Ed. Note: We were going to do a standard review of Burke's "Saban: The Making of a Coach," but there have been more than enough leaks over the past few weeks to render anything we might add as multiplicative. So, when Ben proposed trying to actually interview Mr. Burke, we wished him well and forgot about it. A week or so later, the below arrived in the inbox. Our very special thanks to Ben for persevering and to Monte Burke, for taking time to answer our questions. "Saban" is a wonderful read about a complex man, living a complicated life, while trying to generally do right along the way. You owe it to yourself as a fan of the Alabama program to give this book the due consideration it deserves.
At the end of last Thursday's press conference Coach Saban, unbidden, launched into a mini-tirade against unauthorized biographies in general and the idea of an unauthorized biography of him specifically. Although he never mentioned the offending tome by name, it was clear that he was reacting to the publication of Saban: The Making of a Coach by Monte Burke.
Having read the book I can see why he might be upset, but only because when we hear things about ourselves we tend to focus on the negative. Burke didn't write a hagiography. Nor did he write a hit piece.
What emerged from his research is the story of a complex, extraordinarily driven man as seen through the eyes of those who have known and worked with him. That there is not unanimity of opinion amongst those he interviewed should surprise no one. It would be eyebrow-raising if there were.
The book is enjoyable, informative, and Burke writes well. It's a page-turning read I recommend for any fan, not just of the Crimson Tide, but of college football. (Full disclosure: while the author and I do not know each other beyond passing, my wife and I do count his brother as one of our oldest and most valued friends. That friendship has no bearing on my opinion of the book.)
Monte was kind enough to take time to answer a few questions for us:
RBR: Anyone looking over your body of published articles will quickly realize that you have an affinity for two subjects: fishing and football. You co-edited a book on Atlantic salmon fishing with your uncle, author Charles Gaines, and later wrote one yourself about largemouth bass. But while you continue to write about both subjects for Forbes and others, your last two books have been about football, specifically one man's journey through the coaching ranks. In 4th & Goal: One Man's Quest to Recapture His Dream you follow the path of Coastal Carolina's current head coach, Joe Moglia, and of course, Nick Saban's in Saban: The Making of a Coach. Is there something about those who choose this career that fascinates you or did you just stumble over two noteworthy stories while indulging a more general interest in football?
"I'm led by my interests. As you mentioned, I happen to love fishing. So if Garden & Gun calls and asks me if I can do a profile on Lefty Kreh, they don't need to ask twice. I feel the same about football and, in particular, about college football coaches. (I wrote about both Moglia and Saban in Forbes and pitched both stories to my editors there.)
These men truly fascinate me. I think football coaches (and a few coaches in other sports) occupy an unusual niche in our society these days.As I wrote in the book, they fill so many different roles at once. They are priests, psychologists, mentors, teachers, father figures, CEOs, military leaders, politicians and—in Saban's case—media celebrities. In college, the coach is the program.
That's not really the case in the NFL, where most teams (maybe with the exception of the New England Patriots) are associated with a player or two. College football is a coach's game. The coach is the constant, year-in and year-out. The job is extremely difficult and filled with inhuman pressures, many of them yell a lot at their "employees" (other than the military, there are very few places you can get away with that these days), and they are beloved one year—or even one game—and then hated the next.
It takes an exceptional person to want to become a college football head coach at a big program, and an even more exceptional person to excel at it."
Al.com quotes you as saying, "I talked to more than 250 people who know him very well, some of whom he gave permission to talk to me." To your knowledge, was there anyone who asked Coach Saban's permission to speak with you who was told not to? Was there a subject or time in his life that you felt his friends or acquaintances were reticent to discuss with you? Was there a subject or time that they were particularly open about?
"No one ever called me back and explicitly said "Coach doesn't want me to talk to you." But there were people who didn't call me back, of course, and I would guess that a few of them talked to either him or Terry. I suspect that a few others who never returned calls just made the decision not to talk because they didn't want to potentially anger him. On a handful of occasions, I had interviews set up with a person, only to have the person fail to call me or answer my call when the appointed time came. Who knows why that happened?
I was very pleased that the people I did talk to were happy to talk about most anything—his father, his coaching, what makes him tick. I was also very happy that the vast majority of the people were OK with having their names attached to their quotes. The last thing I wanted was a book full of blind quotes."
You were also quoted by al.com as saying, "I kind of expected (Saban) to not like it." You present a variety of opinions from a variety of sources regarding him, from worshipful to disdainful. Were you expecting Coach Saban to dislike the book because he was occasionally cast in an unflattering light or did he say something to you during one of your phone calls?
