To become the best, college football’s greatest coach embraced being miserable

Image: AP Photo/John Bazemore
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If the University of Alabama wins in the championship game tonight, coach Nick Saban will cement his legacy as college football’s greatest coach.

Saban, 65, has led five teams to national championships—four at Alabama, one at Louisiana State—by adhering to a rigorous managerial style called the Process, an all-encompassing system seemingly designed to drain the joy out of life.

Every aspect of Saban’s program is controlled. He has a target weight for each of his players, and knows what they’re doing to meet it. He dictates how they dress, what they eat, even how they stand (bending over after sprints is forbidden).

Saban meticulously schedules every year down to the day, and every day down to the minute. He eats the same lunch everyday—an iceberg lettuce salad—and complains that the hoopla surrounding the national championships game gets in the way of recruiting. His concentration is all-consuming, to the point he claimed he was unaware of the presidential election in November until it passed him by. “We’re focused on other things here,” he said.

Football coaches tend to view their occupation with the same sense of purpose as nuclear missile crews, only they take coaching more seriously. They favor martial metaphors, are deeply paranoid about secrecy and are suspicious of anything they deem a distraction. It’s as if they’re embarrassed they’ve devoted their lives to a children’s game, and don’t want to be accused of having fun while doing it.

When he coached the Dallas Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson would order Mexican meals by the dozen, so he would have one handy to microwave when necessary. Dick Vermeil, the former coach of the Eagles and Rams, legendarily slept on a cot in his office and ate meals while on the toilet. Wives and families can fall by the wayside, sometimes with tragic consequences.

It doesn’t have to be so grim. Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, who has won championships in both college and the pros, is known for his exuberant personality and injecting fun into his programs. Retired Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, who took four teams to the Super Bowl, led by consensus and delegated authority. Outside football, coaches like the NBA’s Phil Jackson, with his new-age aphorisms, and baseball’s Joe Maddon, who preaches simplicity, have shown that it’s possible to achieve excellence through unconventional methods.

Standing in the way of Saban and his sixth championship is Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach. Swinney, 47, is of the new school: He dances in the locker room with his players and encourages his players to find joy in the game. “We work too hard to be miserable,” he told 60 Minutes Sports.

At least one coach will be having fun tonight.