In September, Alabama coach Nick Saban dropped a pretty strong hint about the prerequisites for a return to the NFL when he said that, if the Dolphins had signed quarterback Drew Brees in 2006, Saban would still be coaching there. While unlikely that Saban would be in Miami 10 years later, Brees and the coach who signed him, Sean Payton, have spent the last decade together.
That’s because success in the NFL is premised on having a quarterback who can play, and Saban learned that during his failed two years with the Dolphins. That’s the word — failed — that surely haunts Saban now.
He has succeeded unlike any college coach since Bear Bryant, but Bryant won six national titles in an era where the game wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is now because the recruiting process wasn’t nearly as intense and the universe of true contenders wasn’t nearly as vast. So does Saban stick around in the hopes of meeting or beating Bryant, or does Saban try to fix the one glaring flaw from his coaching career?
“Saban often tells the story about washing cars at the [service] station [owned by his father],” Monte Burke writes at page 15 of his excellent 2015 Saban biography, “that if he left so much as a tiny spot on a car, his father would make him rewash it entirely.”
Burke, on the next page, shares the tale of a drain near the station that Saban’s father wanted Nick and two other boys to clean out. The boys quickly removed the debris, but Nick stayed down in the hole, making sure every last bit of stuff was gone. “We’re going to do it right,” Saban told the others. “I don’t want to listen to it later on.”
Not matter how much satisfaction Saban takes in continuously climbing the same mountain at the college level, Saban knows there’s a large spot on the hood of his coaching record that only becomes more glaring as he continues the lather/rinse/repeat process of winning a national championship, taking a day off, getting his returning players situated in classes again, and resuming the process of recruiting the next wave of players who will help him climb the mountain again, for as long as many times as the 64-year-old coach can pull it off.
So will he at some point yield to that desire to rewash the car at the NFL level? It hinges on having a great quarterback, or a good plan to get one. And with a job currently open in Tampa featuring Jameis Winston, a young, potential franchise quarterback whom Saban failed to keep in Alabama, the question becomes whether, at some point in the next day or so, Saban shows interest in coaching the Buccaneers — and whether the Buccaneers would pull the plug on the apparent ascension of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to instead catch the large fish who may be willing to jump into their boat.
No one but Saban knows what he truly wants to do, and Saban routinely agonizes over whether to stay or go. His mind can change, quickly.
Burke’s biography opens with an account of how Saban went from not being the Alabama coach nine years ago to taking the job. His wife, Terry, had a huge role in the return to college life, working directly with the late Mal Moore, the athletic director from Tuscaloosa who lured Saban after Rich Rodriguez turned down the job.
“She made it clear to Moore that Saban was miserable in the NFL and dearly missed coaching in college,” Burke writes at page 6 of the biography. “She also made it clear that she wanted out. In the NFL, the coach’s wife had no real role in the community. On a college campus — particularly at a place like Alabama — the coach’s wife was a figure of prominence, a queen bee. Terry also believed that a college town was a much healthier place to raise their two children.”
Nine years ago, Terry got what she wanted. What she currently wants, for herself, for Saban, and the family, will be a factor in whether and for how long he stays at Alabama.
Still, the spot on the hood of the car remains. And as Saban instantly goes from a precipice with which he has become all too familiar back to the valley of 0-0, the question remains: Will he start climbing again, or will he rewash the car?