Nick Saban, the greatest college football coach since Bear Bryant, or maybe even before, turned 65 on Monday.
All the other SEC coaches, we hear, sent him an "Unhappy birthday" card.
Don’t even think of trying to celebrate, or baking him a cake, as Saban prepares for another monumental game at Louisiana State.
Truth is, almost all Alabama games with Saban have been important. Since 2008, only three in which he's coached have not had national title implications.
Think about that, but don’t dwell on it to the point it distracts from the next important task at hand.
Saban said he received only one birthday gift, “one of those things where you push the button and it says 'that’s bull-bleep.' That’s the only one I got, so I don’t know if someone’s trying to tell me something or not.”
Oh, someone’s trying to tell you something.
Someone who worked for Saban once told me he had a rule that you could not talk to him directly once the season started. You could speak to him only if he has addressed you.
Now that’s focus, or whatever you want to call it.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
It’s not true that Saban refuses to relax. He loves playing golf at his summer get-away on the lake in Georgia.
But it’s not your usual golf.
Saban plays fast. VERY fast. And if you dare to waggle over the ball ala Ed Norton, Saban will pull that “bull-bleep” button out and go Ralph Kramden on you.
It’s fitting that Saban was born on Halloween, 1951, because he scares the crap out of people, players, reporters and employees.
And, of course, it’s all in the name of winning at a very high clip.
The record doesn’t lie. Saban has won five national titles, four at Alabama since arriving in 2007. And it looks like he’s going to win another one this year.
He shows no signs of slowing and it seems impossible that he is 65.
He looks nothing like Bear Bryant did at that age, or John Wooden. Those legends looked old.
Saban is tan, fit and healthy. Probably helps that he doesn’t smoke unfiltered Chesterfield’s.
I’ve thought long and hard, for years, as an outsider, about what makes Saban so great and arrived at this: he doesn’t take anything for granted.
He knows nothing is won, or finished, until it is. He is a stickler for detail, precision and increasing efficiency during bye weeks. He is more focused than a cat staring at mouse.
NEVER be satisfied. This does not make for loosey-goosey repartee with reporters, or anyone, really.
Coming off last weekend’s lull, Saban said “I felt our team made some progress.”
This, mind you, is a team that is 8-0 and No.1.
Saban is also a relentless recruiter, once called by Steve Spurrier the greatest in the history of college football.
Ed Orgeron, presently the interim coach at LSU and one of the best recruiters of his era, knows what he’s up against in Nick.
“I’ve tried to get a lot of these guys that he’s recruited,” Orgeron said, with the emphasis on "tried."
Saban earns his pay as a CEO with a focus on defense. That’s his baby. This year, Alabama has recorded 32 sacks and 64 tackles for losses.
Yet, he is smart enough to think outside the box on offense, procuring innovative minds and ideas to keep the engine purring. His hiring of Lane Kiffin, thought a risk, has produced huge dividends.
Alabama has had an intense rivalry against LSU since Saban arrived in 2007. Saban is 7-3 against LSU, a lot of defeats when you consider he's only lost 10 total games at Alabama.
The key, though, is Saban has won the last five.
The Tigers were good under Les Miles--really good--but failed to innovate and adapt at a pace to keep up.
Saban upgraded his smart phone and his team is now multifaceted and capable of scoring 50 points in all sorts of ways.
Because he couldn’t adapt, Miles lost his job this year after a tough-loss to Auburn.
Saban is threatening, now, to win his sixth national championship with a first-year freshman, Jalen Hurts, at quarterback.
I’ve always maintained it couldn’t be done. It hasn’t happened since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway led the Sooners to the title in 1985. But Holieway only became the starter because Troy Aikman broke his leg.
Saban is doing this on purpose. Hurts didn’t start the opener against USC, but he played well enough for Saban to take the chance of letting a kid drive his Cadillac.
So far, so perfect.
The bottom line is there are no big secrets about winning big. Get the best players and coach them up to the highest levels.
“There’s no magical potion,” Saban said this week in advance of LSU.
Execute, block, tackle and focus.
Only one coach in college, at this moment, can touch Saban's hot plate: Ohio State’s Urban Meyer.
I even thought Meyer passed Saban, even if he was only renting the spot, after Ohio State crushed Alabama in the first CFP semifinals on its way to the national title.
Meyer, who still owns the best winning percentage among active coaches at 161-28 (.852), won his third national title with that win over Oregon.
Since, however, Saban has reconfigured and seized the high altar back from Pope Urban.
Saban shows no signs of slowing. He is 108-10 in Tuscaloosa. More incredibly, he is 45-14 in SEC road games. Years ago, when he left Michigan State for Baton Rouge, I wondered if Saban was the right cultural fit.
Could an impatient “outsider” from the Big Ten adjust to all those slower Southern nuances?
Silly Saban me.
Old man winner, he just keeps rolling along.[/membership]