In Season of Saturdays, Michael Weinreb examines the evolution of college football, from its early days on elite Ivy League campuses to its current status as a corporate behemoth. Filtered through the stories of iconic coaches like Woody Hayes, Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier – and viewed through the prism of some of the most memorable games – it’s both a look back at how the sport became so fraught with problems, and a look ahead at how it might survive another century.
In this exclusive excerpt, Weinreb details the career of this era’s most domineering (and dominant) head coach, Alabama’s Nick Saban, the rebirth of the Oregon Ducks, and the influence both have had on the modern game…for better or worse.
An image I cannot shake: a Sunday morning in New Orleans, the day before the 2012 national championship game between Alabama and LSU, and the cabal that pulls college football’s pursestrings holds one of those press conferences where the opposing coaches are forced to pose together in front of the championship trophy. It’s awkward as hell, and if you listen real close, you can almost hear Nick Saban’s teeth grinding in sync with the camera shutters. But then, a revelation of sorts: During the Q&A session, Saban informs the media that he and his wife set their alarm for six fifteen every morning, and that they lie in bed and watch the Weather Channel for thirty minutes before rising to greet the day.
This is the kind of thing we cannot help but talk about when we talk about Nick Saban. This is the sort of punctilious anecdote that defines him as a public figure.1 I mean, who watches the Weather Channel for thirty consecutive minutes other than retirees, storm chasers and control freaks? Nick Saban is the greatest coach in twenty-first-century college football, and maybe the greatest coach who ever lived, precisely because he is an unapologetically maniacal perfectionist; he is, as he has said hundreds of times, entirely “process-oriented,” a “day-to-day guy,” and a day- to-day guy doesn’t leave the house without knowing for certain whether there is a warm front pushing across the southern plains. After making his initial confession, Saban joked that sometimes his wife spends that half hour in the morning lecturing him precisely on what he’s doing wrong, both as a football coach and a human being, but I kept imagining him tuning her out and day- dreaming of Oklahoma drills while the “Local on the 8s” music tinkles in the background.
One year later, the morning after Saban’s Alabama team embarrassed Notre Dame to win his third national championship over the course of four seasons, I was again sitting in a hotel ballroom, watching Saban summon yet another photograph smile while posing with four different national championship trophies. (I mean, the forcing of grins actually seems to cause him physical pain, like a toddler opening up for the dentist.) And in the midst of all this pretense, some young reporter asked Saban a question that amounted to, Why? As in, Why keep doing this same job if you seem to have mastered it completely? Also, Why so uptight, man?
Saban stared down the questioner for a second, and then he said this: “Why do you do what you do? Are you driven to be the best at what you do?” And as his eyes bored into the deepest recesses of the reporter’s conscience, the reporter replied, “Yes, sir.”
From there, Saban wound into a story that centered on an old Martin Luther King sermon about a shoeshine man who took pride in his work, and he said something about being the best street sweeper you could be, and I think we got a little glimpse of why the man, for all his ability to suck the oxygen from a press conference, is one of the best living-room recruiters who ever blew through the South. And I hurried back toward my hotel room, all fired up to be the best damned street sweeper I could be, just as soon as I stopped at Starbucks and checked Twitter and Facebook and watched a few minutes of CNN and ESPN and stared out at the pool seven stories below my window and let another hour of my life pass me by without accomplishing much of anything except the completion of the sentence you just read.
Such is the scuttled nature of my mind; such is the scuttled nature of modern life. Part of me is openly jealous of Nick Saban’s near-sociopathic dedication to his craft, even as I fear that he might one day immolate a man in broad daylight in order to further his aims Ultimately, though, I recognize that the only thing Saban is actively seeking to vaporize is the inherently random nature of college football itself, the unpredictability and the forgetfulness and the short-attention span theater that results from hurling twenty-two college-aged kids – or for that matter, any human being whose brain has been warped by the constant disturbances of a twenty-first-century existence – into a violent arena in front of a national audience. He may be better at minimizing distraction than any coach who ever lived, but the great thing about college football is that even with Nick Saban in charge, the game fights like hell against any attempt at regimentation. In the end, just as it did at the very beginning, the game finds a way to set itself free.
