Nick Saban, the undisputed emperor of college football, has everything he could ever want in Tuscaloosa: Three national titles in four seasons; a great shot at another one a year from now; the best players; no static from anyone, including the browbeaten reporters who cover him; and the whole world kissing his feet.
Thus it's no surprise that I think Saban, whose name has naturally come up in conversations among some NFL teams conducting coaching searches, should stay in Tuscaloosa.
Yet there's another, far more compelling reason Saban should stick to the college game: He's too much of a hard ass — and too much of a lightweight — to survive in the big leagues.
As with Crash Davis, he's far more suited to being the king of the minors.
After coaching Alabama to a 42-14 victory in Monday night's BCS title game, Saban told reporters he's staying at the school, saying, "Maybe this is where I belong, and I'm really happy and at peace with that."
Then again, this is the same man who declared in December of 2006, "I guess I have to say it: I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
Less than two weeks later, he left the Miami Dolphins to become the Alabama coach. So pardon me if I don't consider his word stronger than oak.
This is not to say that I disagree with Saban's sensibilities: College football is where he belongs. When you are such an intractable, humorless control freak that you react to a team employee commenting benignly upon your haircut by issuing a decree that staffers outside of football operations can no longer speak to you in the hallways, as Saban apparently did during his two-year stint with the Dolphins, it's a clear-cut sign that professional football is not for you.
Saban is the worst kind of bully, an autocrat so consumed with his power — and making the people under him feel that power, at every opportunity — that his ill-tempered insecurity supersedes all else. The lower level the employee, the higher the likelihood that Saban would pull a power trip. Yes, he was a wonderful boss.
You can get away with that boorish behavior in a college town where everything revolves around the university's football program, and where you can lord your authority over players whose scholarships and NFL futures hang in the balance. Making dissent even less likely is the reality that the young men you coach cycle through the program every three-to-five years, and only have to be around you for a limited, NCAA-mandated number of hours per week.
In the NFL, where up-front money and salary-cap concerns make certain players difficult to cut or trade and where veteran leadership is essential for locker-room stability, Saban's style is an impediment to sustained success.
He also spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the media coverage of his team — and trying to control it. Alas, in the six years since he's been gone, the attention paid to the NFL has intensified immensely. Watching Saban try to control his players' Twitter accounts alone would be high comedy.
He is a good enough coach, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that he wasn't a complete disaster in Miami, going 15-17 before lying like John Edwards and fleeing like Saddam Hussein. As a leader, Saban was overmatched, and he knew it. And if the 61-year-old coach were to return to the NFL now, I believe he'd fail miserably. For one thing, his reputation would precede him in league circles — and that would not be a positive development.
I was reminded of Saban's unpopular NFL past last Saturday while enjoying some Chinese food with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo at a Towson, Md., restaurant. Ayanbadejo, a thoughtful veteran who has played for a healthy spectrum of head coaches during his 14-year professional career, recalled being summoned to Saban's office in 2005 after learning he'd been traded to the Chicago Bears.
When Saban asked him if he had anything to say before he departed, Ayanbadejo replied, "You're a good coach. You should devote more time to coaching and less time to being a jerk."
Ayanbadejo recalled during our conversation many of the infamous incidents that occurred during Saban's tenure, some of which were documented adroitly by South Florida Sun Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde last Saturday.
There was the time Saban stepped over a convulsing player, heat-stricken guard Jeno James, as he made his way through a narrow hallway, provoking a contentious team meeting. There were the frequent chewing-out sessions — of assistant coaches, team staffers and players — and the time when veteran linebacker Zach Thomas yelled back, becoming an even more revered figure in the facility.
And there was even an anecdote, from Ayanbadejo, about Saban trying to intimidate veteran linebacker Junior Seau. Given my affection for the late, great and immensely popular future Hall of Famer — who, to his credit, laughed off Saban's attempt to keep him from practicing without cleats — you can guess how I felt about that incident.
It's not as if I needed the refresher course from Ayanbadejo to form my opinion regarding Saban. Over the years I've spoken to enough players, assistant coaches and front-office executives who were with him in Miami to conclude that he was too consumed with trivial issues to run a successful, big-picture operation.
I had a couple of other conversations on Tuesday with ex-Dolphins players who rekindled those warm and fuzzy memories. One story stood out: A couple of days into his first training camp with the team, Saban met with the Dolphins' 10-player leadership council, a group of influential veterans common to many NFL teams.
The players told Saban that they agreed with his demanding approach to practice, that they welcomed the hard work and the insistence that they go the extra mile. They had just one request: During the five-minute warm-up period at the start of practice, as they stretched amid the South Florida heat and humidity, they preferred to remove their helmets.
Saban nodded and told them he understood their rationale. Though he didn't specifically grant it, he gave the distinct impression that helmets would no longer be required during warm-ups.
Recalled one player who was on the council: "The next morning, Junior Seau started stretching without a helmet, and Saban jumped him: 'What the [expletive] are you doing with your helmet off? We wear helmets at practice!' After that, the whole leadership-council thing was kind of a joke."
This is not to suggest that strict, demanding coaches are incapable of winning big in the NFL. The Lombardi Trophy is named after a no-nonsense authoritarian, and the current coach who has collected three of those — Saban's good buddy Bill Belichick — isn't exactly known for his peppy, egalitarian leadership style.
That said, Belichick is more adaptable and cognizant of what's truly important than Saban. He learned from his first NFL coaching experience, a frustrating four-year stint with the Cleveland Browns, and developed a keener sense of when to put his foot down (or into an employee's nether region) and when to ease off the gas pedal.
As so many of Belichick's failed disciples have learned the hard way — yes, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini and Scott Pioli, I'm talking to you — that emulating the master's nuanced approach to running a franchise isn't easy. Belichick can be crass, and he tends not to take any crap, but a whole lot of respected veterans (including Seau, for what it's worth) have truly enjoyed playing for the Patriots during his tenure.
Similarly, Tom Coughlin eased back on his dictatorial sensibilities before guiding the Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles. He's still far from mellow, but he commands far more respect within his organization than Saban ever did with the Dolphins.
I'm sure that Saban, given his competitive instincts, has fantasies about returning to the pros and showing that he can be a champion on the big stage. That's understandable, but it's only a fantasy.
Nick, take my advice: Stay in Tuscaloosa.
You don't belong in the big leagues.
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