football players. Just as his father had a profound effect on everything he still does today, Saban wants to have that impact on the men that under his responsibility.
From watching him over the years, it’s been interesting watching him learn and make progress too. He’s a far cry from the Nick Saban that won the 2009 National Championship. That was a coach who believed in winning with a smothering defense and running a pro set offense that didn’t lose them any games. Remember the phrase his quarterbacks were labeled with? Game managers was what they were called and they all hated that, but it pretty much accurately summed it up. Then Saban hired controversial Lane Kiffin to drag him and Alabama into the “up tempo” and read / pass / option offense. He learned and changed and just like his players, progressed. He’s learned to win a track meet too now.
In the current world of college coaches, there may be some out there than can beat Saban on a 40 yard dash, but none that I’ve seen can outwork or out coach the man. Also keep in mind that no other SEC team has the same coach they did since the day Saban took the reigns at Alabama in 2007, so he is the longest lasting head coach at one school in the conference is the dean of SEC coaches.
This spring at the SEC meeting in Destin, former Saban assistant and now Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said, when asked about how long Saban may coach, told reporters, “That’s up to Nick. I think Nick’s in great health. I played pick-up basketball with him for 20 years, it felt like. He takes care of himself. He plays a lot of golf. He’s very healthy. When people ask me that question, I think he’s going to coach as long as he wants to because he’s competitive, he doesn’t want to do anything else and he’s good at what he does. If a kid asks me that, I’m like, ‘He may coach forever because he may out-live me the way he takes care of his body. I think that’s to each his own.” Smart said.
Other reporters that have asked Saban about how much more gas he has in tank come away with the idea that he’s nowhere near done. It’s not that Saban can’t find anything else to do. He does own his Mercedes dealerships and if he wanted, would be snapped up by any network he may choose to do college gameday analysis. It’s not that doesn’t have options, it’s just that he is doing what he truly loves. He once told a group of reporters where I was present that, “I’ve been part of a team since I was a young boy and I can’t imagine my life without that.”
When you watch Saban on the sideline, you can tell he’s just as actively engaged as he ever was, that “stare and glare” he gives players who make mistakes is just as intense and the grief he gives officials is just as quick and explosive as ever if he disagrees with their calls. So if any part of Saban is showing it’s age, it’s not in any part that matters.
This is all good news for Alabama fans, none of whom are ready for the end of the Saban era, so at least for a few more years, they’ll all grow a little older together.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter