PHOENIX — Nick Saban wants people to know he’s not as unhappy as he often looks.
Yes, he’s the workaholic son of a hard-edged father who ran a gasoline service station in a West Virginia coal mining community and coached youth football, and yes, he has a responsibility to keep churning out College Football Playoff title contenders as Alabama’s football coach. But just because he’s committed to what he calls “the process,” it doesn’t mean he’s unhappy.
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Saban’s exasperation is obvious when asked about the portrayal of him as a humorless taskmaster. “It’s not accurate in my opinion at all,” Saban said before Monday night’s meeting with Clemson for the CFP title. “I’m a very happy person. Maybe my demeanor, image created by a lot of you, doesn’t necessarily reflect that. I’m a very happy person, and I’m a very serious person about trying to do the things to have a very good program . . . And I have a lot of fun, I really do.”
Everybody got that straight?
Saban’s so-called image problem has been exacerbated by the contrast with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose demeanor is that of a joyful quipster capable of relating to his athletes in a more fun-loving way. That fueled the perception heading into the CFP finale that the No. 1 Tigers (14-0) were looser than the No. 2 Crimson Tide (13-1), whose season will be regarded by many as a failure if they don’t bring home a 16th national football championship.
Commenting on his own image, Swinney said, “At the end of the day, everybody just has to be who they are. I mean, to me it would be sad to come up here at a national championship setting and be all stressed out. I’m too blessed to be stressed.
“I don’t think you’ve got to come up here and act like you’re miserable or something. That’s just not who I am. So I just try to be consistent with my team, and I hope that they have some fun along the way . . . They’ll remember some wins and losses, but I really want them to have had a great experience and to have enjoyed the people they were around.”
In truth, there are more similarities than differences between Saban and Swinney; they just have different ways to skin the same cat. Swinney was imbued with an understanding of what it takes to succeed at the highest level as a wide receiver on Alabama’s 1992 national champions, and he was an assistant there for eight seasons. Now, he clearly aspires to match the success of Saban’s program, which produced three national titles in the previous six years before Monday night’s game.
Swinney repeatedly has noted that Clemson and Alabama are the only teams in the country to win at least 10 games in each of the past five seasons.
“At Alabama they expect you to win the national championship every year, and at Clemson it’s only every other year,” Swinney joked. “I think both places are incredibly passionate. That’s why I think it was such a great fit for me coming from Alabama, the expectations that were kind of just ingrained in me, that expectation, that hey, we win, and when you don’t, nobody is happy.”
When Saban took over as Alabama’s coach, he tried to hire Swinney away from Clemson, where he was an assistant under Tommy Bowden, because he recognized a kindred soul in terms of ability and work ethic. Now, they both socialize at their vacation retreats in Boca Grande, Florida. Maybe Swinney’s personality has rubbed off a bit on Saban, who has gone out of his way to praise this Alabama team.
But the notion of having fun along the way isn’t exactly second nature to Saban, who said, “The most difficult thing as a coach is when you feel like you’re more committed and you’re trying harder than some of the players are. I think that gets a little on the disappointing side.
“But when you have a team like this that has done the things like you want and done it as a total group, that is very satisfying. At the same time, you would like to see them make sure that they finish it the right way.”