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Alabama's Saban crafting remarkable but complex legacy

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There are two Nick Saban storylines in this national championship game, and together they define him.

The first is that, with a victory, Saban can stake his claim to being the best coach in college football history. It would be his fourth national title in his last eight years of college coaching: He won in 2003 at LSU and in 2009 and 2011 at Alabama. (He coached in the NFL in 2005 and 2006.)

We could argue about whether this surge of excellence surpasses longer runs of steady greatness by men like Woody Hayes, or whether it is as impressive as Bud Wilkinson going 51-2 in a five-year stretch at Oklahoma. We can wonder if the BCS has helped Saban: He has only produced one undefeated team, and the BCS allowed him a second shot at a conference rival, LSU, in last year's title game. (Under the rules in place for most of the sport's history, LSU would have faced a non-SEC team in a bowl and likely sealed the national title.)

We can even argue about whether the SEC's current run of dominance makes Saban's record more impressive (because the league is so hard to win) or less impressive (because the talent is concentrated in one part of the country).

We can argue about that stuff, but the point is: We're arguing about whether Saban is the best coach in college football history. Nobody wins that argument. The accomplishment is merely being a part of it.

So that's the first storyline. The second storyline is that the NFL may come calling again, and no matter what Saban says, people will wonder if he is leaving. And that is part of Saban's legacy, too.

*****

Alabama fans reading this are already annoyed, for two reasons: They are annoyed that I brought up Saban leaving for the NFL. And they are annoyed that I used Hayes as a model of greatness instead of Bear Bryant.

It doesn't matter how bright the sun shines in Tuscaloosa; the man coaching the Crimson Tide is always in Bryant's shadow. It was true for Ray Perkins, true for Bill Curry and even true for Gene Stallings, who played for Bryant at Texas A&M and won a national title with the Crimson Tide. It was true for the overmatched Mike DuBose and Mike Shula. It was true for Dennis Franchione, who bolted for Texas A&M when Alabama got whacked by the NCAA.

It should be true for Saban, too. But the core of Saban's genius is that he cares first about coaching football and second about coaching football. He does not get distracted by his place in history or what people are saying about him. He masters that pure coaching part of the job, makes it the only thing that really matters, and everything else falls into place.

This seems simple, but it is rare in college football. We hear coaches talk all the time about how the job is largely about recruiting and fundraising and dealing with the media and being the public face of the program. In the late stages of his career, even as his teams contended for national titles, Bobby Bowden was more of a CEO than a traditional coach. Mack Brown has won a ton of games at Texas, and it's not because of his game plans. He knows how to run a program.

Saban is different, and he has been different for more than two decades. And somehow, his near-total focus on football has given him an aura that is the envy of coaches who work really hard to create an aura.

For 20 years, Saban has been a wanted man. He has bounced back and forth between the NFL (where coaching is mostly about ... well, coaching) and college (where he has the most control). He left his first head-coaching job, at Toledo, to be a defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns. Very few coaches would make that move.

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Saban left Cleveland to be the head coach at Michigan State, but he never really stopped looking for jobs. Every year, it seemed, some NFL team called, and every year he listened. Sometimes we weren't sure if the call really came or not. Saban knew that having his name out there made him seem more appealing. In his first four years at Michigan State, his teams were mediocre, partly because of NCAA sanctions. But Saban's reputation kept growing. And when he finally broke through at Michigan State with a 9-2 season, he jumped to LSU.

There is a famous story about Saban sending a private plane back to East Lansing for the assistants who wanted to join him in Baton Rouge. The plane came back empty. (Well, I assume there was a pilot. And several small, lonely bags of peanuts.) The assistants stayed at Michigan State to work with Bobby Williams, who was one of them, and got to replace Saban.

If you hate Saban, you love that story, because it confirms that the man can be miserable to work for. But it's not quite that simple. Saban has hinted he did not want to bring some of those assistants to LSU anyway, because he wanted coaches who had recruited the South. And at least one of those assistants did end up working for Saban: Bobby Williams. He was an awful head coach who got fired in his third season. He has been an assistant under Saban at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama.

Saban can be ruthlessly demanding, but intensely (if selectively) loyal. You have to accept that everything he does, he does through the prism of the game. He bristled when people called him out on oversigning recruits and fell back on the classic football coach's defense: that nobody else understands what he is doing, so they should shut up.

And this brings us back to Bear Bryant. He was not simply one of the best coaches ever; he is synonymous with the state of Alabama in a way that no other coach has been synonymous with a state. (The closest comparison I could come up with: Adolph Rupp and Kentucky, at his peak. But that didn't last for 30 years after Rupp died.)

Nobody could possibly fill Bryant's footprints in Alabama culture. There are a thousand Bear Bryant stories that get better with each re-telling, and probably a dozen Bear Bryant quotes that almost everybody in Alabama knows. That would intimidate a lot of coaches, but Saban does not intimidate easily, and I don't think he spends a whole lot of time worrying about his place in Alabama culture. He worries about winning. And while Alabamians missed the Bear's persona, what they really missed was his winning.

The most famous quote of Saban's Alabama tenure was this: "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach." He said that when he coached the Dolphins, a few weeks before he left to be the Alabama coach.

This is how Saban has operated for many years. He did it because he could. He always knew that when it came to coaching football -- pure, hardcore, film-watching-until-your-eyelids-drop, technique-refining coaching -- he was the best. There is a famous line about Bryant: "He could take his'n and beat your'n, or he could take your'n and beat his'n." That is even more true of Saban. He has not won with a system or by being a guru. He is simply great at coaching football. It is no coincidence that Saban has become the game's preeminent coach in an era when winning is more important than it has ever been. With every passing year, college football looks and feels more and more like ...

The NFL.

There are open jobs all over the NFL, and Saban could absolutely be a great pro coach. (He went 15-17 in two years with the Dolphins.) He can deny interest as many times as he wants. With his track record, nobody should believe him until National Signing Day rolls around and he is still the Alabama coach.

Saban is 61 years old, so this is not just a question of what job he wants right now. It is about how he sees himself at the end of his career. Does he want the challenge of winning the Super Bowl? Does he want to match his mind against the best coaches in the world? Or does he want to stay at Alabama, where he can hoard talent and win 70 percent of his games in his worst year?

The young Saban would have jumped. I think the older Saban enjoys dominating the competition too much to leave. When Bryant left Texas A&M to return to Alabama, his alma mater, he gave a famous and perfect explanation: "Mama called." Saban can never say that Mama called. But he has built her one hell of an empire.

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