Paul Finebaum dabbled in political reporting before wising up and taking up sports journalism. Today, many years after his epiphany, he is a multi-media whiz widely regarded as among the very best of his species. Finebaum appeared on one of the TV talk shows on the morning of the Alabama-Georgia game. One of the hosts asked Finebaum, whose specialty is the Southeast Conference, if Nick Saban of the Crimson Tide could fairly be regarded as the best coach in the history of college football, better maybe than even Bear Bryant. Yes, The Bear, the Fordyce native, once a Redbug, forever Saint Paul of Tuscaloosa.
Finebaum recalled that he had once suggested as much to Saban — that the torch had been passed — only to see the The Bear’s eighth successor blanch, then redden. Crimson.
“I think he would have slapped me” had not the exchange occurred on live television,” said Finebaum. “Great people in any field, except maybe for politics, don’t want to hear it” — don’t want to be told they are peerless, legends, icons. “It’s mental clutter, it gets in the way.”
Well, the host persisted, how then to define Saban?
“Relentless,” Finebaum replied. “He never stops, he’s never satisfied.” Of course he would be happy with another national championship, Saban, but would shake it off by midnight and the next morning be at his desk, looking over the fall roster, the schedule, evaluating the recruiting reports, checking on injuries. Just as he would should ‘Bama fall to the Bulldogs that evening.
‘Bama did not fall to the Bulldogs that evening. Actually, it was early morning, a bit after midnight Eastern Standard Time, when Saban tied the storied Bear, claiming a sixth national championship, the fifth at Alabama. Saban permitted himself a brief but contained explosion of euphoria, then resumed his characteristic frown, lightened by brief, sporadic smiles. “He looked like a head of state who had just survived an assassination attempt,” wrote Marc Tracy in The New York Times. Relieved, but pained.
By nine a.m., in Finebaum’s model, Saban was strategizing the ’18 season opener, either annoyed by or oblivious to the petitions being circulated across Alabama for his canonization.
Assuming Finebaum has it right (and he seems to understand the coach better than just about anyone else) Saban’s “We won, that’s great, what’s next?” disposition is the core, and the bone and tendon and sinew, of his success. That approach — a function of temperament as opposed to mere philosophy — is true especially of Saban but is not exclusive to him, nor of super-achievers in other callings.
Bill Gates seems to smile more than Saban but he did not declare “Game over” with his first win at software. Steve Jobs, who appeared to smile about as often as Saban, was not satisfied with his first smartphone and kept tinkering. Both started with fewer resources, comparatively speaking, than any head coach at Alabama. Or, for that matter, Arkansas.
Such discipline extends, naturally, to politicians. Or it doesn’t.
Who, or who of a previous generation, cannot recall the bewildering decision of Michael Dukakis to take a few weeks’ vacation after winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988? The polls showed him leading comfortably, yes — but George H.W. Bush followed a different schedule. Four years later an Arkansan named Clinton, himself possessed of a certain relentlessness, accepted his party’s nomination and hit the road — literally, in a bus, Al Gore at his side — the very next morning.
More than determination is needed, certainly. Skill, intuitiveness, responsiveness to changing times and altered scenarios. Saban, we are told, is obsessive about details, the tiniest, taking nothing for granted. An opposing team that another coach might dismiss as inconsequential has Saban reaching for aspirin and antacids and explanations, and a quest for solutions. So Saban earns $7 million annually, at least, and whether any college coach should be paid that much is a subject for another time.
Hillary Clinton would have been paid $400,000 as president of the United States, and whether she would have accepted it we’ll never know. Because she viewed the industrial states of the Midwest as in the bag, Alabama versus Arkansas Tech. Reveled in the adoration of the Pantsuit Brigade, oblivious to the angry energy of the opposition’s audiences, her team almost disdainful of the warnings her husband was sending. She trusted the polls, pre-season and beyond. Until the national championship, the one without an overtime.
Hillary never stopped over in Minnesota. Saban “never stops.” The difference.