Alabama’s longtime football coach won more national championships than anyone in modern history and helped change the image of the state.
Throughout a national era of disillusionment, institutional failure and turmoil, Alabama football, of all things, has been a machine of astonishing consistency, humming for nearly two decades at peak performance.
On a flinty gospel of hard work and discipline, Nick Saban, who took over as head football coach of the University of Alabama in 2007, ran up a catalog of accomplishments that Alabama fans will rattle off at the slightest prompting: a record seven national championships — six of them at Alabama after one at Louisiana State University — a record 15 straight seasons during which the team was ranked No. 1 at some point, a record 44 Alabama players picked in the first round of the N.F.L. draft.
Saban was at times the highest paid public employee in the entire country, a striking illustration of our national priorities, particularly in a state as poor as Alabama. But his successes on the field helped change how people thought about the state and the university.
In the late 1990s, when Alabama football was an afterthought, if the state showed in the news it was not usually for good reason, recalled Chris England, now a state lawmaker who represents part of Tuscaloosa. When he told his classmates at Howard University in Washington, D.C., that he was from Alabama, he said, they would respond, “Wow, how do you live there?”
It isn’t like that anymore.
“A few years ago I was in Turkey and I was in the middle of a hotel lobby and had an Alabama shirt on, and people started screaming ‘Roll Tide!’” England recalled. “It has changed the reaction.”
Seeing Alabama in a national headline often brought a shudder of dread, like watching a drunk relative stand up for a wedding toast.
But one could simply turned to the sports pages. Here, next to photos of Saban pacing the sideline in dyspeptic determination, Alabama was a byword for discipline and achievement.
This had been the case decades before, when Paul “Bear” Bryant was the Alabama coach and seemed at the time to be setting an impossible standard. But Saban not only matched — and surpassed — Bryant’s achievements, he also brought a philosophical worldview that became as much a part of the program’s identity as its on-field success.
Saban espoused what he called “the process,” insisting that players focus entirely on what was required of them on each play rather than whatever was on the scoreboard. He preached a restless perfectionism and a deep allergy to praise, which he called “rat poison.”
It was out of step with the direction of college football and the broader culture, and grew more so. With his permanent grimace and disinclination to discuss much of anything beyond play schemes and player development, Saban was almost the antithesis of camera-ready. But how we loved watching.
Saban adapted, grudgingly but with incredible success, to the changing pace of college football, eventually recruiting some of the sport’s most dynamic quarterbacks. But the true Saban aficionados knew him as the avatar of what was often called “joyless murderball” — steady, unexciting but inexorable conquest.
That is not how politics have been typically done in Alabama, where the approach has usually been big on defiance, less so on the details. Consider Saban’s former intrastate foe, Tommy Tuberville, the one-time coach at Auburn University who’s now a Republican U.S. senator mostly known for his showy blockade of hundreds of military promotions.
Saban has never been described as showy. He had one job, focused on it relentlessly and succeeded at it far beyond what Alabama fans could have ever dreamed. He did it so consistently and for so long, said England, the state lawmaker, that fans coming of age in Alabama had no other experience to compare it to.
“Only thing he knows is we’re the best and we have been forever,” England said of his own 14-year-old son, nervously anticipating what lies ahead. “He never knew what it was like to be awful.”