Saban’s inability — or is it unwillingness? — to enjoy his success as a normal person would comports with the masochism apparent in his personality. Saban is a control freak who places himself in charge of unpredictable teenagers. He speaks in an affectless monotone, mournfully crosses his arms and rarely smiles. There is something about the healthily tanned skin and chestnut hair, which make him look at least a decade younger than his 66 years, that makes one wonder about the horrifically aged portrait of him collecting dust in some attic. His world has two outcomes — a championship or a failure. It will be ever thus.
Unlike his old friend, former boss and fellow sixtysomething Bill Belichick, he is not rumored to be in his last season in his job. He is not going elsewhere. Barring some radical change in his psyche, he probably is not retiring all that soon: He signed a contract extension last year that runs through 2024.
The interesting question about perhaps the greatest college football coach ever is why he keeps subjecting himself to this.
He has nothing left to prove. He did not before Monday night, and he certainly does not after. No. 4 Alabama sneaked into this College Football Playoff, beat defending champion Clemson — avenging last year’s title game loss — and then, against Georgia, endured a first-half shutout before engineering a magnificent comeback. The game will be remembered for a single master stroke: Saban boldly benching the starting quarterback Jalen Hurts for a true freshman backup, Tua Tagovailoa, after halftime.
If the reason Saban stays is adherence to his famous Process, which emphasizes doing things the right way over results, then winning games and championships cannot serve as a salve. As Saban said a few years ago, “We don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be.”
At its worst, this philosophy is nihilism. It once reportedly led Saban to complain that a national championship game had “cost me a week of recruiting” — as though the point of recruiting was not to win national championships.
At its best, the philosophy coexists uneasily with gratifying results.
“It’s not just about winning the championship,” he said after Monday’s game, his voice firmly returned to the monotone. “There’s more to it than that.”
Credit Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Associate Head Coach Burton Burns, an assistant during Saban’s entire Alabama tenure, had a subtler, more persuasive parsing of the Process.
Burns defined Saban as “a competitor” rather than a winner. “If you compete,” Burns said, “the other thing is going to happen.”
Still, Monday night seemed like the worst of competition, competition as a form of addiction. It was more agonizing for Georgia and its fans, of course, but they had no choice; Saban does.
The Crimson Tide had 94 yards in the first half. Saban replaced Hurts, his two-year starter, with Tagovailoa, inviting armchair coaches over for some sweet tea Tuesday morning. Alabama came back somehow in a stadium teeming with hostile Georgians. The Crimson Tide outscored the Bulldogs by 20-7 in the second half, despite a Tagovailoa interception that came about when the rookie tried to pass when the play-call had been to rush (teenagers!). In the waning moments, poor clock management nearly scuttled an attempt at a game-winning field goal.
And then, of course, Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos missed the field goal, a 36-yard chip shot, anyway. The penultimate play was a 16-yard sack so frustratingly needless that Saban threw a tantrum. Only after the payoff — the virtuosic 41-yard bomb to win the championship — did Saban celebrate.
Is Saban in as much pain as he appears?
“Well, it is hard,” he acknowledged afterward.
Saban lost last year’s national title game to a much younger protégé, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Monday night he almost lost this one to a much younger protégé, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Saban’s former defensive coordinator. Next year he may begin losing games to a much younger protégé, the defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who as Tennessee’s head coach will helm a potential power that Alabama plays every season.
Yet this dude abides.
Saban said it is to keep teaching his players.
“The message to the team tonight after this game was, I hope you take something from this game and the resiliency that you showed in this game and it helps you be more successful in life,” he said.
Hurts will have to find another lesson in the experience, but that’s a separate matter. This philosophy — of football, of life — can seem like a low-fat version of Buddhism.
But it also recalls Existentialism in a more hopeful variant. The French Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote of Sisyphus, the figure of Greek myth condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down, at which point Sisyphus renews the endeavor, forever. There is absurdity in the task but also, maybe, joy, Camus wrote: “The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing,” Camus wrote, noting, “The rock is still rolling.” (Camus would doubtlessly have said the same of the Tide.)
Sisyphus has a task. He does it, with unimaginable “resiliency.” Camus concluded: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
One must also imagine Saban happy, without even counting the six times he has rolled the boulder up the mountain and it has stayed put. He also has the multimillion-dollar salary and the sweet lake house. Beyond that, he focuses his energies monomaniacally on doing the thing at which he is the best in the world — something that would remain true even had Alabama come up short Monday. If the downside is that he does not get to do it forever and that it is painful, well, life is absurd that way.
“The eye of the storm is the calmest place,” said Karl Dunbar, who was on his first Saban staff nearly 20 years ago and is Alabama’s defensive line coach. “You don’t listen to the periphery. You just stay in there and do your job.”
“We’re in the eye of the storm right now,” Dunbar added. “I hope it lasts for another five years.”