For Alabama football fans, a win against Louisiana State University is always delicious, but the Tide’s 55-17 demolition of the Tigers on December 5 added the spice of revenge, easing the pain of Alabama’s 46-41 loss last November. This year’s victory was all the sweeter because of the hype LSU received at the end of the 2019 season. Alabama lost only two games last year, but sports analysts instantly began telling stories about the collapse of Coach Nick Saban’s empire. Bama was on the way out; LSU was the new king of the conference. Hail the conquering Tiger!
It hasn’t turned out that way. Alabama is currently 10-0 and headed for the SEC championship against Florida on Saturday. They have utterly dominated. The offense is in the top five in rushing and passing yardage and averages nearly 50 points a game. Since October, no opponent has scored more than two touchdowns. Meanwhile, LSU has had the worst season ever for a defending champion. They redeemed their season somewhat with a bizarre victory over fifth-ranked Florida, but overall it’s been a joyless year in Death Valley.
There’s a story here that goes beyond gloating. Saban has been at Alabama since 2007. He took over a legendary but declining program and turned it into a perennial contender for the national title. Saban has won 88 percent of his games, a 166-23 record, with five national titles. How does it keep happening? Why doesn’t Alabama collapse every now and then? How do you build a program where a two-loss season feels catastrophic?
Recruiting is obviously one of the main ingredients of Saban’s magic sauce. He spots talent, but he also observes and listens to figure out what motivates each player and to determine whether or not they fit into his process. Year after year, he brings in new players who ease into slots vacated by departing juniors and seniors. When Derrick Henry takes his runaway tank schtick to the NFL, there’s a Damian Harris waiting in the wings, then a bouncing wrecking ball like Najee Harris.
But it’s not just recruiting or individual stars. At Alabama, Saban has created a culture that, I suspect, ultimately reflects his Catholic convictions. Like all the greats, Saban is a catechist and liturgist as much as a coach.
His catechesis is rooted in a Serenity Prayer insight: Focus your energy and mind on what you control, every minute of every day. Learn to find satisfaction in preparation—in conditioning, practice, academics; learn to delight in the nuts and bolts of execution. Don’t dream of holding up a trophy, don’t listen to puffy press coverage; do everything right, and the outcome will take care of itself.
Everything means everything. Alabama players get demerits if they leave their jerseys untucked during a game. When Saban arrived, one fan noticed the Tide’s sidelines were trash-free at the end of games. Alabama players are barraged with proverbs: “We want to develop thoughts, habits, and priorities”; “How you do anything is how you do everything”; “You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse.” Former players say these maxims guide them long after graduation. Ego is the original sin. Early on, Saban hung a sign outside the locker room that read, “Out of Yourself and Into the Team.”
Practices and drills are the violent liturgy of Alabama football. It’s said that no college team practices as intensely as Alabama. Players don’t drill until they do it right; they drill until habits are so ingrained they can’t do it wrong. Saban insists success is the product of hard work and discipline, and discipline is fundamentally self-control, the ability to do right even if you don’t want to and the ability to quell the desire to do wrong. Drills have a moral dimension, inculcating character traits as well as physical skills.
That moral aim runs through the program. Saban is often regarded as a one-dimensional football madman, obsessed with winning. To some degree, he’s earned the reputation by his intensity and relentless work habits. The full truth, though, is nearly the opposite. Saban is successful because he aims to produce men, not merely football players. He doesn’t flatter recruits by promising they’ll start or star. He promises players they’ll win, graduate, and become better men in the process. “Our goal is to help the players become more successful people, to develop thoughts, habits, and priorities to make good decisions,” Saban has said. “If you have the right thoughts, habits, and priorities, which in one sense is the definition of character, that determines the choices you make. We’re trying to affect those things. If they can do those things here, they can do them anywhere. They can be successful as players, students, and people.”
All this translates into a forward-looking philosophy. There’s always something to improve, always another game and another season around the corner. Pursue perfection; you can’t achieve it, but that means you can pursue perfection again, and fail again, in the next practice or game or season. 2019 left a lot of room for improvement, but in Saban’s view, so will 2020, no matter the final rankings. Pursuing and not reaching perfection applies to football because it’s what life is all about. The only failure is to give up the pursuit. “We cannot depend on the success of the past to help us be successful in the future,” Saban once told boosters. “That’s the kiss of death.”
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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