When Nick Saban finally steps down from being the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, everyone in and out of the classroom will miss him.
Above all else, Saban is a teacher. A ferocious and intimidating teacher, but a teacher nonetheless. Nothing new, right? Everyone in college football has a side that they take about whether they like or do not like the five-time national champion coach from Fairmont, West Virginia; however, nobody can argue about his success. Saban is a proven winner, but his style is often misunderstood. If the haters would look at him simply as a teacher, trying to make men out of boys (even some of his assistant coaches), the proof of his success is in the hearts and minds of the people whom he has groomed.
ESPN senior staff writer Chris Low reported that “Nick Saban will turn 66 in October, but he told ESPN this week that he ‘shudders’ at the thought of not coaching football. Saban has won four of the last eight national championships and added, ‘If I feel like I’m slipping, then it is time to think about it … but that time has not come.’”
Based on his coaching tree, the rest of college football should also shudder about Saban not coaching football. Bleacher Report’s Christopher Walsh highlighted it in 2015 with a list of notable coaches who have learned under Saban. Walsh commented, “The way this is going, pretty soon the SEC might be known as the Saban’s Everywhere Conference.” The long list even includes Jumbo Fisher, the highly-regarded head coach of Florida State and Saban’s opponent to start this college football season.
Walsh reported Saban saying, “It kind of makes me happy and proud, and I’m not the kind of guy who has to dislike my opponent to play well against him. Sometimes ‘respect’ is a better word, and when you know somebody is a really good coach and has done a great job for you, it’s really easy to respect them.”
Whether recent assistant departure Lane Kiffin falls under that umbrella of respect, that is left for the fans and the media to decide for themselves. However, Saban’s comment is the key to how he teaches. It is all about respect.
As a teacher, one cannot be just ‘one of the boys’. The students and assistant coaches are not there to be friends with the head coach; they are there to learn and do their jobs. There is nothing against being friendly to both groups, but any leader should be very cautious about the temptation to make friends with the subordinates. That bond can cause the leader to make bad decisions out of guilt or other feelings, instead of doing the right thing at the right time for the betterment of the group.
Love’em or hate’em, one must respect the teacher. The teacher has degrees, has previous success, and has made a life for him or her. The students are still trying to find themselves and in need of proving that they deserve respect, not of human decency (for which everyone deserves) but of skill. If you were a high school student, would you dare disrespect the physics teacher about whether he or she knows the content well enough to deserve respect? Why should it be any different for Saban on the football field, his classroom?
There is nothing against questioning a teacher’s decisions once in a while. Nobody is perfect, especially throughout decades. There is also nothing against expecting people to be the best that they can be, on the field and in the classroom, at all times. Saban’s highly-publicized upbringing by his father is an example of that mentality. It worked out for Saban and he pays it forward to anyone willing to listen to him for guidance. It is not so much a respect for Saban as it is Saban telling everyone to respect themselves and the lives that they wish to lead. Is it not disrespecting yourself if you choose to not give everything you have in everything that you do?
Respect opens doors while disrespect closes them. Saban is shuddering about retirement because he respects himself enough to understand that he has still much to offer. There is more work to be done; more students to help guide into successful adults. To be ‘Saban-ed’, when a player or assistant coach makes a careless mistake, is to be tongue-lashed for not preparing themselves well enough to do their job. Teachers do not scold students for making mistakes or even failing an assignment. They scold when the students prove that they do not respect the course content, the teacher’s valuable time, and their future selves.
On the field, football is life and Saban is the teacher. When he retires, there will be one less voice trying to guide players and coaches to their potential. In terms of the classroom, Saban will not be there to enforce his players to get a proper education, which also helps create smarter athletes as well. Future coaches may miss out on Saban’s message and run their teams in a manner that may work, but it likely will not be as good. Everyone who loves college football should definitely shudder at the thought of the game weakening once Saban rides into the sunset for the final time.