KIERAN SHANNON: A little more wisdom to add to The Process

The weekend proved it again.

Even the undefeated aren’t invincible. Even the greatest minds aren’t infallible.

Last Saturday, in the state of Alabama, two neighbouring tribes went to war. The Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama on one side, hunting down their fourth national title in five years, and on the other, their deadly rivals Auburn. Auburn’s average home attendance eclipses Manchester United’s and matches the capacity of Croke Park — 82,000. Alabama’s is 101,000. Together they form one of the most intense rivalries in US sport, the feature of a documentary in the fabulous ESPN 30 for 30 series. Last Saturday they offered up some of the best sporting drama of the year.

With 33 seconds to go Auburn scored an equalising touchdown. Alabama’s offence came back onto the field and with one second remaining, elected to go for a field goal from 57 yards. It trailed wide, was caught by Auburn’s Chris Davis in his own end zone, and then thanks to a little help and blocking from his friends, proceeded to run all the way downfield along the sideline to touch down in the opposing end zone.

Alabama had lost more than a game. They’d lost their unbeaten record for the year, the chance to get back to the national championship game, and with it their coach’s godlike status.

Nick Saban is getting heat for this one. For deciding not to go for a field goal when his team were seven ahead, and then going for one with a second left and letting a backup freshman take it. That an opposing cornerback could run the length of the field didn’t reflect great on him either. As he’d say himself: “First time I’ve ever lost a game that way. First time I’ve ever seen a game lost that way.”

Yet if you’ve studied the man at all, you’ll know he’ll get over this a lot better than some distraught fans.

Just as he rarely gets too low, he rarely gets too high. When a friend called him last January to congratulate him on winning the national championship, Saban grumbled: “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting.”

Instead of having to put up with all the press conferences and banquets, he’d rather have been either at his desk or on the road trying to recruit some kid that now had a rival coach in his living room.

For Saban, The Process is all, so much so he gives it the prominence of a capital T and P. Right enough, a couple of days after that latest national title win in Miami, he was back behind his desk, planning for the season ahead.

Saban saw The Process at work during it, commenting last Saturday night that he took pride in how the team improved through the course of their schedule. But obviously it could have been better.

So its loss and lessons will be absorbed, just as they all are in such an extensive career.

In his book How Good Do You Want To Be?, Saban admits he used to coach by fear. “I coached defensively because I was scared what others might think if my plays didn’t work. I was fearful of criticism and failure.

“I soon learned that you can never please everybody. Coaching through fear does not work. It’s like raising your voice at your dog and expecting her to cower down because she is afraid of the consequences if she doesn’t.”

He’s learned too that sometimes you can make a mistake and get away with it. When he was over Louisiana State University — another team he’d lead to the national championship — they were trailing Tennessee 14-7 during the second quarter. What cost him a place in this season’s SEC game won him that 2001 SEC game.

“Nothing was going our way and we were on the verge of collapse. We faced a fourth down and about 1-inch on our 23-yard line. ‘Go for it!’ I yelled but as soon as I said it I knew it was the wrong thing to do. We couldn’t even move the ball an inch. How could I have made such a bad decision? I wanted to steal some momentum back and boost our team’s spirit. Still, it was the wrong thing to do.”

Yet after the win, players thanked him for that ‘inspired’ call. Its boldness gave them belief they could still win.

“I later realised the fourth-down call was the wrong thing to do strategically but maybe the right thing to do psychologically. If I was in the same situation again, I’d punt the ball and not go for it — but don’t think for a second I wouldn’t be wondering if it was the right decision.

“There are no perfect plays, no perfect players, no perfect people. Michael Jordan still missed a good number of shots to get his 40 points. Players will drop touchdown passes and coaches will guess wrongly on play calls. If you know you won’t be perfect, then those mistakes can roll off your shoulders as you move on to the next play.”

So Saban and The Process will go on. Less infallible but even wiser.

Not perfect but all the more excellent.


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