The first time I saw the University of Oregon play football, either live or on television –hell, the first time I became fully aware that the University of Oregon fielded a viable major-college football team – it was the second day of January in 1995.I had just graduated from Penn State, and I was fending off a throbbing hangover in the end-zone seats of the Rose Bowl, watching the Nittany Lions complete an undefeated season and
lose the national championship at the same time. The sun set over the San Gabriel Mountains, and the game never really felt close, even when it was. I wore one of the seventeen L.L.Bean flannels that made up my entire wardrobe at that juncture; the Ducks wore electric pants and emerald jerseys and helmets that appeared to have been slathered with honey-mustard sauce. Their uniforms stood out even then, a thumb in the eye of their region’s grungy ethos, as if they’d been contrived by a flamboyant Hollywood costume designer for the sequel to The Program that nobody awaited.
The Ducks lost that game 38–20,and the next year they got throttled 38–6 in the Cotton Bowl by Colorado, and after that, I just kind of assumed they’d recede into the landscape, into the vacuum that was college football in the state of Oregon, into the dense forest of ignominy that had once produced the worst rivalry game in the history of the sport: In 1983, in a driving rainstorm, Oregon and Oregon State turned the ball over eleven times, missed four field goals, and tied 0–0. (The game is referred to, in local lore, as the Toilet Bowl.)
It’s hard to fathom those games took place only a couple of decades ago; it’s astounding to think that those Teletubbies Oregon teams bear any relation to the metallic blur that, within less than twenty years, would become one of the most fascinating college football programs in America. What Oregon did over the course of those two decades, constructing an abruptly successful football program entirely through the power of modern marketing – and largely behind the fortune of a single benefactor, Nike CEO Phil Knight – is the most audacious and the most purely capitalistic experiment in modern sports. (Even now, I’m not sure if I should admire it or fear it.)
Other programs have attempted to elbow their way into the upper echelon of college football, but never with the sheen and panache and glitz of Oregon. As of 2014, the Ducks have not played a single game against Alabama, which is astounding, since they are the two highest-profile programs of their era: Both were ranked in the preseason top five every year from 2011 to 2013, and the Tide and Ducks appeared to be on a national- championship collision course midway through each of the last two of those seasons. Set them alongside each other, a nouveau riche Pacific coast clan of garishly dressed blue-state speedsters versus an institutional monarchy of crimson-clad conservative southerners, and it feels almost Gatsbyesque. So it goes in college football; it is a world in which everyone at the top is striving to transcend their circumstances, to engineer their own luck. But this is the inherent danger of investing in a sport so tenuous, a sport where one loss can knock you out of the upper echelon, a sport whose practitioners are so tantalizingly young. Sometimes, insane shit happens, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to control it.
Let us take a moment here to celebrate the roots of Nick Saban’s austere brilliance: This is a man who grew up in rural West Virginia, in the heart of coal country, whose father (Big Nick) ran a combination service station/Dairy Queen. This is a man who once, after he landed a D for refusing to get up and sing during a high school music class, was dragged by Big Nick 550 yards down into a mine shaft and told, If you don’t get a college education, this is where you’re going to end up every day. When he was eleven, Saban said, he started working at the service station; he cleaned windows, he checked oil, he gauged the tires and he washed cars. He especially hated the blue and the black ones, because if his dad found a single streak, he’d make him start over again. “That sort of perfectionist type of attitude that my parents instilled in me,” he said, “that’s probably still the foundation of the program we have right now.”
This is where Nick Saban came from, and this is where he’s coming from. He is a serious man who does not tolerate unserious men. He once told a friend that winning a national championship had gotten on his nerves since it fucked up his recruiting calendar by a week. For convenience, he famously rigged the door to his office so that it shuts by remote control, completely oblivious to the notion that this is exactly what a cartoon supervillain would do. When GQ reporter Warren St. John, riding in a car with Saban, repeated a line his daughter had uttered about Mick Jagger’s inability to hold a tune, Saban snapped back, “Mick Jagger can sing. Mick Jagger is a great entertainer.” His lone vice, best as we know, is the consumption of two Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies every morning for breakfast.
Saban came to Alabama in 2007 after the only true failure of his career, a short stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Before that, he’d coached under Bill Belichick, and he’d rebuilt the program at Michigan State, and he’d won a national championship at LSU. When he got to Tuscaloosa, the program was still haunted by the shadow of Bear Bryant, a coach who had died nearly twenty-five years before. Whereas the Bear stood distant but oozed charisma, Saban is directed almost entirely inward. Even the Alabama fan base, the most zealous in college football, treats Saban with a wary and distant curiosity; when Warren St. John (an Alabama alum) mentioned to a Crimson Tide fan whom he knew that he was going in search of evidence of Saban’s humanity, he was told, “There’s circumstantial evidence, but no proof.”
