A coffee break for weary Tide and its driven coach, soon-to-be 70 Nick Saban | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Age is just a number but that won’t stop anyone, not the Alabama supporters eager for him to stay as the Crimson Tide’s football coach forever or the opposition who would like to see a mandatory return age imposed, from looking at Nick Saban’s 70th birthday from every possible angle, seeking clues to any differences in his approach, looking for any possible signs that Saban might be slowing down or mellowing.

The cultists convinced that Saban’s Halloween birthday must have some sinister significance drove themselves around the far curve and into Lake Tuscaloosa long ago.

That doesn’t stop anyone looking for clues. Is Saban as volatile as he once was? Does he have the same inner fire? Has becoming a grandfather suddenly opened a new door to babies and puppies? 

Most of the rituals he’s observed for recent birthdays remain the same. He will coach for the rest of the week, then give his team a couple of days off while he and his family have a low-key weekend at his Lake Burton, Georgia, lake house, an idyllic setting for brief relaxation.

Whether Saban takes time in contemplation, I don’t know. His personal life gets plenty of public scrutiny as it is, but everyone deserves a private moment or two, so I don’t ask. From his answer to a  “birthday” question at the Birmingham Quarterback Club on Monday, perhaps he does grow thoughtful. 

“When  you get to a certain point birthday-wise, I don’t know,” Saban said. “It makes you think about a lot of things that you could back up and do differently. I guess that’s a part of the experiences that you develop through the years.”

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There is a part of the Alabama fan base that is so wired into football (and winning every game)  that they immediately translate every “do differently” into football terms and argue about the finer points of clock management. The tender moments are fine for them as long as they don’t shake the other image of stern autocrat, driving a football machine, striking down a media question he doesn’t like with a Zeusian thunderbolt. (“Saban baby” carries weight on the internet but still not as much as “Saban rant.”)

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Here is a point to ponder, though. Saban is navigating uncertain waters. At 70, he has now surpassed the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, who passed away at 69. The comparisons between the two could fill a book so at this point, the similarities of men who grew up in tough regions and built great competitive fire is enough. Beyond that, college football is a different world. But at 70, who has ever carried the mantle of “greatest coach ever” every day? You can look at Bowden or Paterno but those become cautionary tales eventually. So who else has ever walked this exact path? 

Age is just a number. So are seasons. Alabama’s dynasty has been declared “dead” before, when Saban was 65 and lost a game to Ole Miss. Turning 70 isn’t some dramatic line drawn in the sand of college football dominance. The Crimson Tide has left itself little on-the-field margin for error in 2021 but might have the nation’s best quarterback and its best defensive player in 2022 so let’s not be hasty here.

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No one can know what will happen for Saban going forward and, to be fair, even he has to have a sense of mystery about the future.

My birthday wish for Nick Saban isn’t for him to keep winning football games, as grand as that would be in Tuscaloosa. My wish, or wishes, would be that he still sees every day as a challenge, that he has wisdom to reflect on the past as every man or woman does and to do so on his own terms and, frankly, to recognize that he doesn’t really owe anyone anything more as he goes forward. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt