FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The blueprint for Nick Saban’s success as a football coach started with blue and black cars that pulled up to the service station where he worked in Monongah, W.Va., as a youngster.
Saban learned as a child that the smallest details are the difference between doing work and a job well done.
The unassuming fuel oasis, right next to the Saban family home, was owned by his father, who went by “Big Nick” before passing away in 1973 after suffering a heart attack.
“So you cleaned the windows, checked the oil, checked the tires, collected the money, gave the change,
treated the customers in a certain way,” Saban said at Sunday’s final pre-BCS National Championship Game press conference. “We also greased cars, washed cars.
“So the biggest thing that I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things
correctly. There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. If we washed a car, and I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out, and if there were any streaks when he came, you had to do it over.”
After building his chops for five seasons in his first extended stint as a college head coach at Michigan State (1995-99), Saban’s career has been mostly spotless in championship runs at LSU and Alabama, which were separated by a two-year tenure as Miami Dolphins boss. His combined record in five years with the Tigers and six seasons in Tuscaloosa is 110-29 for a 79.1 winning percentage, including BCS titles in 2003, 2009 and 2011. The first coach in the history of the game to win national championships at two different Football Bowl Subdivision universities runs his programs like Big Nick used to oversee the modest, rural service station and the Pop Warner team he founded.
“So we learned a lot about work ethic,” Saban said. “We learned a lot about having compassion for other people and respecting other people, and we learned about certainly the importance of doing things correctly.
And when I started to play for him in Pop Warner football, he was the same way as a coach; attention to
detail, discipline, do things what you're supposed to do, the way you're supposed to do it, when you're supposed to do it, the way it's supposed to get done, all those things that we've all heard about, discipline was engrained in just about everything that we did.
“And I think that sort of perfectionist type of attitude that my parents instilled sort of made you always strive to be all that you could be, and that's probably still the foundation of the program that we have right now.”
The No. 2 Crimson Tide overcame a potentially season-derailing loss to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on Nov. 10, but were able to reach Monday’s title bout against No. 1 Notre Dame for a chance to defend their belt. Saban understands that any game is a series of moments to either seize or wave to as they pass by, but those moments are increasingly more critical on the championship stage.
“Well, I just think that when you play in games like this, there's always sort of a turning point in the game,” he said. “First of all, you expect two good teams playing, it's going to be a close game. There's going to be some situation in the game where you need to make a play or they might need to make a play that's going to make the difference in the game. And your ability to rise up in those situations and be able to do that, whether it's critical third down to maintain possession of the ball on a scoring drive, or whether it's a defensive stop, whatever it might be, you know, you have to be ready to execute in those kinds of situations in the game.”