An anecdote early into Monte Burke’s Saban illuminates “Big Nick,” the father of the Alabama head football coach who organized and coached a Pop Warner football team in Fairmont, West Virginia. “Big Nick treated the boys to ice cream at his Dairy Queen after some wins,” writes Burke, “but not all of them.” When he wasn’t satisfied with the way the kids played, even when they won the game, “they didn’t get ice cream.” (p. 23)
The Sabans weren’t poor; Big Nick worked tirelessly at a gas station while his wife Mary and daughter Dianna held down the Dairy Queen. A child of the Great Depression, he never stopped reminding his son how easily he could slip from working class status if he didn’t get an education.
In the eighth grade, the shy and introverted boy wouldn’t sing in music class. His dad took him into a coal mine 550 feet underground. “If you don’t do better in school … this is where you will end up.” Saban, says Burke, “started to sing in music class.” (p. 24)
A friend remembers Nick “was never a kid. He was an adult when we were ten. I don’t recall him ever laughing or smiling.” (p. 24) Football was a safety net, and he stood out on the integrated West Virginia high school and college teams of the early 70s for being totally at ease with black players.
The most fascinating parts of Burke’s exhilarating biography detail Saban’s often-grueling climb through the ranks of high school, college and pro football to become the Bear Bryant of the 21st century (one national championship at LSU, three more at Alabama). He had few close friends outside of football; one of the closest being New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick who, like Saban, is of Croatian descent.
From his earliest days in coaching, a pattern emerged: Saban would aim for the best attainable job, attain it, achieve success, and then, driven by fits of anxiety, look to what he thought was a better job. Then he had fits of anxiety about leaving.
When he’d win – which was often – Saban would sink into a depression. After winning the national title at LSU in 2003 he called a friend and asked, “Why don’t I feel happy?” (p, 179)
In his own book, How Good Do You Want To Be?, the son of Big Nick wrote, “Believe it or not, some people are not wired to accept success. They really don’t enjoy it; they are more content going back to work than reveling in success. I guess I am one of those people.” (p. 189)
Winning may not make Nick Saban happy, but there are some fascinating moments in Saban when the coach enjoys the job. Before one big game, he “was cajoled into a dance-off with some of his players and did a reasonable impersonation of James Brown. ‘We’d never really seen him loosen up like that,’ said a player.’” (p. 176)
More than winning, Saban finds satisfaction helping former players and assistants who have fallen on hard times. All-America Rolando McClain was arrested three times while playing for the Oakland Raiders and retired from football at the age of 23. He called his old coach back in Tuscaloosa and went to seek his counsel; Saban helped him get his head on straight and get a contract with the Dallas Cowboys. Last season, McClain finished second in voting for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Happily for Alabama fans, Saban, thanks largely to his personable and energetic wife Terry, seems content at last. Still, Burke can’t help but wonder what if Saban had become, say, “the head of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center or had been put in charge of the rebuilding of the city of Detroit? Saban’s style surely wouldn’t have worked for everyone. What about the results?” (p. 290)
Though he’s currently the highest paid coach in college football, a University of Alabama trustee says, “I think Nick is actually way underpaid.” Burke concludes, “Given what he brings to the university in terms of money and prestige – and the incredible pressure he faces year in and year out – [the trustee] is probably right.” (p. 309)
Saban: The Making of A Coach, by Monte Burke, Simon and Schuster, 341 pages, $27.00