Just read: Monte Burke's 'Saban'

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?).

Seeking out long-form work about a subject I generally dislike isn't really my normal bag. Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama's football team, is an exception to this usual rule for only one main reason -- he seems like a total lunatic at surface level. His celebrity presence as college football's most successful coach has driven media and fanbases across the country to adopt a pretty agreed-upon stance on him, and that stance is generally that he appears to be an asshole.

Saban's success and seeming lack of happiness to accompany that success is what stands about most about him from a bird's-eye perspective. People always repeat the same things -- he doesn't smile, he wins the national championship then gets right to work recruiting, he doesn't take any vacations, doesn't spend as much time as he should with his family, he's too hard-nosed and businesslike for the college game, which is rife with tradition and character.

Saban: The Making of A Coach, by Monte Burke, sheds a ton of light on how Saban ticks. For me, the book was especially illuminating in two fashions. It takes a deep dive into Saban's relationship with his father, Big Nick, and the circumstances of his upbringing in a coal mining town in West Virginia, and it also fully explains the evolution of his "Process," which he brought to life with the help of a psychology professor at Michigan State University.

Big Nick stands out as the figure in Saban's life who influenced his worldview the most. He was an extremely demanding father, expecting a high level of performance from his son in all aspects of life, both on and off the football field. Saban's hometown of Monongah, West Virginia, is a coal mining town near Fairmont, WV, and about 90 miles south of Pittsburgh -- it's pretty much a Midwestern town in the middle of nowhere. Big Nick's intentions were for his son to avoid a life in the mines, so he consistently demanded excellence in school and instilled a high level of work ethic in his son to prepare him to live up to these expectations.

On the football field, Big Nick founded a Pop Warner team that Saban played on, learning the QB position as the smartest player on the field (in terms of football IQ) and playing defensive back as well. He took these skills and found success at the high school level as well before finding a scholarship to play at Kent State. Big Nick passed away not long after Saban graduated from Kent State, when he was getting his start coaching college football at his alma mater. It becomes clear, throughout Burke's story, that Saban consistently longed for the approval of others in the same way he sought his father's approval. This seems at odds with the amount of success this man has had -- it's remarkable how much he felt unappreciated while at Michigan State or Louisiana State as a head coach, even after he found success in establishing a culture at those programs. Specifically at LSU, he constantly complained that the fanbase would consider a three-loss season a total failure; even after decades of futility, the LSU fans were spoiled by Saban's quick turning of the team and success in the SEC, as he won a national championship in his fourth season.

That sense of feeling under-appreciated, along with short previous stints in the NFL, led Saban to coach the Miami Dolphins for two seasons. His short-lived tenure there provides the best example of his (then-recurrent) inability to stay happy at one place. He jumped ship to get back to college football with Alabama, which is the first head coaching job he's ever held for more than the five years he spent at LSU.

Saban's move from Miami to Alabama also brings to light another huge influence in his life -- his wife, Terry. At every job he's had, Terry has helped Saban in countless ways; she's a business advisor, a partner in their charity foundation, and at the college level, she plays the "coach's wife" role in a large and pretty badass way, holding successful fund-raisers and serving as a point of contact for those seeking the ear of her husband. It becomes clear that to get to Nick, you have to go through Terry at some point, and it is obvious that she was a large reason why the Sabans relocated to Tuscaloosa to rescue Crimson Tide football.

The portion of the book that I found most interesting, and the subject where I'll seek further reading, is in regards to Saban's "Process." This refers to culture he builds around his program, and the phrase "Trust the Process" is one often quoted by 'Bama fans. At its core, the Process is all about reducing large, complicated goals into easier-to-digest, bite-sized tasks. It's essentially a management style that Saban has applied, if you consider him the CEO of Alabama football. Taken literally in application to a game, Saban tells his players not to worry about the final outcome, or even about the scoreboard at the time: Their eyes are always set on winning the down of football in front of them. This, theoretically, enables players to shine by relieving them of the pressures that often accompany big-time college football, and it's shown to be very successful. This is what prompts his perceived lack of happiness upon winning a title: It's clear Saban finds his joy in the details of day-to-day coaching and management, rather than the glory at the end of the season when they win a championship.

Saban developed his Process with the help of Lionel Rosen, a psychology and psychiatry professor at Michigan State, where Saban held his second head coaching job between 1995 and 1999. At the time, Saban was still largely unproven -- his hype and reputation still exceeded his actual results. But implementing this style of thinking helped him turn around the football program at MSU, which has always struggled to compete with Ohio State, Michigan, and the other top-tier Big Ten teams; though he left the team sooner than most expected, he certainly left it in a better state than it was when he arrived.

Accompanying his Process as another equally large contributor to his success as a coach is Saban's unbelievable recruiting acumen. His ability to identify prospects and get them to play for his school is pretty much unparalleled; Alabama has had the No. 1 recruiting class in college football for the last seven years in a row. Only Urban Meyer at Ohio State seems to be a peer in recruiting prowess, and the same Process that he applies to coaching is applied by Saban on the recruiting trail. This is a subject where Burke's insider access (not directly to Saban, but to many around him) comes in handy; the first-hand accounts of his tenaciousness on the recruiting front will be super interesting for college football fans who follow that aspect of the sport. Saban is also especially aware of how important this is to his success -- when he was hired by Alabama, he told athletic director Mal Moore that he hadn't hired the best coach in the country, but he had hired the best recruiter.

Burke's work is fast-paced, detailed and intriguing at just about every turn. If you're the type of person generally interested in reading books about successful people, this should rank right up there amongst your Silicon Valley CEO types as one to take into consideration, and its appeal to college football fans is straightforward enough.

Saban: The Making of A Coach is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.