This is what Nick Saban brought to Alabama: the idea that process trumps personality. Alabama wins because it recruits better players, and then trains those players to minimize the risk of defeat. At this, Saban’s Crimson Tide are more efficient than any college team, ever.
In fact, the shadow of Saban’s comprehensive micromanagement looms so large that it’s already shaded into its own branch of myth: There was a report, the day of the 2012 national championship game in Miami, that Saban had ESPN removed from the televisions at the team hotel to avoid the chatter of the talking heads. I asked Alabama lineman Barrett Jones about this in the locker room afterward, and he assured me it was utterly false. But it spread because it seemed plausible. It is, after all, those small details that Saban notices that set him apart. “He’s full of little things,” Jones said. More than any coach who ever lived, he appeared to have prepared for everything.
After that Rose Bowl loss to Penn State, Oregon officials began to have discussions about improving the football program as a method of promoting the university. After a loss in the Cotton Bowl the next season, before those same officials even flew back from Dallas, they met with Phil Knight, who promised he would give his alma mater everything it needed to achieve sustained success, including a thorough rebranding. Hence: the endless garish uniform iterations that started cropping up in the early 2000s, along with the massive billboard of quarterback Joey Harrington that went up in midtown
Manhattan, along with the late-night airtime purchased on the YES Network in New York City so northeastern recruits could watch a tape-delayed broadcast of a team they would have otherwise never seen, along with the eventual adoption of a short-attention span offensive philosophy, under Coach Chip Kelly, that embraced
tempo and speed and is engineered for chaos. And, of course, there was the money: more than $300 million from Knight himself, which included money for a library renovation and a law center, but much of which went straight into football, into a stadium expansion and an athlete tutoring center and most recently, the (at least) $68 million Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, a Versailles replete with Nepalese rugs and a duck pond and a barbershop with utensils from Milan.
As the dollars poured in, as their closet of “alternate” uniforms expanded into the dozens, the Ducks got better and better. They recruited nationwide, stole athletes from California and Texas, found a quarterback out in Hawaii; in 2011, they came a few plays away from winning the national championship over Auburn. In search of something to differentiate themselves beyond the uniforms, they’d unearthed Kelly, who was, until 2007, a largely unknown offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire. Kelly’s system, his hurry-up offense, his use of pop-culture-laden placards to signal his plays from the sideline, his low-key intellectualism – all of it seemed deliberately progressive, a shake-up, a way to both market his program and improve it at the same time. It revolutionized offensive football.
And yet, for all this investment (both in dollars and intellectual capital),Oregon could not overcome bad fortune. In 2012, with a national championship berth within their grasp, with a team that had put up at least forty-two points in its first ten games, the Ducks lost to Stanford, 17–14, in overtime, in a game that could have gone either way. Kelly, perhaps sensing some fatal flaw in his own system (at least at the college level), left for the Philadelphia Eagles, to coach professionals who embrace repetition and precision as part of their vocation. In 2013, again undefeated, again on track for the national championship game under new coach Mark Helfrich (who maintained Kelly’s offensive system), the Ducks fell into a deep hole early, came back to make it close, but again lost to Stanford, a physical team with a strong defense that plays a lot like an Alabama of the west.
All that investment, all that effort, all those recruiting coups and facilities upgrades, and Oregon was still victimized by a single nemesis, still subject to the random cruelty of a high-octane offense that occasionally gets tripped up by its own chaos, still borne back ceaselessly into its own past.
As of 2014, the Ducks and their benefactors have spent upwards of half a billion dollars, and have yet to win a national championship.
The most utterly random sequence in the history of college football – the most unforeseeable single moment in the history of American sports – is the final play of the Cal-Stanford game in 1982. Trailing 20–19 after a heroic go-ahead field goal drive by Stanford quarterback John Elway, Cal received the kickoff with four seconds remaining, lateraled the ball five times, and reached the end zone as the Stanford band charged onto the field. The same guy who originally received the kick, Kevin Moen, weaved
through the band and wound up scoring the touchdown, plowing over a trombone player while doing so. That play is now known as The Play, because it needs no further embellishment; it is such a wondrous thirty-second encapsulation of the screwball nature of college football that even the trombone player (Gary Tyrrell) has achieved a measure of immortality. There have been other Cal-Stanford-like plays in both pro football and small-college football, but none is as patently absurd as Cal-Stanford, and none ever will be.
