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Supreme talent in highly competitive fields is incredibly rare. As you move into the highest echelons of any profession, the difference between most top performers is slight. But there are always a couple of outliers, individuals with such supreme talent that they surpass everyone around them, the 1% of the 1%. Michael Jordan at the peak of his powers with the Chicago Bulls was the unquestioned supreme champion of basketball, the greatest of the great. No one could beat his Bulls. If Jordan hadn’t taken two years off to play baseball while he was secretly suspended for gambling on NBA games by David Stern (this is my theory for what actually happened) the Bulls would have won eight consecutive NBA titles.
It wasn’t that everyone else wasn’t good, there were plenty of good teams. Go back and look at the rosters of the Utah Jazz, Seattle Supersonics, New York Knicks, and Phoenix Suns, they were all loaded with future NBA hall of famers too. It wasn’t that those teams stunk, it was just that Jordan and his Bulls were better. Right now Nick Saban is the Michael Jordan of the SEC and his team is the modern day Chicago Bulls and in a quest to beat Saban, the rest of the SEC is driving itself crazy.
That’s because no other part of America loves any sport more than the South loves college football. Every morning half of the fan bases in this region wake up believing that they should be national champions. Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, and Florida have all won national titles since 1998. Georgia has been achingly close. And fan bases in Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Missouri and South Carolina are all so rabid that they believe they should be title contenders too. (Vanderbilt and Kentucky are really the only schools that seem to realize their limitations). That’s partly because the rising tide of SEC dominance has lifted all boats. If five teams in the SEC have won titles in the past 17 years, why shouldn’t your team win one too? The national title seems achingly close to SEC fan bases, its akin to living next door to a billionaire, if he can have a private island, why can’t you too?
If anything, I think what we’ve all been guilty of, myself included, is not acknowledging how rare Nick Saban’s talents really are. Incredibly, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide have been favored in 80 consecutive football games. It isn’t just that Saban’s the best coach, it’s that he always has the best players too. The last time Alabama was an underdog at kickoff was against Florida in the 2009 SEC title game. How long ago was that? Tim Tebow was the Florida Gator quarterback and Urban Meyer was still coaching the Gators.
When Alabama lost at home to Ole Miss earlier this year — turning the ball over five times and falling to 12-4 in its past 16 games — I was quick to pronounce the Saban dynasty as over. I was wrong. In hindsight we can see that performance was an outlier that wasn’t reflective of the overall health of the program. Now that the entire 2015 regular season has been played, it’s easy to see that Saban still had better talent than anyone else in the SEC, and no one else has been able to catch up to Alabama since 2009.
Saban’s dominance is the real story behind LSU’s failed coup d’etat to replace Les Miles and the successful overthrow of the Mark Richt regime at Georgia. Both coaches had no business being fired. Richt was the second most successful coach in Georgia history, Les Miles is the most successful in LSU history. In any other time in SEC history their success would have been trumpeted. Especially given that both men helped to cement the rise of both programs from periods of historical malaise. I’m 36 so I’m old enough to remember LSU and Georgia both stinking for most of my childhood. Mike Archer, Curley Hallman, Gerry Dinardo, Ray Goff, and Jim Donnan were all unsuccessful head coaches at both schools. Compared to these guys Richt and Miles are worthy of statues. But Richt and Miles aren’t being compared to their predecessors at Georgia and LSU — they’re being compared to Nick Saban, the most dominant coach in the history of the SEC.
If Saban signs Drew Brees instead of Daunte Culpepper and remains the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, it’s possible that right now Les Miles is considered one of the ten best coaches in college football history. Les might well have three national championships. It’s probable that Mark Richt would have at least one national title himself too. (Richt’s Bulldogs narrowly missed a chance at the 2012 title when the clock ran out on their attempted upset of Alabama). Instead Saban’s won those national titles and Miles and Richt have merely been very good coaches at their respective schools. Very good used to be good enough. No longer.
And it’s not just Georgia and LSU. Tennessee’s quest to find its own Nick Saban cost Phil Fulmer, the second most successful coach in Tennessee history behind the guy they named the stadium after, his job. Then Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin to beat Saban. When Kiffin bolted Tennessee attempted to hire Derek Dooley and even requested a recommendation from Saban in doing so. When Dooley crapped out, the Vols went and hired Butch Jones. Screw keeping up with the Jones’s, right now everyone in the SEC is trying to keep up with the Saban’s.
And the problem is, they can’t. Because — and all of you SEC fans need to hear this to keep you from going insane — SABAN’S COACHING TALENT IS INCREDIBLY RARE. Nick Saban is winning at Alabama, but if Nick Saban was at Florida or Tennessee or Georgia or LSU or Texas A&M or any other top 25 program in the country he’d be winning at the same high level. Saban isn’t winning because he’s at Alabama, he’s winning because he’s Nick Saban. You can’t hire your own Nick Saban because there aren’t very many Nick Saban’s in our lifetimes.
Saban’s dominance is so compelling there’s the belief that the best way to beat Saban is to hire those who have worked for him, evidently embracing the absurd concept that coaching genius is contagious, that the penumbra of Saban’s greatness will implant itself on others who have spent enough time near him. Will Muchamp at Florida, Derek Dooley at Tennessee, Jim McElwain at Florida, soon to be Kirby Smart at Georgia, all of these coaches owe their jobs to their connection to Saban. The idea is that these guys can all learn how to win by having seen Saban win. But this is a flawed concept. If proximity to coaching greatness led to championships, everyone should just hire Teri Saban, she’s been around Nick longer than anyone. That’s stupid, right? Yet that’s how much Jedi mind control Nick Saban has over the rest of the SEC right now, if you can’t get Saban, get the next best thing to Saban, someone who has worked near him. Put in any other context, this idea is even more ridiculous. You don’t win a Nobel Prize for literature by hiring William Faulkner’s typist. If you want genius, you hire the genius. If you don’t hire the genius, more often than not, you lose to him.
The same thing is playing out in the NFL right now. Everyone loses except for Bill Belichick, Saban is the college version of Belichick. Ultimately Nick Saban and Bill Belichick’s coaching trees have no branches. Their genius is solitary. What do Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini all have in common? They were Belichick disciples who got head coaching jobs and all failed on their own. That’s because you can’t beat Belichick by hiring his typist either. Greatness isn’t transferable based on coaching proximity.
There are lots of good coaches in college football, but there are very few individuals who are so good that they’re the best of all time. Saban is Jordan, Jordan is Saban. Firing someone because they aren’t beating Nick Saban is akin to being upset at Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone because they don’t have title rings. All four of these guys are among the 50 greatest players in NBA history. They’re all very, very good, supreme stars at their craft. But they aren’t the greatest of all time because they all lost to Jordan.
Should you hold that against them or should you buckle up, do the best that you can to compete and hope that eventually you can put together the right string of players to help to end Saban’s Alabama dynasty? Eventually all dynasties die, ask Pete Carroll at USC. There’s nothing wrong with being very good. But in the SEC right now being very good isn’t good enough, you have to be great.
The challenge of being great?
There’s only one Nick Saban.
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