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On a midweek afternoon before Christmas, Saban sat at a small cluttered table tucked against a wall in his cavernous second-floor office. In front of him a Styrofoam container lay open, exposing iceberg lettuce littered with pieces of grilled chicken and splashed in clear dressing. "I do eat here every day," he said, sticking his fork into the lettuce. And in fact most days he eats this very same salad at the very same time. (When I met Saban, in 1997, he was coaching at Michigan State and eating meals out of Styrofoam boxes there as well.)
His office is on the second floor of a building at 233 Paul W. Bryant Drive, accessed by a driveway that is directly across from the Paul W. Bryant Museum. On six or seven Saturdays a year, his teams play football just down the street in Bryant-Denny Stadium, grown to more than 100,000 seats. It is not uncommon in American sports (though a little strange nonetheless) for coaches to labor in spaces named for their predecessors (Schembechler Hall, the Dean Smith Center and so on). But nowhere—and it's not close—is the presence of the past more palpable than in Tuscaloosa, where Bryant lives on three decades after his death. "It's almost a spiritual thing," says Bill Curry, who coached the Crimson Tide from 1987 to '89. "[The history] courses through your veins."
Bryant won his six national titles, wearing his houndstooth hat and speaking in a charbroiled rasp, while coaching the Tide from 1958 to '82. "[He] became a populist hero who hovered over the consciousness of not just every kid in the state but every adult as well," wrote Alabama native Warren St. John in his 2005 book, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. For the men who have followed Bryant, dealing with his legacy has become a large part of the job. Some succeeded: Gene Stallings (1990 to '96) won a national title in '92 and 71% of his games. Some failed spectacularly: Mike Shula (2003 to '06) finished 10--23, after victory-erasing NCAA sanctions. None have become icons.
With Monday night's victory Saban now treads upon Bryant's hallowed ground. There will never be another Bear, a fearsome disciplinarian who integrated his program only when it became apparent that he could win no other way. There will never be another Lombardi, either, for some of the same reasons. Games have changed, society has changed more. "Bryant coached football his way," says Curry. "Coaches nowadays have to deal with the whole range of human experience. That's just part of the culture."
Yet in Alabama, Saban has built an unlikely bridge between a simpler past and a much more complex present. As Bryant was a coach for his time, watching practice from a tower high above the fields, Saban is a coach for his, hands-on with defensive backs every day, throwing the pass routes in coverage drills. "Nick is a DB coach," Bill Belichick told me in 2010 after Saban won his first national title at Alabama. Misinterpreting the phrase, I agreed that those were Saban's roots, and Belichick upbraided me: "He's still a DB coach," Belichick says, explaining that Saban's attention to detail is what distinguishes him from others. "That's what makes him good at his job."
Belichick is not the only coach who respects Saban's methods. "The thing with Nick is that he's going to be on the cutting edge of technique in terms of all aspects of football, right down to the fine, fundamental details of playing particular positions, and all the way up to running a program," says Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who worked for Saban in East Lansing from 1995 to '99. "Little things make the difference. Nick takes care of those little things better than anybody else."
Yet Saban also understands what made Bryant both successful and sainted. "I read his book, I've heard a lot of stories," says Saban. "From what I understand, he was a very good fundamental coach. But what he really did well was create intangibles like toughness and discipline and giving great effort and executing your job. He was really good at those things. What you have to admire most about Coach Bryant is that he could do it for such a long time at such a high level. Because people think there is a continuum of success. There is no continuum of success. It starts over with every team."
And here is the underlying truth when it comes to Saban and the legacy that engulfs the state of Alabama to this day. "History," he says, "can't help us win the next game."
The word that's repeated endlessly in Saban's world is process. For the coach, every drill and every practice, every midweek meeting, is part of the Process. Alabama players are told to worry only about the parts of the process, not the end result.
Saban applies the process to himself as assiduously as to his team—not just in eating the same salad every day, but in adapting the crushing demands of his job to his life. Asked if he exercises regularly, Saban, who turned 61 on Halloween, said, "Not during the season. I run around on the field quite a bit. At this point in my life I'd rather work and then rest, rather than extending the workday by an hour to get in a workout. I used to be able to work and not sleep. When [Belichick] and I were with the Browns [in the early '90s], we'd stay up past midnight, get up at six and then do it again, day after day. I don't do that anymore. Get your work done by 10, get to sleep by 11 and then you can get up at six. But you have to get your work done by 10. That's why we put the whole process in place."