It may have taken more than 30 years after his last championship for the wisdom of John Wooden to cross over from his own sport and permeate the language and thinking in Irish coaching circles, but since it did, he has been pretty much a constant and towering presence there.
Subsequent to Mickey Harte being one of his first public champions here, it now seems there’s more presentations than not at the annual GAA’s coaching conference that make some reference to the Wizard of Westwood.
While collegiate basketball has over 300 Division One teams, Wooden somehow managed to lead UCLA to 10 national titles over a 12-year period, but what really resonated with multiple Croke Park speakers was just how beloved and revered he was by his players, most notably the legend formerly known as Lew Alcindor, but better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Winning wasn’t his only thing; how you tried to go about it was.
Wooden’s belated popularity also extended to rugby.
Upon some reading prescribed by performance coach Caroline Currid — a former collaborator of Harte’s — Paul O’Connell would underline a passage from a Wooden book while on tour captaining the 2009 Lions.
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the best of which you are capable.”
The line resonated so strongly with O’Connell that it would make the last page of his own book.
While earlier in his career he would define a season as a success on whether Munster or Ireland had won a trophy or not, he had a different outlook in later years.
“If you’re trying hard to make your best better, and your team better, then that’s success,” he’d conclude.
The name Nick Saban has yet to surface anywhere as widely or frequently as Wooden’s in coaching courses and conferences held in this country, but his achievements Stateside and his legacy here are now bordering on Wooden levels.
Next Monday night, Saban will lead the Alabama Crimson Tide into battle against fierce rivals Clemson Tigers for the national championship title, the biggest fixture in American college football.
Should Alabama prevail, it would remarkably be the fifth national title Saban will have secured for the college, and his sixth overall, which would surpass the haul of any other coach, including Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant,
another Alabama icon, though perhaps best known to you as the coach that local boy Forrest Gump played for.
However, just like Wooden, it isn’t winning, per se, that does it for Saban, because as much as it was anyone, it was Saban who gave a capital T and P to The Process, that term so abhorred by Irish sports reporters, but so endemic in the post-match comments and philosophy of the likes of Jim Gavin and Joe Schmidt.
It would be fair to guess that Saban, sequestered in his home by Tuscaloosa Lake, or more frequently, the office and gridiron field on the Alabama campus, is oblivious to the moans of Irish hacks upon hearing or transcribing the term he helped popularise, if not coin, just as it’s very likely he has never heard of Gavin or even Schmidt either.
However, you can take it that both the manager of the Dublin footballers and the coach of the Irish national rugby team have heard of Saban.
Well before the All Blacks were preaching and practising the virtues of sweeping sheds and long before Schmidt famously censured a player for unwittingly littering a hotel corridor with his key card, Saban was a stickler for such details; one former player has described him as the “most detail-oriented human on the planet”.
Alabama insiders tell the story of watching a game coached by his predecessor, Mike Shula, where after the game, their sideline was a mess with crushed water cups and tape.
After Saban’s first game the sideline was pristine.
In that same first season over the Crimson Tide, a programme that hadn’t won the national title since 1992, the team would be sent back en masse to the locker room if any of them was missing a piece of uniform or hadn’t their shirt tucked in.
Like Schmidt, Saban obsesses over such matters, from their gear to whether they maintain their upper bodies when running sprints.
If anyone bends over, they all run again.
During a lightning delay in the second quarter of a 2012 game against Missouri, the players returned to their changing room to find dry shoes and their chairs arranged by position.
Neither Saban nor the players had ever experienced a weather delay like that before, but Saban had planned for it anyway.
This is someone who is so obsessed with the importance of routine, whenever his team are scheduled to play at 2.39, he’ll give his pregame radio interview at 12.39, not 12.30. Two hours out is two hours out.
If his attention to detail is Schmidt-like, his personality is more akin to Gavin’s.
Just as the Dublin manager has gotten some stick for his deadpan manner, even after another All-Ireland victory, Saban has been the subject of similar grief.
In an excellent profile for The New Yorker two years ago, the writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells claimed, “charisma-wise he is a void”.
In another terrific long read on him, titled ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, GQ’s Warren St John noted: “There’s something about Nick Saban that bothers a lot of people. The rap is that he’s grandiose and unfeeling, a robot…”
Just how unmoved can he be? Well, take when he won his first national championship, with LSU, in 2004.
While the rest of the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans was partying like only the home of Mardi Gras can, Saban, a non-drinker, was in a chair just outside the main ballroom, by himself, phoning potential recruits for the college the following season.
After 30 years of his coaching career building to that moment, after 45 years from the last time LSU had brought back the national championship, and that’s how Saban chose to celebrate it.
By preparing for the following season.
“I don’t want people to think I’m not happy when we win, I am,” Saban would disclose to St John in a rare, extensive interview.
“But there’s a difference between being happy for the feeling of accomplishing something and being overjoyed and feeling: ‘This is it, we conquered the world.’ We didn’t. We just won a game.”
The Danish sport psychologist Dr Helle Hein is one of the few who can understand.
Speaking at Sport Ireland’s 2017 high performance conference, she introduced the audience to the concept of the introverted performance addict.
Their kick wasn’t in planting some flag and beating their chest, but in “cracking nuts of increasing difficulty”.
After a big win, they would throw what she’d call “something of an introverted party”, whereby they could appear something of “a loner”, sipping a cup of coffee and nodding approvingly as their co-workers celebrated more energetically.
So it was with Saban that night in New Orleans. Already he was looking for the next nut to crack and ways — players, recruits — to help crack it. Win or lose, The Process continued.
That’s always been his mindset. After he won his first national championship with Alabama in 2008, a player who came into his office noticed a file marked 2013.
Already, Saban had sketched some preliminary notes on what the programme would look like seven years into The Process.
The Process will also continue after next Monday’s showdown with Clemson, just as it will for Gavin, regardless of what happens this September; five-in-a-row or not, he intends to still be Dublin manager in 2021, though whether he has a file already for it or not we don’t know.
For the likes of him and Saban, success is never final, just as failure is never fatal.
“Either you did what you were supposed to do, or you fell short and so you go work harder and better to try to meet the standard the next time,” St John would surmise about Saban and his cherished Process.
Saban has a number of other terms and strategies that underpin The Process.
“The opponent should never determine your level of competitive spirit,” he’d write in his 2006 book How Good Do You Want To Be?, as if he was Gavin penning his approach to decimating everyone in the Leinster championship.
‘Get Out of Yourself And Into The Team’ is another maxim of his. ‘Eliminate The Clutter’ is a huge one of his.
How good is he at eliminating and blocking out distractions?
Well, when he was on a recruiting trip as a young coach, he met the coach of a local prospect in a dimly-lit dive bar, where they became so immersed in football talk, they didn’t notice the bar had been robbed at gunpoint until the police asked them what did they see.
It’s going to take that kind of focus to deal with all the clutter and chatter about the five-in-a-row for the Dubs, but in a leader like Gavin, they have the nearest and next best thing.