A poor grade in a music class made Saban realize he had to be nearly perfect

St. Louis Post-DispatchJanuary 7, 2013 

Growing up in sparsely populated and rural Monongah, W. Va., Nick Saban's prospects seemed limited to a certain range of ideas.

“It was like, ‘You're going to work in the coal mines, or you go to college and try to (become) a businessman,'” said the Alabama coach, who will lead the Tide against Notre Dame in the National Championship game tonight.

If living in the shadow of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster that killed hundreds hadn't dissuaded him from the subterranean work, he was disabused of any such inclination when he was in eighth grade and his father, Nick Sr., punished him for what he perceived as slacking.

“I got a ‘D' in music because I wouldn't get up to sing in front of the class,” Saban said. “I had to get my basketball uniform and go turn it in. And he took me to (a local) mine, and we went 550 feet deep in the shaft.”

About that time, Saban was wishing he'd been a canary instead of in the coal mine.

“He said, ‘If you don't get a college education, this is where you're going to end up every day,'” Saban recalled. “So that's the last time I've been in one of those things.”

Besides, Saban had the notion from working at his father's service station and Dairy Queen that running a business would make for a fulfilling life.

“In those days, everything was full service: You would change mufflers, grease cars, change tires, wash cars,” he said. “I can remember on more than one occasion doing a job and not doing it right and having to do it over. Because Big Nick wasn't satisfied.

”But I learned a lot. I learned a lot about people. And I learned how to serve other people by doing that. I think those things are important.“

None of that might have suggested that Saban was on trajectory to earning more than $5.3 million this year running the colossal enterprise of Alabama football as arguably the best coach in the college game today.

His team is the favorite to win the national title, which would be its second straight and the fourth overall for Saban, who won one at LSU.

The once-itinerant Saban, who turns 61 on Halloween, is in his sixth year at ‘Bama, the longest stop he's had in his career and likely his last.

”I do feel that way,“ Saban said, chuckling and adding, ”I mean, kind of knowing when enough is enough.“

If his upbringing didn't exactly portend all this, it did offer a template for how he might go about things: with all of his considerable energy and an intolerance for anything less than perfection.

Just like his exacting father, the founder of Pop Warner football in the area who was so dedicated to the cause he bought a school bus himself to transport the team. Whether it was in school, at football or changing a muffler, his father's message was emphatic and consistent and stayed with Saban long after he died after suffering a heart attack in 1973.

”'Do the right thing, at the right time, the right way:' It was as simple as that,“ said Saban, who at times turned to his mother to ask why his father was so hard on him. ”Sometimes when you're growing up, you don't understand it.

“But I think that drive that he instilled in me to be the best you could be at whatever you choose to do is what has helped me probably with any success that I've had.

”Because that's kind of how I am.“

Even as he was finishing his collegiate career at Kent State, where he was a teammate of Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, though, Saban wasn't thinking of coaching.

Most on his mind was entering a General Motors program for having his own car dealership. His direction changed when coach Don James asked him to become a graduate assistant.

Saban grudgingly agreed to try it out, mostly just not to disrupt his recent marriage. His wife, Terry, had another year of school left.

”So as badly as I didn't want to go to graduate school, it was really the most convenient thing to do at the time,“ he said, smiling.

As it happened, he said, ”I really liked it. . . . So it all worked out.“

Alabama is Saban's 13th coaching job, including head coaching stints at Toledo, Michigan State, Louisiana State and with the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

He doesn't call his two years with the Dolphins (2005 and 2006) a mistake, but he discovered that his sense of what an NFL head-coaching job entailed wasn't quite right, either.

”I never really wanted to leave LSU,“ said Saban, who succumbed to a belief in the back of his mind that the NFL was the place to be. ”You kind of do something, and you learn about yourself a little bit when you do something. Which maybe you should have known that before you did it. But you didn't.“

Now he does: He's a much better fit for college football, in part because of the satisfaction he takes in all elements of player development and in part because he demands command he can't have in the NFL.

”There's so many factors that you can't control, whether it's the salary cap, how many draft picks you've got, what the age of your team is, what the contract situation with the players you have on your team is,“ he said. ”And then all those things sort of affect your ability to improve.“

At Alabama, Saban is perceived to have enormous control of a program he whisked in 2009 to its first national title in 17 years and coaxed to another last season. He is a fiend for detail and relentless with what he calls ”the process,“ traits that many point to when describing what makes him exceptional.

But he also has learned to work smarter.

Asked what the key to his time management is, Saban paused and said, ”I think establishing a routine that is productive and sustainable . . . because I've been in routines before that weren't sustainable. …

“I can't work past 10 o'clock at night any more. That's one of the things that when you say ‘sustainable,' I have to leave here at 10.”

Unlike the old days as an assistant, staying until 1 or 2 a.m., returning by 6 a.m.

Now he has a chance to decompress for an hour or so at home before getting up and starting his routine again around 6 a.m.

And he'll ease into the day watching “The Weather Channel” with his wife, drinking two cups of coffee and eating not nails but two “Little Debbie” cookies for breakfast.

For lunch, it's the same salad every day, though he varies having it topped with turkey or chicken.

Creature of habit that he might be, Saban also has adapted.

Despite a public persona that can be standoffish, particularly with the media, he is engaging one-on-one and has earned a reputation as a terrific recruiter. Now he's doing it via Skype.

“It's so much more personal,” he said, though noting, “I don't really text-message, and I don't have an e-mail. I don't do any of that. To me, it's so time-consuming, you know? . . . I figure if it's important enough, somebody will call me.”

Not that he's a technophobe.

In sharp contrast to the idea of life in a stifling mine, for instance, Saban's office is so cavernous he has a remote-control gizmo for his door.

“It's amazing to me how amazed people are by that” device, he said, smiling. “It's a logistical thing.

”When you're sitting there and the door's open . . . and you're maybe talking with a player or a coach or on the phone, rather than say, ‘Hold on here, I'm going to walk over and close the door,' it's nice and easy to push a button and the door closes.“

A door that from Monongah was impossible to see opening for him in the first place.

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