ARLINGTON, Texas — Nick Saban’s reputation as a joyless, monochromatic football dictator whose glare would melt Antarctica and whose rage could frighten statues back to life was never a complete picture of the man or the coach.
We got glimpses over the years of Saban’s humanity and likability, but it was never his defining feature. Saban as the impatient, intolerant grump who once famously complained to a golf buddy that playing in the national championship game had cost him a week of recruiting explained everything about why he’d become the most successful college coach of all-time.
But if you watched Alabama closely this season, Saban’s approach was fairly out-of-character compared to the Saban we’ve gotten used to over the last 20 years. When things went wrong for Alabama — and they went wrong plenty earlier in the season — he didn’t blow up at assistant coaches, lose his temper with sideline reporters or criticize the lackluster play of his team.
Instead, he seemed to appreciate whatever his players gave him, to actually enjoy and take in the wins as ugly as they might have been. Every time Saban went in front of a microphone, his public comments about this team were overwhelmingly positive and forward-looking. In November, he even called some Alabama fans “entitled” for complaining that they weren’t blowing teams out like they usually do.
“They’re just college students,” Saban said. “They go to school every day. They’ve gotta study, aight? They have to run extra after practice when they miss study hall. I mean, come on. Give me a break. This is not professional football. These guys aren’t getting paid to play here. They’re representing you all. You should be proud and happy to support them and appreciate what they do and have some gratitude.”
Was this Saban getting softer and more reflective as he reached his 70th birthday in October? Stopping to smell the roses a little bit as he nears the final chapter of his career? Accepting that this Alabama team just didn’t have a championship in it?
Heck no. It was just what the Crimson Tide needed from him to have a chance to end up in the place it reached Friday.
By rolling over Cincinnati 27-6 in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Alabama reached the national championship game for the ninth time in the last 13 seasons. None of those trips have been more remarkable or unexpected than this one, given where Alabama was as recently as Nov. 27 when it was an eyelash away from suffering its second loss of the season, against Auburn.
By Alabama standards, it looked like a rebuilding year. And had the Crimson Tide lost to Georgia in the SEC championship game, it would have been.
We’ll find out Jan. 10 whether the story ends with Saban’s seventh national title at Alabama and eighth overall. But regardless of the outcome, how he handled this team, how he developed it and how he gave his players the patience they needed should be remembered as arguably the finest coaching job of his career.
“I don’t want to call it nurturing, but I felt like we needed to do that with this team,” Saban explained Friday night after the destruction of Cincinnati was complete. “Just getting on these guys all the time wasn’t going to help their confidence, it wasn’t going to help the young players develop and then we started to develop some of these internal intangible things that really helped us grow as a team.”
Because Alabama has the best players, the most institutional commitment to winning and a staff so deep that multiple recent NFL head coaches work under him as assistants, it’s easy to lose sight of how difficult the job really is.
You don’t win as much as Saban just by screaming at them all the time. You don’t get guys like running back Brian Robinson Jr., to wait his turn behind other great players so he can run for 204 yards as a redshirt senior in a playoff game by being a jerk.
Every team has a unique personality. Every player is motivated by different things. Saban has been around long enough that when he won his first national title at LSU in 2003, the first iPhone was still four years away from being sold. You can’t do this as successfully for as long as Saban without having multiple gears and recognizing what he has to do to get a team to play its best.
There are certain fundamental things Saban stands for that haven’t changed over time, but he understands that times change. For the last several years, there’s been a lot of attention on how Saban evolved Alabama’s offense to make it more modern. But this year, the reason Alabama is playing for the national title is because he was patient enough to let it get there.
“We’re a relatively young team,” Saban said. “When you have success the previous season, which the guys that did come back were very successful, it really took a long time for us to sort of develop the chemistry on this team from a leadership standpoint. We had some great leaders on last year’s team, but even though guys have some leadership qualities, they don’t see that as their role. But we had some guys really step up.”
There have always been far more dimensions to Saban than most of the public saw. Only recently have we gotten a better sense of that — safety Jordan Battle famously revealed Saban’s affinity for “deez nuts” jokes in September — but he’s always had a remarkable ability to connect with 18- to 22-year-olds of all backgrounds.
And the more we see that side of Saban, the more we like him. Even this week, he produced a riotous moment of self-deprecation when he was asked if this Alabama team tested his patience during some of its struggles.
“I don’t have any patience, so anything that happens is a test of my patience,” he said, followed by a pause. “Including sitting in this chair right now.”
Everybody laughed, including Saban.
For so much of his career, Saban the human being and the football robot have been two entities. This year, we have seen how they work together. It hasn’t just entertained us, it’s explained how the most flawed team of this Alabama run is one win from claiming another national title.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nick Saban wasn’t himself this season. That’s what Alabama needed