BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It’s a shame, really. What did Nick Saban ever do to anyone?
He’s never been convicted of a crime. Any crab legs he’s bagged at the grocery store were bought and paid for.
He’s a devout Catholic who, only a few months ago, wished reporters a happy Easter. Even if he secretly hoped they wouldn’t return from the holiday, it was a nice thing to say.
He’s a man of good works, too, with charitable organizations such as Nick’s Kids. Just last week he donated $50,000 to the V Foundation for cancer research.
Sure, he’s cursed a few times and been known to go on a rant, but what coach hasn’t? There was that one time Heath Evans accused him of stepping over a player who was convulsing on the practice field. But Evans went to Auburn, and everything is tainted by the Iron Bowl, right?
It’s not like TMZ ever caught Saban whipping some poor dog in the street. He’s never caused a government shutdown that we know of. He doesn’t pal around with Donald Sterling in L.A., and he didn’t have a secret hand in the situation in Crimea. He does have a certain Stalin-esque vibe, but that’s a comparison for another era.
Can we give the man a break, though? Can we give the Nicky Satan name-calling a rest?
The answer to that, obviously, is no.
This week Sports Illustrated.com named Saban one of the 35 most disliked people in all of sports. The website cited his “failures in the NFL” and "oversigning players" as cause for his unceremonious selection.
First, he won 15 games in two seasons at Miami. Saban’s predecessor was fired after going 4-12. The coach that followed him in 2007 went 1-15 and was immediately canned. Saban, meanwhile, left on his own terms. Second, he’s not the only coach in college football pushing the recruiting boundaries. Go look at how many players Butch Jones signed at Tennessee this year or how many Kevin Sumlin signed the year before that at Texas A&M. Hint: It’s a lot.
But the spine of SI’s argument is that, “Saban wins football games -- and doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks.”
That has a ring of truth to it. But in a results-based business, is that enough to be so disliked? His players love him and fans of Alabama adore him. Who else is he supposed to please? He’s not a Walmart greeter, remember.
And besides, it doesn’t seem fair to characterize him as completely uncaring. When he was called the devil by a former aide a year ago, he said it was “terribly disappointing.” He might be demanding, he said, “but it’s not personal.”
When asked Wednesday if the SI report bothered him, Saban said, “I didn’t even know about it, so I guess it doesn’t really bother me.”
But judging by his follow up, it might have.
"I try to do things the right way," he said. "I have a lot of compassion for people. We do a lot to help other people. We try to provide leadership to help young people have a better chance to be more successful in life. We do a lot for young kids.
“So, all's we can do is what we can control. What we can control is to try to do things the right way, help other people, have compassion, be a good leader, set a good example, care for other people, which we do, and I feel good about who we are and what we do and how we try to help others.
"If somebody else doesn't feel that way, I guess they're entitled to their opinion."
How that opinion is formed is what’s lost in all of this.
Perception is reality, and because Saban does nothing to soften his image, it remains that of a ruthless coach who wins at all costs. He’s not seen as likable because he doesn’t smile for the cameras or play along with the PR game. He barks at reporters, scowls on the sidelines and does nothing to let up on his competition, whether it's during games or in recruiting. He’s not likable because he’s the best.
And at 62 years old, why try to change that perception now? He might not agree with how he’s viewed publicly, but it’s gotten him this far.
Besides, at least he’s not the most disliked person in his own program. SI listed Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin No. 8 on its list, a full 14 spots ahead of Saban. That’s something, even if Saban was the one that brought him back into the fold after being fired at USC.
How’s that for being nice?
Saban might not like playing the part of the villain, but he sure keeps things interesting.