For a long time, I presumed nothing in my lifetime would ever top Cal-Stanford. For a long time, I imagined that Cal-Stanford would forever stand as the zenith of college football’s ability to surprise.
And then came the Iron Bowl.
Jesus. The Iron Bowl.
I will admit, when I first saw it, I thought the kick was going to be good. I was in a living room with five other adults, and ferocious in-state rivals Alabama and Auburn were tied at 28, and the officials had just put one second back on the clock to afford Alabama the chance to attempt a game-winning kick, and the Tide had already won two straight national titles coming into 2013 and were undefeated again and looked even more imperturbable than they had in previous years. So we all thought the damned thing was going to be good, and we continued to think so for multiple seconds, and part of that was the camera angle, the view from the end zone, the lack of depth perception inherent to watching field goal attempts on a flat-screen television, but mostly we thought the kick was good because of the man who chose to kick it.
That’s how thoroughly Nick Saban’s compulsive bent had wormed its way into our psyche by then: We just presumed that he had gamed this situation to the millimeter, that the kicker he trotted out to attempt a 57-yarder routinely made clutch practice-ending kicks from seventy-seven yards with a Mastodon album playing on Klipsch speakers four feet away and a student manager blowing an airhorn in his face. This is the same man who formulated an extensive contingency plan just in case his team ever faced a lightning delay; surely, he had this scenario covered in some laminated binder filed in an underground vault under the letter K.
So I thought the kick was good, and that’s pretty much all I was thinking, and when it turned out it didn’t have the distance and it landed in the arms of an Auburn defensive back named Chris Davis, I wasn’t really thinking anything at all, because I was too busy screaming. Davis returned the ball upfield and along the sideline (a perfectly legal move on a missed field goal) and no one touched him; he outran the holder and outran some huffing offensive linemen and he scored the most holy-shit touchdown in the long history of holy-shit touchdowns. I was in that living room with those five full-grown adults and two children, and the adults were all screaming, Holy shit, and the kids were sitting there placidly, staring at the television screen and grinning and relishing that rare instant when the adults became the children.
I imagine you might have had a similar experience on that particular Saturday night, if you happened to be in front of a television set for the climax of the Auburn-Alabama game. (After it happened, a whole subculture of YouTube videos of people reacting to the last play popped up, which led me to wonder if more people than I realize either 1) take the time to stage moments like these using their DVRs and iPhones, or 2) are insane enough to maintain twenty-four-hour surveillance on their own living rooms.) I cannot think of a single play in any sporting event I’ve ever watched that so completely traversed the spectrum of emotion from one pole to the other. It defied logic, and it defied common sense, and all the immediate talk about whether it was the greatest finish of any game ever (which happens so often in this age of immediacy that it’s often hard to tell if those claims carry any weight) tends to ignore the context of what made it so surprising in the first place, which is that it happened to a man whose legacy is grounded in the idea that he has a contingency plan for every situation.
Cal-Stanford was a break in the fabric of reality that will never be replicated, and Doug Flutie’s last-second Hail Mary to lead Boston College over Miami was a Catholic prayer, and Boise State–Oklahoma was a Disney fairy tale. These things happen every so often, and sometimes they even happen more than seems humanly viable: Two weeks prior to the Iron Bowl, Auburn had beaten Georgia on a fourth-and-eighteen tipped Hail Mary pass in the final minute. But this play, because it happened to Nick Saban, because it happened to the one man who seemed to have succeeded in wrangling spontaneity, tying its hands, and locking it in a basement with no food or water…this play is the most surprising sequence in the history of college football.
And I suppose that’s the overarching idea I’m trying to communicate here, and I suppose this is at least part of what I mean when I’ve tried to explain, throughout the previous dozen chapters, why college football is fundamentally different than every other sport. In the end, it reverts back to the beginning. This is a pastime that was born as a spontaneous exercise on the grassy courtyards of the Ivy League, the brainchild of restless undergraduates seeking to blow off steam by barking each other’s shins and throwing punches. And even now, 150 years later, as it is industrialized and corporatized and rendered in Technicolor at places like Oregon, as it is commanded and controlled and repressed by scrupulous men like Nick Saban, it is still ultimately untamable. There are those who seek to maintain control over the beast, and there are those who wish to set it free. Eventually, the adults give way to the children, and all we can do is watch.
Excerpted from Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games by Michael Weinreb. Copyright 2014 by Michael Weinreb. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.