Let’s cut to the chase.
The best head coach in the NFL is Bill Belichick and the best head coach in college football is Nick Saban.
It really has nothing to do about the past weekend’s results. Although there were traces of why those two are supreme.
For the record, the Patriots won their 6th consecutive game to raise their record to 8-4, right now the second seed in the AFC.
Alabama staged an improbable and amazing 90-plus yard comeback to draw even with Auburn with seconds remaining, then beat their in-state rivals in the fourth overtime to capture the Iron Bowl, one of the college game’s strongest traditional battles.
I know most people only focus on results, record, and rank. Obviously they are important. That’s why everybody plays.
But how these coaches get their teams to achieve those things are what this is all about.
In case you didn’t know, Belichick and Saban were coaches together, once upon a time.
Back in 1991, Belichick was hired to lead the Cleveland Browns, his first head-coaching job after almost 20 years as a successful assistant.
One of the Browns major weaknesses was on the defensive side of the ball.
Belichick’s first hire was Saban, who took over that assignment.
Belichick first met Saban in 1982 in Annapolis where Saban was an assistant coach alongside Belichick’s father, Steve.
The two hit it off back then.
Saban and Belichick in Cleveland
While Belichick was the CEO, basically over-seeing the entire entire team, Saban developed a crushing defensive unit.
In their fourth season, the Browns made the playoffs, and beat BB’s current team, the Patriots in the AFC Wild Card Game.
It was Belichick’s first playoff team and the defense was ranked #1 in the NFL allowing a mere 12.8 points per game.
They lost the next week to the Steelers in the Divisional Playoff, and had a losing record in 1995, and the head coach was fired.
So while there was only one banner season with the two coaches working together, both moved on to eventual legendary careers.
Keep in mind there were still low-points for both after the Browns experience, but that is always the story in sports, the highs and the lows. It happens to everyone.
So Bill Belichick, with six Super Bowl rings to his credit, and Nick Saban, with seven National Championships on his resume, are regarded as best of the best. No argument there.
What do you suppose sets them apart from the rest, which includes countless outstanding coaches who have built iconic results?
No one really knows for sure, but I have my opinions.
First of all, I believe Belichick and Saban look at the game differently than most.
While many, if not most coaches dwell on X’s and O’s, play-calling, and the things that will produce touchdowns, and the prevention of touchdowns, the two masters emphasize the big picture, before focusing on game strategy.
What is the big picture?
I feel the big picture is the foundation for what makes a team successful.
How many times have we heard the Patriots head man talk of “loving the game, loving to play, loving to practice”?
I hear him, particularly this season, discuss togetherness, trust, and accountability.
After their win over the Titans, Belichick underscored players making the right decisions at the right time.
Bill with the Patriots
Every player on every team has the ability to prepare for their next opponent.
But you can’t prepare for those unexpected moments in a game, where smarts, instinctiveness, and quick decision-making spell the difference between winning and losing.
Bill Belichick has the ability, experience and background to teach any position on the field.
And that includes the long-snapper on field goals and punts, and those who cover kicks top prevent returns, and those who block to create them for his returners.
But the plays they run on offense and defense mean nothing without the cohesiveness and dedication, along with the respect and trust his players have to have for each other.
I have no idea how this season will pan out for the Patriots.
But I do know this.
When New England fell on hard times after Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay, there were cries of how overrated Belichick might be having won his Super Bowls with the greatest quarterback ever.
Two years ago, the Pats, in Brady’s last year with them finished 12-4 and won their division. But they lost the Wild Card Game, and it was obvious, there wasn’t the adequate supporting cast Brady needed to pull off another magic act.
Both Belichick and Brady knew this, and it was fine for both parties to split.
Last season, without Brady, and the team in a rebuilding mode, Belichick’s team wound up 7-9, 3rd place in the AFC East, and no longer considered by many, a Super Bowl threat.
But this year, so far, has been a revelation.
After dropping three of their first four, and four of their first six, they’ve run off six wins in a row, look better every week, and while Super Bowl contention may be a stretch, Belichick has clearly constructed a squad that is on its way.
When Alabama quarterback Mac Jones fell all the way to 15th in the draft, and was plucked by the Pats, it seemed obvious to me that the head coach relied on the sage advice of Nick Saban.
The move has paid off.
While it is virtually impossible to strike gold again, the way the Patriots did in drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round over two decades ago, Jones has shown all the makings of becoming a franchise quarterback.
He is outwardly on the quiet side, but possesses a fierce competitiveness, intelligence and advanced decision-making which fits into the Belichick modus operandi perfectly.
When you look at the rebuilding process by the Patriots, you’re seeing solid drafting and free agent additions who have the skills and temperament that fit into that “big picture” referred to earlier.
The same story exists at Alabama, where Saban subscribes to the exact same philosophy of his former coaching colleague at Cleveland.
The big difference, of course, is that in college football, recruiting is the number one factor.
Saban has won so much that the great prospects don’t need to be sold on Alabama, they know they have a chance to be champions and take the next step in their football careers.
These are the things Saban believes in, that impresses me.
Two weeks ago, he took the time to admonish those fans and the media who are disappointed and let down when the Crimson Tide don’t blow out every opponent.
He called those people, “self-absorbed”, and decried the fact that when the Tide win by fewer points than expected, it indicates they are not as strong as they’ve been.
Saban set them straight. He said the opponents Alabama face are competitive, and work hard every week to win.
When people point out a foe that has lost a game or two, Saban revealed that teams who have lost develop a hunger to redeem themselves. He rightly pointed out that Alabama gets the best game from every team they play every week.
A victory over the Crimson Tide makes their season, regardless of final record.
Who feels worse, said the coach, than his players, after a loss?
What he tells them to do is remember the feeling. Remember how they felt after losing.
The following may be cause for the cynics to emerge, but the reality is, in my experience with coaches of all sports, is that while winning is critically important and what playing the games are all about, coaches understand losing, and can deal with it.
They are not as obsessed as the fans and the media who cover the teams may be about the result.
There is that bigger picture.
And I totally believe it.
As Saban remarked after the Auburn comeback, his mission is to develop winning people, who seek success in their lives.
More important than purely winning a football game.
Easy for Nick Saban to say.
But if you listen to the man, you see beyond his role as a head coach.
Nick at Alabama
And yes, a coach who loses his job because his record wasn’t good enough can smirk at Saban’s purpose.
Perhaps, if those coaches saw the “big picture”, and not merely calling plays to win a game, they would understand.
Obviously, Bill Belichick’s job is not to develop men who will find future success. His job is to win games.
But he realizes to reach that goal, there have to be elements in a player’s character, besides ability, to get there.
Nick Saban, on a different level, has to feel the same.
So, in a year when Georgia is clearly the standout team in college football, Alabama is unlikely to win the National Championship.
And in a year when there are strong Super Bowl contenders with first-rate veteran quarterbacks, the New England Patriots are unlikely to become World Champions.
Yet, if you ask each of them when it’s all over, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban will say they could not have been more proud of the teams they coached in 2021.