Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks during the NCAA college football SEC Media Days, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Hoover, Ala.
Photo: AP Photo/Butch Dill
Photo: AP Photo/Butch Dill

Is Nick Saban a bad boss? Depends how you feel about winning

Yes, turnover in a successful program is an ongoing reality, the have-nots desperate to poach from the have-it-alls. That said, one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport – Bama is 139-15 over the past 11 years, having won six SEC titles and five national championships – can’t claim continuity as its watchword.

“We sort of look at every season as if, you know, we took a new job,” Saban said, speaking Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “We're starting all over.” 

Which, with a singular exception (meaning him) is true. But because so little about what happens in the court of King Crimson is offered for public consumption, we’re left to guess as to what’s really what. 

Some have taken the raft of egresses as a sign that Saban has become so tempestuous that nobody can stand to be around him for long. Stories about his office management have circulated for decades. Assistants are expected to eat lunch at their desks, same as Saban. (He always has a salad with chicken strips and cherries.) When he was at LSU, it’s said he threw a fit over an assistant missing a day of spring practice because of his wife’s induced labor. 

On Wednesday, the longtime Southern writer Ron Higgins, who covered Saban in his days at LSU, asked flat-out: “Are you difficult to work with?” The question clearly surprised Saban – for him, Media Days are usually a smooth glide – but he steadied and gave a semi-revealing answer. 

“Well, I don't know. You’d have to ask some of the people that work for me. (It’s) always interesting that they may say that, but then when they get a job and they go do it, they do it exactly like we did it.” 

Then: “We have a difficult job. We have 125 players on our team. They are all adolescents. They need a lot of support. They need a lot of direction. Recruiting has become, you know, 24/7 because we've created a scenario where we have to recruit constantly. None of this is easy. And I think, when you're in a position of leadership and you're trying to make people be accountable and responsible to a standard that's going to help you continue to have success, that sometimes you have to make people do things that they really don't want to do that may be in the best interest of the overall organization. Am I willing to do that? Absolutely.” 

Then: “So you have to make a choice: You want to do it right, or you want to make everybody happy? I go through this with (his wife) Terry when we were raising our kids. She wanted to make them happy, and I wanted to make them do right. So I don't know. I like for them to do right and be happy doing right. And that's the same thing I like for our coaches.” 

That sounded like Nick Saban all but conceding that working for Nick Saban mightn’t be a day at the lake. (Shocking, right?) But there also exists a counter-narrative as to why Bama keeps running through assistants, and it goes like this: 

In his zeal to out-recruit everybody every single year, he overdid it. He hired assistants who were better at recruiting than coaching. Some of his most dependable deputies – Kirby Smart, his all-time favorite, and Jeremy Pruitt – were hired away as head coaches. Lane Kiffin was a deft offensive coordinator who, even for Saban, couldn’t stop being Lane Kiffin. The upshot came last season, when Alabama went undefeated until the national title game, whereupon it lost to Clemson by four touchdowns. 

In Saban’s mind – so go the whispers – that had been coming. The Tide were winning big because they had great players, not because they were especially well-coached. He hated his defense all season, and by season’s end Bama wasn’t stopping anybody. (It yielded 28 points to Georgia, 34 to Oklahoma, 44 to Clemson.) To Saban, that’s the sin of sins. Ergo, Bama has a new defensive coordinator, its fourth in five years. 

There’s also a new offensive coordinator, the fourth in four years, although technically Steve Sarkisian, fired on New Year’s Eve by the Falcons, is a returnee. He called plays for the Tide in the CFP final in 2017 after Kiffin was hastened on his way to Florida Atlantic.

Among some close to the Bama program, the belief is that Saban feels more comfortable with this staff than he has been in a few years, which was the idea all along. He’s 67. He knows he can’t keep going forever, and he’s darned if he’ll spend the time he has left coaching up coaches.

None of the assistants who left after last season was officially fired, but the question remains: Did those guys jump or were they nudged? We may never know for sure, but this much is beyond dispute: The only guy who matters in Tuscaloosa is still standing, albeit with a hip surgically implanted in April.

According to SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Saban shot a 77 in May while hitting a 5-iron off every tee. (His doctors hadn’t cleared him to use a wood.) This is the Saban who left the hospital on a walker, which he discarded after a day in favor of a cane, and 36 hours later was back at work. 

Do you want to do it right, or do you want to make everybody happy? As his employees, former and current, know well, the only way to make Nick Saban is happy is to do everything exactly right every blessed day. Do that an entire season and win every game 60-0, and there’s a chance – just a chance – he’ll crack a smile.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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