With Nick Saban recently featured (and celebrated) on "60 Minutes," the following may read like some sort of inexplicable otherworld.
On Nov. 28, 1998, Penn State throttled the Saban-led Michigan State Spartans 51-28. "I'm not one to preach revenge, but I think their pride was hurt last year, especially the defensive kids," Joe Paterno told reporters, referring to a 49-14 loss to Michigan State in 1997.
At the time of that Nittany Lions massacre, Michigan State fell to 6-6, which in those ruthless, despotic days nixed any bowl bid. "The inconsistency we played with is the reason we're not going to a bowl game," said Saban, whose four-season record fell to 25-22-1.
Saban's team had beaten both Notre Dame and No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, but had lost to Minnesota (2-6 in the Big Ten) and started off 1-3. His 1997 team had started 5-0, then lost to Northwestern, Michigan (23-7 at home), Ohio State (37-13 at home) and Purdue, then rebounded to defeat Illinois and crush Penn State.
That consistent inconsistency is so Nick Saban, right?
And get this one.
As the 1999 season began, a young hotshot named Jemele Hill -- what became of her, anyway? -- wrote this judiciously of Saban in the Detroit Free Press: "He enters year No. 5 at Michigan State with perhaps more skeptics than he has ever had" even though, as she noted, he was (already) a "perfectionist."
The Los Angeles Times, in its Big Ten preview, pegged Michigan State sixth that year and penned this: "Big Ten's version of Internet stocks: up one day, down the next."
And the peppy Saban said of his unranked team, "We can be a top-25 team and go to a New Year's Day bowl."
And get this last one.
That Michigan State team began the 1999 season 6-0, then went to Purdue and suffered a 52-28 loss with 509 passing yards and five touchdown passes from Drew Brees, who overcame his own four interceptions and two pick-sixes in the process.
The Big Ten that day had six ranked teams and a reputation for mightiness, just in case you needed extra surrealism.
And at the end of the year, Michigan State had finally made its breakthrough, beating Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan. It went 9-2 and 6-2, as did Michigan, whereupon the BCS entered with its oven mitts to practice one of its keenest knacks: dispensing injustice.
Michigan wound up in the Orange Bowl on the just basis of moneymaking potential.
Michigan State wound up in the Citrus Bowl.
Saban wound up at LSU a month before that Citrus Bowl. He got a whopping raise but also freedom from the profile hegemony of the Wolverines and Irish and Buckeyes nearby.
This all makes for revealing, re-remembering re-study, because nowadays we place Saban in the running for B.C.E. (Best Coach Ever). The evidence does compel. His teams exude some of the best coaching yet seen. In an era of parity and scholarship limits, he has made Alabama Bear-ish again. He's fascinating, probably even more than he realizes, and it's easy to see why "60 Minutes" would want to spend eight months on him. People wonder, What does he do?
When Alabama plays LSU this weekend, it will bring a 69-7 record and the three national titles since 2008 with nary a 52-28 loss in the bunch, plus a No. 1 ranking and an 8-0 record this year. Before he got to Alabama, Saban won a BCS national title at LSU even if the 2003 BCS did manage to send him a title-game opponent (Oklahoma) inferior to the one it should have sent (USC). He went a fine 48-16 at LSU.
Try to calculate the differences between Saban in 2013 and Saban in 1999. Given his penchant for improvement, he's surely a better coach at 62 than he was at 48. Yet don't forget that by 1999 he already had coached an NFL defense that finished No. 1 in points allowed. He had taken a Toledo program that went a pretty good 26-28-1 over the previous five years and went 9-2 with it in one year (1990). He had apparent and unusual acumen.
Still, it took his marriage to Tuscaloosa to propel him into the sparsely populated B.C.E. zone, and that might make you wonder at least three things: 1) Are there coaches of great prowess who have become trammeled somewhere where it worked pretty well but didn't quite soar, as with Saban at Michigan State? 2) Might the best coach going be somebody with limitations even greater than a big-name school down in Ann Arbor, somebody going 6-6 right about now, or 5-5 at some less-prosperous rung of football? 3) And then ...
What of Alabama itself?
I love discussions of the importance of tradition. I get the viewpoint that 18-year-olds don't care how much you won 50 years ago. I get that Oregon is really cool now where 30 years ago it was not. Still, tradition breeds demand, and demand breeds environment, and that environment makes sure to show its players exhilarating reverence while it keeps trying until it finds a Nick Saban so meticulous at recruiting and coaching them.
Yes, Saban restored Alabama, but with the statue and the "60 Minutes" and the Rushmore-ness of coaches in our culture, we might forget that Alabama in turn has boosted Saban.