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The Most Autocratic Coach in Sports


Hello Smirky

I feel like every time I write a post about Alabama, I have to apologize for it.  But darn it, Bama football is local news where I live.  I live in Tuscaloosa, and I just can't avoid the constant bombardment of commentary you get here.  When I get bombarded with news and commentary, sometimes I can't help but have an opinion about it.  And when I have an opinion about something, sometimes I take the time to express it publicly.  Not always, mind, but sometimes.  I have gotten much better in my adulthood about having a filter between brain and mouth (or brain and typing fingers, as the case may be).

If you live in Tuscaloosa (and what self-respecting LSU fans don't?), you can't help but know about the existence of the above cover and the linked article.  On the whole, the article is neutral-leaning-towards-complimentary puff piece about Alabama coach Nick Saban.  Sample paragraph:

Once he gets a player in the program, Saban becomes a Big Brother. He instituted a summer weight-training program. There are penalty points for missed classes and practices. All players have to attend personal growth seminars taught by Seattle's Pacific Institute. Saban also brings in speakers, including police officers and a former member of a mob family to talk about gambling. "We're trying to create thoughts, habits and priorities," he says. The program hasn't been wholly successful on that front yet. Ten players have been arrested since he took over. (All but one of the players arrested were recruited by the former regime.)

But let's examine the declaration that he is "Sports' Most Powerful Coach" a little closer.  The article does not say that Nick Saban is influential among his peers, or even that he is respected.  It does not say that Nick Saban draws a lot of water in the college coaching community.  What they say is that Nick Saban has the most power within his program of any coach in sports.  Forbes does not suggest that this power extends beyond the program, except you can say that it somewhat extends into the homes of recruits.

What Forbes is saying is that no coach in sports (not college football, or even college sports, but all sports) has had more power ceded to him by his higher-ups in the organization, and no coach has delegated less of that power to his underlings.  

Put this way, it's actually pretty hard to argue against the point.  It is very true that Nick Saban and the University of Alabama set a new standard for coach's salaries, at least at public institutions which must report their coach's salaries (private institutions like Notre Dame need not report, and do not report).  It is very true that no other coach at a big-time program has a contract that does not include a buy-out provision, meaning he can leave whenever he wants with no penalty.  It is very true, as the article states, that no coaches have so much power over administration, recruiting, public relations, fund raising, and business administration.  It is also very true that I cannot think of another coach that steadfastly refuses to allow his assistant coaches talk to media.  No coach controls the information that leaves his program as tightly as Nick Saban does.  It's actually rather curious that Nick Saban takes this route of being the sole spokesman for the program when he actually seems to be rather poor at the job at times, as the article points out:

With Saban's wide territory comes the job of managing public relations. That hasn't gone so well. The bad press Saban received after leaving Miami continued in his first year at Alabama. He snapped at reporters after losses. He rudely compared the Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State losses during the season to Sept. 11 and Pearl Harbor. "I've had my share of issues since I left Miami," he says. "I feel responsible for being able to manage the public relations better." He personally authorizes all interviews with his players and assistant coaches. "You'd like to have one message with multiple voices," he says. "But it sure is easier to control with only one voice."

There's that word.  "Control".  It strikes at the heart of what Forbes Magazine means when they say he's so powerful.  He has more control than anyone else.  In other programs, administrators such as the Athletic Director retain some power in the football program, as do university presidents.  In other programs, head coaches delegate responsibilities to assistants generously.  Not in this particular program.  If Nick Saban is "Sports' Most Powerful Coach", it is because the U of A administration chose to make him such.

I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with having all the power of the program concentrated in one person, but I also can't help but think there's a host of reasons other programs don't do it this way.  I think, for one thing, Nick Saban has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he's the "one voice" of the program, he's not a particularly good one voice.  He frequently antagonizes the media for no good reason, and often says very bizarre things that don't sit well with people.  See the above comments comparing bad losses to Pearl Harbor.

It also remains to be seen if the decision not to insist on a buy-out will come back to haunt Bama.  The rumors are out there already about programs like Washington and/or Penn State making a run at him.  There are also rumors that he is frustrated with the level of scrutiny he receives at his job and that he may want to get into a position that allows him to run free a little more.  LSU was such a job.  Alabama isn't.

Ultimately, I think this article does not mean that much.  There's talk of it aiding in recruiting, and I imagine it's possible the cover gets some recruits' attention, but more than anything it will probably just impress those who are already impressed with Nick Saban, and other factors will be far more important ultimately.