ATHENS, Ga. – He’d yet to win a national title at Alabama and the so-called “process” was still in its infancy, but it was about four years ago that I sat in Nick Saban’s office and heard something that stuck with me.
“I look at this job as a way of life,” Saban told me. “The only way I can do it is the way that I do it. And if I don’t want to do it that way, then I’d rather not do it at all. That’s the way I am.”
He then paused for a moment to reflect on what he’d said.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
And it’s one that comes to mind this week as second-ranked Alabama (11-1) prepares to take on third-ranked Georgia (11-1) in Saturday’s SEC title game with a spot in the BCS title game on the line.
For me, this is a fascinating and unique matchup that has hit home. I spent three seasons (2007-09) covering Saban’s Alabama as a daily beat writer for the The Press-Register of Mobile, Ala. In 2010, I joined 247Sports and began covering Georgia. Thus I have now been a daily beat writer for three seasons covering Mark Richt too.
So I’ve naturally been asked a lot this week what that has been like. As a reporter, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed my time covering Richt a bit more, just because he allows more media access to his program and Saban’s prickly appearance -- while often misunderstood -- is still a reality.
There’s much more to it, however.
(Photo by Sonny Kennedy/Special to Dawgs247)
I don’t profess to know everything about these men. But as surprising as this may sound, I probably got to know Saban better during those three years than I have Richt, who tends to be guarded about himself – even to close friends and staff members -- and keeps his personal life and professional life separate at all times.
Seldom does Richt crack that window, but he did a few weeks ago when I asked him a question about his job similar to one Saban answered above.
“I don’t want it to consume me to the point where that’s all I’ve got in life is my job,” Richt said, “because we know that our jobs can come and they can go. You can have great times or you can have bad times, and if all of your well-being is tied in to what you do, I just think it’s a dangerous place to be. I don’t think it’s a healthy place to be.”
OK, now is that good or bad?
Is it really that easy?
In such high-profile roles as these men occupy, there exists pre-conceived public perceptions about each of them that are enhanced by these statements. You have Saban the maniacal, robotic workaholic from blue-collar West Virginia and Richt as the laid-back, lax saint from sunny South Florida.
Those stigmas aren’t entirely untrue, mind you, but they are far too simplistic. These are complex men in complex jobs, and things are not always the way they might seem from a distance.
Alabama's coach may swear a lot and scream and holler. But there’s another side. He can be funny and disarmingly personable. After blistering a reporter (me on quite a few occasions) at a press conference, he usually invites that reporter into his office to explain why he reacted the way he did. It's always calculated and always about a message to his team.
Saban hardly ever discusses his faith, but it’s there. He’s a devout Catholic who attends church many Sundays, quietly creeping into services. From a family perspective, Saban is a father of two, and for years shared a superstitious moment with his daughter where she would give him a penny before each game. When he was a coordinator in the NFL, he made sure that Friday afternoon was time to spend with his son.
In the same interview mentioned above, he expressed remorse that it hasn’t been more.
“I don’t spend hardly any time with my kids during football season,” Saban said. “They’ve always been great about it, but it affects your relationship, because they get used to you not being there.”
On the same theme, Richt has said, “We sacrifice now. We work. But I’m not going to sacrifice my relationship with my wife and my children.”
Richt makes sure every day to eat breakfast together with his family, and he took his kids to school each day before they could drive. He’s polite. He likes to hug his players and he may seem stoic on the sideline, but that’s not all there is either. I've seen him get after reporters (though not in a public setting) and then apologize for it later.
So yes, he’ll swear and yell, just like Saban. He’s driven more than he gets credit, and he badly wants the BCS title that is now finally within reach at Georgia.
As for work ethic? Saban has said he’ll arrive to work at about 7 a.m. each day during the season, but he forces himself to knock off by 10 p.m. Richt arrives closer to 8 a.m. after taking his kids to school, but he says he’ll often stay at the football complex past midnight to about 1 a.m. or later at times.
So who exactly works more? Is that really any more time at home?
The fact remains that both of these coaches are good at what they do. Saban’s winning percentage in stops at LSU and Alabama is 79.7 percent. At Alabama alone, it’s a staggering 83.5 percent (and that’s counting a 7-6 mark in his first season picking up the pieces of the Mike Shula era).
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Saban,” Richt said. “I think there’s a mutual respect between all coaches in our league. We know everybody has got a really tough job, and it’s hard to win in this league. And he’s won more than anybody, really, in the last few years. So you’ve got to have a lot of respect for that.”
Meanwhile, Richt sits with a 75 percent winning percentage for his UGA career. There have been ups and downs, of course, but the Bulldogs are now in their fifth SEC title game in Richt’s 12 seasons. That’s nearly half the time.
“I've always held their program in very high esteem in terms of the consistency they've had,” Saban said. “They've won on a very consistent basis the entire time Mark has been there. … I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mark. He's a great person. He cares about college football, college football players. I think his record pretty much speaks for itself in terms of consistency and performance, which is really what defines success.”
Neither coach is blowing smoke here. They aren't best friends, but there is a mutual respect that each has expressed over the years despite the clear differences in approach.
Saban can be a terrifying figure. He has an aura around him as a feared man, especially in his own building. He’s in charge. The same competency, drive and perfection Saban expects from himself are also traits he demands from those working for him.
He's remarkably loyal to a routine, and he hates surprises, traits that reflect the style of a physically dominant, efficient team you can set your watch to each week. You don't necessarily set your watch to Georgia. The Bulldogs have dipped at times under Richt. But man, when they're peaking, they can be really, really good.
Richt tends to respect the emotional element in football, once sending players off the sideline to celebrate a touchdown against Florida and willingly accept a penalty just to fire them up. This would be unthinkable to Saban, who is more logical and serious in his approach: Why would anyone purposely take a penalty? How does that help you win?
Both teams are talented. Both teams are capable.
But the programs that square off Saturday will -- as always -- take on the personality of these two men. It's an intriguing contrast of philosophical styles played out by teams that strategically do many of the same things on both sides of the football.
What’s good? What’s bad?
Perhaps, it’s neither.
As Richt likes to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” and as Saban likes to say, “It is what it is.”
At the end of the day, I've found that both are right.