Last night, HBO aired its well-promoted documentary titled “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching.” It was billed as a deeper look into the relationship between the two legends with intertwined careers, and it did not disappoint.
The show opened in Saban’s office at Alabama. Belichick asked the camera crews to leave initially so that the two coaches could have a a few minutes to speak privately before the show started filming. They complied, but left one backup camera rolling and caught the conversation. One might have expected some small talk at that point, or a conversation about what would and wouldn’t get revealed on camera.
Right away, they started talking about football. Saban complimented Belichick on his team’s play in “that last game” which just happened to be the Super Bowl. Belichick thanked him and agreed that the team had played well for the last third of the season, but that they had been “shitty” for the first two-thirds of the year. Saban then grumbled about his kickoff team’s execution of the new fair catch rule, concerned that after a few fair catches in a row, guys assume that the next will be fair caught and end up getting their “ass busted” when it isn’t. According to Saban, they have been having these meetings annually for years, and more than anything it seems to be a therapeutic exercise between two men who understand and trust one another professionally more than anyone else ever could.
The background similarities are uncanny. The two legends were born less than a year apart. Both are of Croatian descent and had football coaches for fathers who they never wanted to disappoint. Ozzie Newsome made a cameo on the show since he knows both intimately and simply said that both were born to coach football. They met in Annapolis in 1982, when Saban coached with Belichick’s father at Navy, and forged a lifelong friendship.
It was interesting to hear Saban talk about his early days as a young assistant in charge of film cut-ups. He talked about Miss Terry getting upset with him for having to drive from Morgantown to Pittsburgh to get film developed, then drive back through the night to get home so that he could physically cut the tape and organize by formation. Belichick remembered using hole punches on play cards with the Colts in 1975.
Technology helps coaches in many ways, but neither coach is a fan of social media. Belichick notes that many of today’s young people never learn to communicate face to face, and since there are no phones on the football field that is something they have to master. He also notes that sometimes he gets on the plane after a loss and sees assistants feverishly working in their laptops, to which he muses, “Fellas, we lost because we can’t tackle.”
The show noted that Belichick and Saban went to Cleveland together a season after the Browns had allowed the most points in the league, and four years later they allowed the fewest. There was some fantastic game planning footage where Saban declared, “If we don’t play our asses off this week, they’ll beat us.” Bill agreed, and the concerned look on their faces clearly indicated that a loss would be an unspeakable tragedy. There was also a focus on the “Do your job” mantra that was forged in Cleveland and remains the lifeblood of the respective programs.
In 1995, Saban left Bill to be the head coach at Michigan State, and this was where the quote about poaching assistants made its appearance. Saban bragged that he didn’t try to take any of Belichick’s people with him, and both coaches agree that people should build their own programs after moving on without trying to tear down the programs from which they left. Saban also mentioned that he doesn’t change his scheme, terminology, etc. for newly hired assistants, asserting that it’s easier for one person to learn new things than 100 people. Make no mistake about it, any assistant that works for Saban is running his schemes, and that’s especially true for the defense.
Saban credits his time in the NFL for learning how to coach different personality types. He notes that in college he can just bench a guy, but in the NFL you have to deal whoever the owner pays. His constant battle is motivating players to do “what they need to do rather than what they feel like doing” and replace bad habits with good ones. In a practice clip he tells the young players that their talent can be a nemesis if they allow themselves to rely on it as most of them have growing up, and that many of them have never had to compete with equals before.
It’s evident that Belichick learns at least as much from Saban as Nick does from him. In one practice segment, Bill flat out asks him who Alabama’s best players are, to which Saban replies Jonah and Quinnen Williams. Belichick asks if Jonah will play tackle in the pros and Nick answers that he thinks he can play anywhere. Saban also mentions how some front offices fail to ask him about a player before drafting and end up frustrated with something that Saban would have gladly disclosed given the opportunity. Belichick also stole the trick play where Blake Sims hit Brandon Greene against LSU in 2014, and used it in a game.
While Nick and Bill are both football obsessed, they make time for cherished families that keep them grounded. Seemingly intertwined in everything, both men have daughters who married in the last few years, and the show highlighted the soft side of each as they made heartfelt toasts at the receptions. Saban’s daughter Kristen remembered landing in Tuscaloosa the first time and being overwhelmed by the airport reception. Son Nicholas said that his father is the most honest person he’s ever known and initially said that the elder Nick seems less intense than he used to be, but quickly laughs and questions himself. Bill’s wife mentions that she admires how he can step away and “turn it off” to be present with his family.
As you might expect, Miss Terry’s part was perhaps the most entertaining. She noted that the decision to go to Cleveland was tough since Nick had been a head coach at Toledo for only one year, and that “there would have been no consideration” for such an offer had it been anyone other than Belichick. On the move to Tuscaloosa, she said that it felt like “another LSU” in terms of a program that had been down but that “we” - not “he,” mind you - knew exactly what it needed.
Bill and Miss Terry both remembered Belichick coming to have dinner with Nick in Baton Rouge after Saban’s national championship at LSU. The two coaches were sitting at the table talking shop, when Terry came around the corner with a smirk and deadpanned how many people must be so jealous of her being in the presence of these two geniuses as they talk about football. It’s pretty clear who runs the show in the Saban household, and she has clearly been pivotal to Nick’s success.
The show is well done and why Blll and Nick click so well is readily apparent. Nick repeated his favorite line that high achievers don’t like mediocre people and vice versa, and you’d be hard pressed to find two higher achievers. At this point both men are at the very pinnacle of the football profession and, as Saban also noted, “once you reach the mountaintop, you become the mountain.” The fear of getting knocked off of that mountaintop drives both of them, hopefully for many years to come.