The shift has been inevitable if imperceptible at times. The combination of success, stability and force of personality has made Nick Saban the undisputed elder statesman of college football. Whether he is asked about his impression on the trends in the game like transfer portal ramifications or broader social issues, Saban has a broad reach, perhaps unprecedented in college football history because of the social media networks that now blanket the nation.
Saban has also addressed societal issues. The fact that he made a public service announcement promoting the efficacy of receiving the COVID-19 vaccination had far more impact than anything Gov. Kay Ivey could have said. He has spoken out for Habitat for Humanity. Earlier this week, he was back in his home state of West Virginia, joining Sen. Joe Manchin, a hugely influential figure these days, for an opioid addiction awareness fundraiser.
Saban, who has been a friend of Manchin since childhood, said sports can be something to push kids forward. He said he understands some kids do not get the same opportunities, which is why he came home to help.
“But there are a lot of young people, the ones that we are talking about trying to help here today, that really don’t have that opportunity to change their life in a positive way,” said Saban. “That’s why I’m here today, to help create opportunities.”
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Saban has tried hard over the past year to speak out yet remain apolitical. That’s thin ice. The nation today takes sides on nearly every issue. Some people toe both sides of the aisle like Manchin, others don’t. Saban’s support is personal, not political. On the coronavirus question, he has the perspective of someone who had a false positive, then had the virus and missed a football game, and has also seen how his players have handled it. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree. I’m not going to hide behind a Saban screen here, and I also think people should choose to be vaccinated. I know people who disagree.
Without speaking for Saban, obviously, I doubt he sees politics as a long-term political option. He has spoken out, spoken up and done PSAs where he thought it would help, whether polarizing (social justice last summer) or non-partisan (who doesn’t want to fight opioid addiction?).
He is far happier in a world where he has control, as he does with a football program, than a political realm of bickering every day. That world, in the sense of normalcy that existed before March 2020, seems to be coming back. None of us, not football coaches or sports writers or anyone else, can step serenely back into a bubble that has been breached. Saban’s time allocation, though, is going to emphasize in-person recruiting and game preparation. (Alabama’s season-opener against Miami is going to be tougher than people think.)
The magnetism of celebrity works both ways. Saban uses it in recruiting, capitalizing on name recognition among the other Alabama advantages. But you can’t simply have the pull go one way.
The coach would much prefer to spend his media time addressing how you defend a team when it shifts from standard personnel to two tight ends and no backs. That sort of question brings a twinkle to his eye and disappoints the 30-second ranting sound-bite seekers who approach a Saban news conference like they were storm chasers in western Kansas, waiting on the fury to descend.
But he has reached the point where he can’t step away from some issues, the ones close to his heart and the ones that affect the sport.
Reach Cecil Hurt at [email protected] or via Twitter @cecilhurt