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The Mind of Nick Saban

In case you missed the ‘60 Minutes’ interview of Nick Saban, it contains one of the most provocative statements uttered by…anybody…ever!

Near the start of the piece, Armen Keteyian asks Saban why he’s “so tough on people.”

Saban’s initial response was pro forma:

“I don’t know if that’s fair that I’m really tough on people. We create a standard for how we want to do things. Everybody’s got to buy into that standard or you really can’t have any team chemistry.”

Then he appended:

Nick Saban

Nick Saban

“Mediocre people don’t like high achievers, and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.”


Think about that.

As a generalization.  As a theory of human behavior.

Let me start from a personal perspective.  As a mediocre person I am offended.

To begin with, how could Saban know what mediocre people think?  How could his high-achieving brain possibly know what, if anything, goes through the minds of mediocrities?

Sure, you might point to his 15-17 record as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and 2006.  At the time Saban appeared to qualify as mediocre, but with the benefit of hindsight we know that not to be the case.  It must have been his players.

Now that Saban has won three national championships in the last four years at Alabama he is a high achiever, yes?

Okay, so he stockpiles players through a loophole that allows cast-offs to be put onto ‘medical scholarships’.  Machiavellian, sure.  But nobody called Machiavelli mediocre.

And okay, college football is not the highest level of football.  Saban is the equivalent of a Triple A manager, but since the SEC is the best of the minor leagues, we’ll cut him slack and assume that if he were again an NFL coach he would do better than 15-17.

For the sake of discussion let’s agree that he is a high-achiever.  That hardly qualifies him as an expert on mediocrities.  If he could peer into the mind of a mediocrity, into the banality of ordinary, he would see good will and respect for high achievers, for the most part.  I mean, what’s not to like?

So Saban got that part wrong.  Unfortunately, the way it came out made mediocrities sound like zombies in a post-modern dystopia. (“Night of the Living Mediocrities!”)  They are coming to get you — if you scored 1600 on the SATs.

But it’s the second part of Saban’s statement that concerns me most, because he seems to be on to something.

If Saban is right, and high achievers don’t like mediocre people, it would explain his impatience with sports media.

Beyond that it explains…everything.  Why rich dump on poor, powerful abuse weak, and brilliant ignore dull.

It’s the long-sought unified theory – the one that explains the universe.

As a career journalist weaned on the deep thoughts of coaches, athletes, city councilors, mayors, governors and presidential candidates, I’ve intuited this, though as a mediocrity I was too inarticulate to express it.

Saban’s comment takes me back (and aback).  I spent my adolescent years in Nebraska, where mediocrity is venerated in civic life.  I’ll never forget Nebraska’s GOP Senator Roman Hruska, who made a speech in 1970 urging confirmation of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court.

In response to criticism that Carswell had been a mediocre judge, Hruska said: “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Even though the speech was ridiculed, and Carswell was not confirmed, Hruska won a permanent place in my heart.  If ever a politician spoke for me and to me, it was Roman Hruska.

That was then.  Nick Saban is now.  It would be easy to conclude that we’ve traveled a long way from Hruska to Saban – from empathy to contempt, and from modesty to arrogance. Too easy.  Too unfair.

As a mediocrity I am conflicted about Saban.  I’m still not convinced he’s not one of us.  To make matters worse, I read where he and his wife run a foundation called Nick’s Kids for mentally challenged children.  How can I dislike someone who does that, even if he were a high achiever?

Saban got it wrong, I suspect, in being too categorical.  The mediocre among us can, in some modest capacity, transcend the ordinary.  The high achievers among us can, despite their brilliance, think mediocre thoughts.

Footnote:  Armen Keteyian doesn’t need anybody to tell him how to conduct an interview, least of all me, but Saban gave him an opening big enough to drive through an 18-wheel follow-up, and he didn’t.  Ah, the possibilities…