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College Football Never Made Sense. Nick Saban Was the Exception.

College football has always been the sport with the deepest connection to the cracked, beautiful, and terrifying carnival of the American psyche, and no one seemed to comprehend and control that carnival like Saban

Getty Images/Associated Press/Ringer illustration

The billboards say hell is real. You’re driving on … let’s say I-44, going west across Missouri. Gentle green hills. Cavern tours off the exits. Not much to look at, so you look at the signs. Gun shop. Pawn shop. Sex shop. The Precious Moments Chapel is 26 miles away. The Nissan ahead of you has one bumper sticker that reads STARFLEET ACADEMY HONORS STUDENT and another bumper sticker that reads I ♥︎ MY PET GHARIAL. Wait, you think, isn’t a gharial a kind of crocodile? Can you keep one as a pet? Is that legal? You’re wondering whether to ask Siri about this when the black billboard catches your eye. It’s taller than the other billboards, elaborately floodlit. In a plain font, it informs you that the inferno is a real place. And it is waiting for you.

I’m thinking about this American snapshot because Nick Saban, the NCAA football coach who won a national title with LSU and then six more at Alabama, is retiring at the age of 72. College football always has been the sport with the deepest connection to the cracked, beautiful, and terrifying carnival of the American psyche—our freeway cave tours, our churches based on collective figurines, our intermittent faith in fiery retribution—and no one in this young millennium has seemed to comprehend and control that carnival like Saban. Other college football coaches, even great ones, seem like sideshow acts; Saban was our grumpy ringmaster. He was so good at his job that he almost made you believe college football could make sense.

Think about this. Let’s get schematic about it, as he would surely want us to do. What is college football? It’s an amateur sport worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a perennially corrupt sport run by the NCAA, the most fussy and showy rules-enforcement body in the history of rules. It’s a sport that has almost nothing to do with the mission of any university that’s ever been founded, yet it controls the fates of university presidents with an ease that’s the envy of conservative billionaires and The New York Times. It’s a sport that romanticizes the life lessons it teaches young men, and that is also absolutely drenched with gambling money. It’s a sport that loves hard statistics and that cannot find a way to select a national champion that doesn’t involve dudes in a room talking about their feelings. It’s a sport that takes the blood-soaked regional rivalries of American history and reimagines them as a kind of interpretive dance, complete with marching bands and mascots with styrofoam heads.

Week after week, game after game, nothing about college football is rational. Nothing about it slots cleanly into an analysis of cause and effect. Yet year after year, there was Saban grimacing on the sideline, not just running the most consistently elite program in the country—nine SEC championships at Alabama, multiple undefeated title runs, zero losing seasons—but also the most obsessively fine-tuned program, the most unromantically pragmatic. Saban famously switched from a defense-first mindset to an offense-first mindset halfway through his run at Alabama, a shocking transformation for a coach who’d once looked at the rise of the no-huddle offense and gloomily asked, “Is this what we want football to be?” But it doesn’t really matter what you want football to be. You see the direction the game is going, and that’s where you have to go. Most coaches, entrenched in their own philosophies, would have struggled to make such a sweeping change. Saban just went from having the top-ranked defense almost every year to having the top-ranked offense almost every year. The apparent effortlessness with which he reversed his entire approach to the game was one mark of his thorough grasp of the mechanics of the sport; another was the 2013 moment, much chuckled about at the time, in which GQ’s Warren St. John recorded him complaining that winning the national championship had cost him a week of recruiting.

For 20 years, Saban’s top rivals were chaos agents whose personal brands of chaos just happened to align with whatever form of madness was then dominating the sport. Les Miles? Great coach in so many ways, but also the sort of dude you’d put on a train to Moscow in 1917 to destabilize the Russian empire. Dabo Swinney? We are barely two months removed from the glorious day when he launched into a five-minute tirade directed at a talk-radio caller known only as “Tyler from Spartanburg.” Jim Harbaugh? My guy just won a national title after spending a significant portion of the season under suspension. (Even Harbaugh’s pants are chaotic.) Chip Kelly? It would be easier to list the things about him that aren’t chaotic. Jimbo Fisher? Friend, when your Wikipedia page includes an extended section debunking rumors that you intend to found a beef-jerky company when you leave football, you are not merely in the American chaos, you are of it.

With Saban, though? You got none of that. You got a weary frown, maybe a mild raising of the eyebrows. Saban invariably gave the impression of standing to one side of the maelstrom, being unimpressed and maybe a little annoyed by the maelstrom. Couldn’t it whirl a bit better? In 2017, The New Yorker called Saban “college football’s uncharismatic conservative.” Like Bill Belichick, whose departure from the New England Patriots was announced just a day after Saban’s retirement, Saban combined technical mastery with an overpowering aura of having acquired that technical mastery while grouchily reading on the toilet. Take him out for a big Tex-Mex dinner, you felt, and he’d come back the next day with an empty bottle of Pepto-Bismol and a thorough understanding of quantum physics. College football’s coaching ranks—including the ranks of assistant coaches at Alabama itself, not that I’m looking hard at Lane Kiffin right now—essentially function as a wildlife preserve for large adult sons. Saban was the game’s closest approximation of an actual grown-up. He was Big Dad Vibes personified.

Am I going to miss him? I don’t know. What I love about college football is more or less the way it spins half off its axis at all times, and the weird accord between the game and the culture in which it’s set: gun shop, pawn shop, sex shop, touchdown. I certainly don’t love it for the calm, predictable stability that Saban strove for and epitomized. At the same time, I watched Alabama’s overtime loss to Michigan last week—Saban’s last game, though we didn’t know it yet—with my brothers-in-law, and near the thrilling end of regulation, there was a moment when one of them said, “Unlike 90 percent of head coaches in the NFL, Nick Saban actually understands clock management.” What a relief, I thought, to be watching someone so undramatically competent. There are fewer and fewer points of stability, in this sport and in this country, and in his dour way Saban was one of them. The game will feel a little more off-kilter without him.

Even his retirement, as surprising as it is, seems imbued with the exactitude he brought to the profession. It isn’t about feelings. It isn’t about inspiration or magic. He just ran the numbers and realized this was the time. “You have to be able to adapt,” he said just before that loss to Michigan. “I always say dinosaurs couldn’t adapt and they’re not around anymore.” I remember the way Saban’s Alabama dominated Penn State late in Joe Paterno’s career, after Paterno had hung around a few years too long and the game had passed him by. I don’t know what true torment looks like, but for a legendary football coach I’d guess it looks like struggling to stay relevant while younger coaches look at you with pity. Saban, who has appeared to enjoy the current NIL era of NCAA quasi-amateurism even less than he enjoys most things, wasn’t going to let himself be passed by the way Paterno was. Hell may be real, but you can avoid it with good clock management.