TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At the original Dreamland Bar-B-Que, the legendary rib joint up on a hill at the edge of town, there’s a photo of Nick Saban behind the counter. It sits in a gilded frame, the way you might see, in the homes of certain older folks, a portrait of Jesus or JFK.
In Tuscaloosa, it fits.
Saban has been at Alabama just six years and he already has a statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. He made $5.3 million this year. His life is planned so precisely to his needs that, just before he arrived for his news conference Thursday, an Alabama staffer placed a bottle of Dasani on the lectern. He literally has somebody carry his water for him.
And he would leave this for the Cleveland Browns?
The rumor won’t die. For the past couple of months, anonymous reports -- from the Boston Globe and elsewhere -- keep linking Saban to the Browns’ coaching job. Why Cleveland? Saban spent four years there as defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick in the early ‘90s. He also worked in Cleveland with Michael Lombardi, rumored to be the next GM for the Browns. Saban played and coached at Kent State. He grew up in West Virginia, which is RIGHT NEXT DOOR to Ohio. And so on.
Saban has denied all this multiple times. Earlier this week, he said: “This is what we're happy doing. This is what we like to do. But nobody really believes that.”
There’s at least one reason people might not believe that: When Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins in 2006, he forcefully denied that he was leaving for Alabama … and then, two weeks later, he left for Alabama.
So, yeah, I guess it’s possible he’ll bolt for the Browns. But I’m not sure why anybody would leave one of the top college jobs for the NFL. And I’m especially not sure why Saban would.
It’s easier to build the kind of team you want in college. If you’re a great recruiter, you can load up on the high-school equivalent of first-round picks -- you don’t have to take turns in a draft. It’s easier to mold an 18-year-old who’s awed just to be there than a 30-year-old who’s seen it all. In college, none of your players make more money than you.
Those are on-the-field things. But off the field is where the college and NFL jobs really diverge.
Every NFL job, except Green Bay, is in a big city. In New York, sure, people care about the Giants and the Jets, but there’s Broadway and Carnegie Hall and Central Park and that naked guy in Times Square. Cleveland’s not New York, but there’s still the Indians and the Cavs and the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Orchestra and a million other little things. A player might rule the city (LeBron did, pre-Decision), but a coach never will.
Now, take Tuscaloosa.
The football stadium is the centerpiece of not just the town, but the entire state. The intersections are painted with a big script A. The campus is beautiful, the university draws culture to town and the cost of living is nothing compared to the big city. $5.3 million goes a long, long way.
The Super Bowl is the biggest stage in football. But week-to-week, Alabama football is a bigger deal than most NFL games. And if the Crimson Tide beats Notre Dame in the BCS championship, Saban will have three national titles in four years -- almost unthinkable in modern college football. I’ll allow briefs to be filed on behalf of Mike Krzyzewski, but I believe Saban is the best coach in America. And he’s in the best possible spot to be a football coach.
The only sliver of light I see for Browns fans is if Saban wants a challenge. He flopped in Miami, and he might want to prove he can win in the pros. Cleveland is one of just four NFL teams (along with Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville) that has never been to a Super Bowl. If Saban took the Browns to the Super Bowl, and won it, that would remove any speck of doubt about his greatness as a coach. And the victory parade in Cleveland might never end.
But Saban is 61. As he told Dan LeBatard the other day, “I'm getting old now. I don't think we've got too many moves left in us.” His wife, Terry, loves Alabama. They have a foundation that does a lot of work with kids, teachers and families.
Plumb Saban’s bio and you notice something: he didn’t live in a big city until he was in his late 30s, when he took a job with the Houston Oilers. He’s spent most of his life in places like East Lansing and Toledo and Baton Rouge. Maybe I just want to hear it, but I hear a trace of West Virginia in his voice.
He’s funnier in person -- as dry as a James Bond martini. On Thursday, he went into a long discussion about how he’d like to play a 3-4 defense, but other teams throw so much that he uses a 4-3, but other coaches tell recruits he runs a 3-4 anyway. “There’s some things that are not logical to me, and I’m not the smartest guy in the world,” he said. “Which is probably not a surprise to any of you.”
Not even a hint of a smile.
Later on, somebody asked him if he remembered the 1973 Sugar Bowl, when Notre Dame won the national title by beating Alabama 24-23.
He started by noting that he’s been married 41 years: “I had an anniversary -- what -- two days ago, and I remembered that.” But he didn’t remember the game. “Look,” he said, “I was in West Virginia. I was hitchhiking to practice.”
I think we forget the West Virginia in Nick Saban. I don’t think skyscrapers impress him much. Tuscaloosa seems to fit him just fine.
Of course, $5.3 million and your statue outside the stadium is a pretty sweet tailoring job.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. The callers on the Finebaum show are still worried that Saban is leaving. Except for the guy who called in to say he’s a male stripper who gets paid in pecans and pit bull puppies. He’s got problems of his own.