Nick Saban has somehow made a remarkable transformation from one of the most hated men in American sports to a begrudgingly respected and liked — if perhaps not yet universally beloved — figure. How is it even possible to make that sort of shift while remaining the coach of a team that has kept on unapologetically bulldozing nearly every opponent in its path?
A few years ago, I had an absolutely visceral hatred of Saban and everything he represented. And I know I wasn’t alone in this. He wasn’t personable, he was unbeatable, he was frequently caught red-faced and screaming on the sideline camera while his team was up 30. The country loved to hate him.
He was the villain. Until he wasn’t.
Alabama’s final drive against Georgia last night was the stuff of nightmares for Bryce Young and the Tide. Within eight, making it past midfield with just over a minute to go, the Heisman-winning quarterback tossed up two balls that didn’t find their receivers, and a third that flew right into the hands of Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo, decisively ending Alabama’s title run. Young, playing without his two best receivers in the championship game, took full credit for the loss in the postgame press conference — but that’s not the moment that’s going viral right now.
Instead, the notoriously demanding, never-satisfied Saban asked Young to sit back down and, in a move that is becoming more and more characteristic for Saban, told the press how proud he was of Young and linebacker Will Anderson, and how he didn’t want a single game to erase all the contributions the two players had made toward Alabama’s success that season.
Somehow, despite very little changing on the field, Saban has crept his way into the good graces of a lot of CFB fans. No, not everyone — I’m sure the SEC opponents still feel that visceral disgust when they see his face. But for the fans whose teams don’t have to play him every year, he’s made a real positive change in his public image.
Maybe it’s easier to be a little softer, a little kinder to the world when you’re heading to the playoffs every year, when recruiting is essentially done for you by the name of the brand you’ve built. He’s hardly coasting into retirement, but just to speculate, perhaps turning 70 has put a few things into perspective. He’ll finish out his career at Alabama as a legend and it will be when he chooses to, not when anyone else makes the call.
He’s never going to stop trying to win. He probably won’t even stop trying to humiliate his opponents. That’s a characteristic that has allowed him to become the coaching legend he is, that has allowed his teams to see the playoffs year in and year out, no matter who they lose to the draft in the offseason.
Saban has begun to have publicly humanizing moments at the right times. Last night’s press conference after the Tide’s 33-18 loss to Georgia in the national championship was one of those moments — at a time when we would expect the him to show off some of that legendary anger, he takes a minute to acknowledge the efforts and talents of two players — one of whom made a game-ending mistake — in front of the press.
And as someone who has never particularly seemed to care what the public thinks of him, this doesn’t come across as calculated. It comes across as really genuine. He’s not doing this to make a good impression on anyone but his players.
In a press conference this past fall, he joked around with a reporter whose baby was on camera — another moment that blew up on Twitter because it felt so uncharacteristic for the notoriously prickly coach.
Another part of this change is his acknowledgment of the entitlement of the Alabama brand. Earlier this season, he got on the fans for the “expectation” that Alabama would win every time, saying “we’re not happy to win a game anymore.”
He backed up the players in an impassioned rant in that same interview, saying, “They’re not perfect, they’re just college students, they go to school everyday, they gotta study, they have to run extra after practice when they miss study hall. I mean, c’mon, gimme a break, this is not professional football. These guys aren’t getting paid to play here. They’re representing you all, you should be proud and happy to support them, and appreciate what they do and have some gratitude. And you know what else, nobody wants to win worse than they do. Not me. Not you, I don’t care what kinda fan you are, nobody wants to win more than the players that play. Nobody.”
God, how good does it feel to see an Alabama fan getting dressed down by none other than the leader of the program? Perhaps a reason we all hated Saban for so long was that unbearable fanbase — who, as it turns out, are mostly fans of winning. What a shocker.
Maybe there was a shift when Josh Jacobs and Jordan Battle told the public that the seemingly humorless Saban was a fan of making “deez nuts” jokes with his players. What’s more humanizing than loving a classic immature joke?
Or perhaps it is just a grudging acknowledgement that he’s going to be around for a while longer and he’s going to keep on winning his way, and no complaining is going to change that. At some point, you’ve got to respect the guy and the impact that he’s made on the sport. Maybe we don’t have to like him, but we do feel we have to respect him. He could actually be a way worse person for all the winning he does, but he just keeps on respecting his opponents and looking forward and making sure his players don’t get ahead of themselves. Maybe his players have been seeing this new-to-us side of him for years. So as much as I’d like to keep on hating the guy, he’s making it really, really hard to do so. I’m always going to be happy to see Alabama lose, but it’s no longer because of Saban.