A few things you and I might not have grasped about Nick Saban:
He would have to be one of our national leaders in clarity.
A muddled world teems with people who don't know what they want and people who know what they want only somewhat and people who know what they want only mostly. When Toledo football players met their new, first-time head coach in a meeting room in the winter of 1989-90, they knew little of him. They knew the guy coached defensive backs for the Houston Oilers. They knew he coached under Jerry Glanville, and that Glanville would leave tickets at will-call for Elvis Presley. They knew he had coached defense under George Perles at Michigan State. They might have heard he was 38.
"Other than that, we didn't have a clue," said Kevin Meger, Toledo's then sophomore quarterback.
They would get their clue not in the first hour, and not in the first 15 minutes, but in the first one minute. "Things were about to change," Meger said. Saban might seem distant and distracted and vanilla if you catch him in a Tuscaloosa press conference, but to his players he is vivid, the clearest clear, precisely aware of what he wants and unusually adept at triggering people to produce it.
Said Mike Karabin, the deputy athletic director at the time, "In the interviews you could just see from the way he described how he'd run the program, he was a little bit different from everybody else."
For one thing, there was the "booklet," as Meger called it. The "booklet" had about 500 pages. "I've still got it, probably in the basement," he said. The booklet: "This is how you're going to dress. This is how you're going to act. This is how you're going to function. And this is the motivating reason behind it."
Many coaches have considerable clarity, and surely many, many coaches have booklets, but only one active coach has the Alabama job, three national titles, the 2011 national title and a 9-2 record in one season at Toledo for a share of the 1990 Mid-American Conference title. The same coach who will lead Alabama against Georgia on Saturday for the SEC Championship and a shot at the national title.
Of that coach, Meger says, "I won't run into another guy like that in my lifetime."
Saban might be controlling, but he does master nuance.
"He treated me differently than everybody else," Meger said. "He wouldn't yell at me. He wouldn't embarrass me. He wouldn't attack me in front of the team. He would get me in his closed office."
Reason: "He didn't think it was appropriate for the leader of the team to be humiliated in front of the rest of the team."
In the seventh game of that 1990 season, Toledo lost 13-12 at Central Michigan, and Saban seemed devastated beyond devastated, of course. Sunday morning promised the Sunday morning film session. Players cringed, but: "He reacted better to a loss than to a win," Meger said. "It was a different reaction than I think the team expected. I think we expected the guy on television that you see. And we didn't get that guy. We got a very calm, very surgeon-like individual."
When the season began, and the eight-station, 64-minute morning workouts began, and the repetitions of same if anyone loafed began, and the players started thinking, "He's a nasty man, dude!" (Meger's words), practice scuffles began. Previous coaches would have intervened. Saban's assistants tried to intervene. Saban chewed them out. "Let the players clear it up!" he barked. "He said, 'If you're going to fight, then do it with excellence,'" Meger recalled. "'Don't waste my time with all this small stuff.'"
Despite how it may look, Alabama, like Toledo and Michigan State and LSU before it, technically isn't playing to win.
Meger watches Alabama on TV when possible, and he notices the same things, and not just that Saban still talks with his hands. "They are playing to be excellent," he said. "They're not playing to beat the opposition. They're not playing to win. They're playing to be excellent. And if I'm excellent, I win more than you do."
Karabin remembers that ethic permeating the program, "everything from administrators to staff people," he said. The people unsuited to such changes might "see him coming down the hall and they'd pee in their pants. It was something they were not used to."
So while Saban gains no note for any signature tactic, his specialty probably would be a special level of zeal, the deathless urgency that leads him to berate players at moments not urgent to others (such as blowout fourth quarters). "Never take a play off," Meger still notices. "You'll never see a kid loaf on that football team -- special teams, backup, whatever." Said Meger, "I would say he's no more content today than he was in 1990. Most people get complacent. To have this level of focus for this long is rare."
The booklet, of course, addressed this, as it did most things. Whether you go one round, five rounds, 15 rounds or 100 rounds, it said, eventually somebody will quit. "Make sure it's not you," Meger quotes the booklet.
Most players get a sense that Saban returns their respect, or maybe the whole thing wouldn't work.
"I had family trouble at home, and he knew I had family trouble at home, and he got involved, by no means in an illegal way," Meger said. "I can remember him telling me, 'I thought it was the right thing to do.'"
When Meger's grandmother neared death while two-a-days persisted back at Toledo, the quarterback feared telling the head coach but mentioned it to a graduate assistant, who told the head coach, who turned up at the dorm room ready to deliver Meger to the hospital if necessary. (An assistant drove him.) Meger still believes he could call Saban for a favor and get a "What-do-you-need" in reply even though they have lost touch for 15 years.
So on Feb. 13, 1991, when Saban left Toledo after merely one season to coordinate the defense of Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns, and when Saban called it the first time he had cried since the death of his father 18 years prior …
"I walked across campus with him, just him and I, and you could tell he was" -- and here Meger pauses to find the right word -- "discouraged, by the fact that he started and didn't get to finish."
Saban said to Meger, "Are you mad at me? Are you mad that I'm leaving?"
Meger: "I lied to him and I said, 'You've got to do what's right.' As a player, I was p-----. He won a MAC championship and he's going to the NFL."
Saban doesn’t care if you like him.
The old story goes that when he left Navy in the early 1980s, one coach said, "Nick Saban left without saying goodbye," whereupon basketball coach Paul Evans said, "That's all right. He never said hello." While in Miami, Saban famously and infamously saw to it that Dolphins employees did not greet him daily with pleasantries. Press conferences are chilly because they distract from the clarified cause. Saban might state his valuing of friendships made at LSU before Alabama travels to LSU but, of course, it's not about making friends. Said Meger, "And if you like him, he doesn't care, either."
Saban, a schmoozer?
"Oh, no. God, no," Meger said.
But then, you and I already knew that one.