Sports column: Love him or hate him, Saban will be missed in the SEC
Published 11:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2024
If you follow Southeastern Conference football at all, you probably have a strangely complex emotional relationship with Nick Saban.
The longtime Alabama coach, who announced his retirement this week, is perhaps the greatest college football coach who has ever lived — or maybe just one who had the good fortune to work at a place with seemingly infinite resources and the will to use them.
He’s a hero, or a villain. A master of wry deadpan humor, or a jerk.
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How you view Saban likely depends on what team you root for. If you finish sentences with “Roll Tide” and most of your outfits have a houndstooth pattern, then Saban is a football deity. If you are a fan of any of the other 13 SEC teams he’s the devil incarnate, a professional dream smasher who gleefully rips your heart out and stomps on it.
Almost since the moment Saban took over Alabama’s program in 2007 the rest of the SEC has been trying to play catch-up. Some have gotten the upper hand here or there, but the road to Atlanta always runs through Tuscaloosa and we’re not talking about I-20.
Whatever accomplishment your team achieves, Alabama seems to say, “That’s cute. We did that last Tuesday,” before mercilessly crushing their dreams.
When Mississippi State got to a No. 1 ranking for the first time ever in 2014, who ended the run? Alabama.
Whenever Ole Miss is undefeated in late September and feeling good about life, who appears on the schedule to provide a swift kick to the groin? Alabama.
LSU fielded what is often regarded as the best college football team ever in 2019. In 2020, Alabama went undefeated with a team that is also in that discussion.
Even when you beat Alabama, you never finish them off. Two of Saban’s six national championships with the Crimson Tide came in seasons in which they didn’t win the SEC West. The Tide shook off late-season losses to LSU in 2011 and Auburn in 2017 to earn spots in the national playoffs and then won it all. Ole Miss beat them in 2014 and 2015, yet somehow Alabama regrouped and won the SEC title both years.
All of which brings us back to Nick Saban. He created a standard of excellence that I’m not sure we’ve seen in modern college football. Every program seems to have the occasional bad break or two that leads to an 8-4 season.
Saban kept grinding through any tough stretches, always piling up wins and always getting better. At some point it’s more than luck or a fluke. It’s an obvious skillset that few possess. All you can do is tip your cap and respect it, albeit grudgingly.
Saban set a standard for other SEC teams that raised everyone in the conference up a level. Alabama beats everyone, and to reach their level all you have to do is beat everyone AND Alabama. The Tide was the final boss, the big bad that was always lurking at the end of the season that any challenger has to get through.
Saban’s successor might keep that vibe going. Georgia’s Kirby Smart or LSU’s Brian Kelly might inherit the role. But no one will make it look as annoyingly effortless as Saban did.
Saban was simultaneously the SEC’s greatest living legend and its greatest supervillain. The sports world needs both. However you feel about him, it’s easy to admit that he’ll be sorely missed when football season comes back around in August.
Ernest Bowker is the sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org