Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach of all-time. There are a lot of “G.O.A.T.’s” across sports that are feverishly debated…shoot, even Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest is in question these days and that’s something I thought I’d never see…but Saban’s status is almost difficult to argue at this point. Six national titles? Five in the last nine years at Alabama (and that’s with a last-second loss to Clemson in the National Championship game in 2016)? That type of dominance is rare, especially in such a competitive era.
In 2005, with one collegiate national title already under his belt, Saban decided to try his hand in the NFL and took a head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins. “The Nicktator” as he’s affectionately called, came in with a head of steam and left two seasons later with his tail between his legs, headed back to the college ranks where he came from. Constant images of him raising the trophy at the end of the college season have gotten between us and that memory but it still hasn’t escaped me what an abysmal failure his NFL experiment was. Such has been the case with many other college coaches in the pros. But we’re talking about the G.O.A.T. here. Someone who has coached in college more successfully than anyone ever has.
So the obvious question is: what went wrong for The Nicktator? I mean it’s the same sport for crying out loud! If you know how to coach football, you know how to coach it right? He clearly knows how to coach talented players. In his tenure at Alabama he’s coached the likes of Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Landon Collins and numerous other talents who went on to be NFL Pro Bowlers. Not only that, but he’s known for molding those guys into the football-playing machines that they are. Alabama is a first round pick factory because of Saban and his ability to coach.
What Saban fails to grasp at the next level is what many who have tried and failed in professional sports have failed to grasp- the unquestionable fact that it is a players league. The NFL is, the NBA is and MLB is. College is a coaches league. Coaches are the most important figures in their program, no one trumps them. Mike Krzyzewski is Duke basketball. He recruits who he pleases, he is the only constant, his word is law, and he is the reason for the prestige. Same with Tom Izzo or Dabo Swinney or Saban or any other college coach you want to name. Sure there are phenomenal players in college and of course it’s the players who ultimately get it done on the field, but at the end of the day the coach is the program, period. Part of it has to do with it being very young, unpaid athletes in college, part of it has to do with the temporary nature of any one player’s tenure on a given team, but at the end of the day that’s just the way it is.
Right now that’s how Jon Gruden is treating the Oakland Raiders. Like a college team. His enormous 10-year contract may have given him some disillusions that he is the most important person in the Raiders organization right now, and if that’s the case he’s in for a rude awakening.
Trading Khalil Mack was a power play and it was a college move. It’s something you do when your brand and your word is the most important one in the organization, and that is the case for the coach 0% of the time in professional sports. The pay grade is Exhibit A of this dynamic. Although Gruden was given an extremely lucrative contract for a coach, he isn’t payed half as much as his quarterback. Money talks and money is power to some degree in any profession, and the players have that power in every professional sport. Secondarily, what gives them the opportunity to wield that power is that they also make the franchise the money in pro sports. Star players sell tickets, they sell merchandise and they are truly the faces of the franchise- not the coach.
More important than all that, it’s about what wins in pro sports versus college sports. Ultimately that’s where the money is anyway. Two things win in college- recruiting and schemes. That’s what you have to do, you have to be able to continually recruit the talent and you have to implement the right schemes and gameplanning in order to win. Have you ever noticed how much more mechanical a college basketball offense looks compared to a pro offense? Screens are being set at precise spots on the floor, the ball is swinging side to side, cuts are being made in accordance with the offense. It’s the gameplan at work and superior gameplanning wins. It works the same way in football. It makes a bigger difference in the outcomes of college games which defenses are chosen at certain times and how the offense reacts to it scheme-wise than it does in the pros. It could certainly be argued that that’s an even more difficult craft of coaching to be able to perfect. While that may or may not be the case, that’s just not the pro game.
In the NBA the offenses are much more free-flowing. The players dictate the pace, you don’t see the rigidity of the offenses and you don’t see coaches calling plays nearly as frequently. That’s not to say gameplanning and strategy doesn’t play a role in the pro game because it certainly does. But the even more relevant quality of a coach is being able to get the most out of their players. The talent is too great at that level for strategy to play as large of a role. If you have the best players and you can get them to play their best for you (ala Steve Kerr or Phil Jackson) you’re going to win. Because it’s a players league. And again, the same applies to football. There are different dynamics with more players on the field at once, and yes, strategy does still play a role. But players win. Tricks and schemes don’t work for long in the NFL because the players are too good and will adjust quickly. No gimmick will win you a Super Bowl. What you need is those players who sift through the gimmicks and schemes because of their greatness. Tom Brady will figure out what a defense is doing in a short order of time and find a way to shred it, he’s been doing it for 20 years. On the opposite side of the ball, Luke Kuechly will do the same to an offense. It’s a players league, they decide the games.
Khalil Mack is one of those gimmick-breakers. He is the undeniable force on a defense that terrorizes the backfield in such a way that only equal or greater players on the opposite side are able to combat it. In other words, he’s the type of player you find a way to pay. In my opinion, Mack stands alongside Aaron Donald and Von Miller (and I’m borderline on Kuechly because of concussion issues) as the defensive players in the league whom you just don’t squabble with on a contract for long. Their level of consistent dominance shows that they deserve to be paid like a star and not like a rookie or a franchise tag guy. Booger McFarland was saying it on Monday Night Football, but you just don’t make a living trading away Hall of Famers in the NFL. Clearly Gruden and the Raiders don’t share that opinion.
As for what we saw on Monday Night Football, I was not entirely discouraged. Despite my issue on their handling of the Mack situation, I can still judge what I see between the lines objectively, and it wasn’t all bad. I happen to think the Rams are the best team in the NFL this season and the Raiders held their own especially in the first half. You could tell they were playing with a lot of energy on both sides of the ball and that’s invaluable. I was interested to see if the team looked like they were really playing hard for Gruden and it looked like they were the entire game. There was a competitiveness about the defense in particular that I think bodes well for the future if they continue to play with that edge.
With all that being said, the Raiders were out-manned on Monday night and that’s where the rubber meets the road. The Rams showed this offseason that they possess a certain understanding of the nature of the league with the additions of Pro Bowlers such as Ndamukong Suh, Aquib Talib, Marcus Peters and Brandin Cooks to their already-talented roster. An understanding the Raiders clearly lack. I’m afraid until they gain that understanding as a franchise, the results on the scoreboard will continue to reflect it more often than not.
Jon Gruden knows how to coach football. So does Nick Saban. But this is a players league.