SABAN: THE MAKING OF A COACH. By Monte Burke. Simon & Schuster. 341 pages. $27.
Nick Saban began recruiting football players as a 10-year-old. He told other kids that suiting up for his father’s small town West Virginia team meant playing before cheerleaders and eating ice cream.
At 55, Saban was on a private jet with University of Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore, who was whisking the prized coach away from the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
“Mal, let me ask you something,” Saban said. “Do you think you’ve hired the best coach in the country?”
Yes, Moore said.
“Well, you didn’t. I’m nothing without my players,” Saban said. “But you did just hire a helluva recruiter.”
The two scenes capture the essence of Nicholas Lou Saban Jr.’s lifelong obsession with football triumphs and reflect the terrifically reported, artfully framed work of Monte Burke. Saban is not a complex character, but the stony exterior makes this a tough biography project with every nugget mined a minor victory. Burke succeeds, even without extensive direct access. His dogged research (more than 250 interviews since 2008) turns up details from Saban’s tenure at Navy, when the young assistant coach would make his defensive backs sit in meetings exactly the way they would be lined up on the field and the Tuscaloosa breakfast routine: Saban wants two Little Debbies with coffee while watching The Weather Channel to see if the Crimson Tide will be practicing indoors or outdoors that day.
A primary theme is loyalty. Saban demands it from his players but has been fried in the media and among fans for sudden job moves.
It started with a one-year stay as the head coach of Toledo before joining Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff as defensive coordinator and echoed around the NFL and college football when he jumped ship to Alabama after publicly pledging allegiance to the Dolphins.
And Burke reveals Saban’s interest in becoming head coach at Texas in December 2012, a move ultimately torpedoed by Texas head coach Mack Brown, who refused to embrace the idea that he step aside with a chance to take credit for welcoming Saban.
“I am completely convinced that Saban would have come to Texas had Mack approved of the idea, or had (Texas Athletic Director) DeLoss (Dodds) fired Mack,” Texas board member Wallace Hall tells Burke.
There are more “What might have been?” Saban questions. What if he had stayed at LSU, where he had won a national championship, instead of bolting for the Dolphins? What if the Dolphins settled on Drew Brees instead of Dante Culpepper as their franchise quarterback? What if Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine had been correct after picking Saban’s 2006 Dolphins to go to the Super Bowl?
Fans — even colleagues — remain oddly conflicted, which is part of what makes this guy so fascinating. For his recruiting prowess, Saban has been dubbed “Lord of the Living Room.” The Alabama fan website RollBamaRoll.com refers to Saban as “Our Dark Lord.”
Overworked, constantly badgered assistant coaches often leave Saban’s staff for the relief of other, usually less prestigious jobs. But Burke astutely points out, “At Alabama, though, the story hasn’t been about how many assistants have left — it’s about how many have returned.”
Burke, a staff writer at Forbes magazine, has a knack for understanding the charmed (but not always charming) head coach.
He also grasps the slightly softening side of Saban, 63. The shy, introverted head coach has mellowed with more emphasis on golf and a granddaughter (“But ... He still ain’t mellow,” says longtime assistant coach Pete Jenkins).
Saban beats on, energetically recruiting and frequently edgy. Burke offers a better understanding of the “evolved” winner and how he came to be so coveted and despised.
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a Post and Courier sports columnist.