"I don't feel comfortable talking about our phone calls. Though we never explicitly agreed that the content of those calls was off the record, that's how I've treated it.
I expected him to not like the book for two reasons: One is that it's "clutter." Like Ted Williams, Saban would rather operate in a "perfectionist's vacuum" if he could. He also never likes anything written about him, at least initially. I heard from more than a few people that he didn't like the Forbes article I did on him back in 2008, which was pretty fawning now that I look back. Then when I visited him in his office a few years later, I noticed that he had a huge poster of his Forbes cover hanging outside of it. He also initially didn't like Warren St. John's article on him in GQ, mainly because of the title.
I suspect that a lot of this has to do with his lack of control over these projects. As we know, he likes to be in control. Good things happen to his football programs when he gets that control. But it's hard to totally control the media. I think there are certain things in the book he won't like (I also suspect he hasn't read it yet), like hearing the opinions of the Texas folks I talked to. But I also firmly believe that there is much he will like, and that, in the end—and not necessarily by design—it is a net positive book.
I certainly developed a greater sense of empathy and sympathy for him and his decisions as I worked on it. One reviewer called it "no-holds-barred" but also "admiring" and even "affectionate." I think that gets it."
One of the most interesting takes on Coach Saban in your book was that of Matt Mauck, who you say, "still had mixed feelings about the coach with whom he won a national championship." Mauck appears simultaneously respectful of his coach's football acumen and disparaging of his treatment of underlings and torn between his opinion of the man and the coach. "Would I let my kid play for him?" asks Mauck, "I don't know." After your interviews and research, as a father in his position, what do you think you would do?
"I have three daughters, so I can safely duck out of this question, right? I think what Mauck says is merely a stronger version of what many of his former players had to say, that if you could get through the yelling and the browbeating, he will make you a better football player (and, perhaps, person). So, if I had a son and he told me he wanted to be a great football player and he had talent to play at Alabama, I'd have no problem having Saban as his coach. I also think Saban has mellowed, just a bit."
In your previous interviews with ESPN, al.com, etc., is there a question you wished you had been asked but hadn't? Is there anything in the public or media reaction that has surprised you?
"I wish people were asking me more about "the Wizard Dude." I find the whole birth of the "Process" to be really fascinating, and I find Lonny Rosen to be such a highly unlikely person to have played a big role in it. And I wish that people were asking more about the part in the book where I compare and contrast Coach Bryant and Coach Saban. I literally felt giddy when reporting it.
A media friend of mine called it "a love letter to Alabama fans." And two reactions have surprised me. The first was the reaction to the whole Hillary Clinton thing that was leaked by a Wall Street Journal reporter on Twitter. I guess leaks—and how they happen—are always a bit surprising. Context in a book is sort of everything. So when I woke up one morning and saw a headline that read "Nick Saban wants to sleep with Hillary Clinton," I was sort of like, huh, I wonder what that's all about?
Also, the fixation on the word "unauthorized" has been a bit surprising, too. These types of books and stories are done all of the time. The word has very powerful negative connotations, and I think that may have driven away some people who might have otherwise enjoyed the book, which I consciously tried to keep from sensationalizing. I'll try not to sound like a self-promoting douche here, but the members of the media and the people who have actually read the book have all seemed to like it and have all said it was even-handed. Was that too self-promoting?"
Finally, I very much enjoyed your footnotes. Not restricted to citing sources, they were full of asides and facts that illuminated the narrative but might have gotten in the way of the telling had they been included in the text. The shout out to rollbamaroll.com on page 317 was especially enlightened. However, there was an oddity in the footnote on page 135 in which Auburn's Gus Malzahn was accidentally included among "the top tier in college football coaching." Would you like to take this space to correct an obvious typographical error and/or publicly excoriate the editor or research assistant responsible?
"I am a pretty serious rollbamaroll.com lurker. What I like about the site is that it hasn't devolved into a shouting match among its users, which seems to happen more often than not on football fan sites.
On the footnotes, I thought long and hard about using them. Really, any of us who even try it are merely pale imitations of the late master, David Foster Wallace. But I had a lot of information that didn't really fit into the flow of the narrative, information that I found fascinating and thought (hoped) others would, as well. So I went with the footnotes. I hope they weren't too distracting. And you're right, there is a typo on page 135. That should have read "Gus Mulzany" who is, of course, a legendary NAIA coach in Alaska."
Our heartfelt thanks to Monte Burke for giving us his time and thoughts.
Whether you have read the book or not, let us know what you think about the book, the author's answers, and/or Coach Saban's press conference reaction in the comments below.