Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The hair is a statement. To behold it in person feels like encountering a familiar friend, a tiny celebrity from TV, a sidekick who has witnessed the battles, the lonely and private skirmishes, and ascended the rarest mountaintops. It is auburn (lowercase "a!"), downy, manicured and parted gently in the middle-to-right-hand-side, where it opens and begins to flow thickly over the ears of the Alabama football coach Nick Saban. You could say Saban's hair looks like a news anchor's hair—and it does look like a news anchor's hair, although truthfully it looks more like the hair of a major-league second baseman, circa 1979—and yet the inspiration of the hair matters less than the confidence it suggests. This is self-assured hair. It has thinned in the back, but it's not messy or desperate to be faddish or cool. Hair like this does not belong to a striver or arriviste or someone unaccustomed to fine things. Attention has been paid. This is hair of accomplishment. It is the hair of success.
At 61, Nick Saban is widely considered the best college-football coach in the United States. Yeah: The term "widely" is a cop-out here. There's always an eager someone ready to press a case for Ohio State's stern-faced Urban Meyer, or Oregon's innovator Chip Kelly, or maybe even Saban's rival in Monday's BCS championship game, Brian Kelly of Notre Dame. But Saban is atop the summit. His Crimson Tide have won two national titles in the past three years; Saban won another title at LSU in 2003; his career college record is an imposing 153-55-1. His contract will pay him $45 million through 2019. A statue of him has already been erected in Tuscaloosa. According to multiple reports in 2010, the statue of Saban was briefly held up by concerns about, among other issues, the hair.
Sunday morning at 8, Saban arrived at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort for his final news conference before the game. His hair was combed back, slick. A scrum of photographers waited for him on the sidewalk, eager to take his photo as he walked the 45 or so steps from the curb to the hotel dais. He wore a gray chalk-striped suit and a white shirt, and his tie was Tide crimson, large and silky, like a napkin at an old family restaurant. He began by thanking the bowl committee and the people of South Florida—he thanked everyone but the dolphins in Biscayne Bay—but soon the questions began about the game, about Alabama's preparation, about surprising Notre Dame. Saban said it was important to stay focused. He talked about players having the "right kind of psychological disposition." He was measured, deliberate, in control. No stray words.
Little is left out of place in Alabama football. To call Saban's program professional-like is to insult professionalism. A preseason story in 2012 by the Journal's Rachel Bachman and Ben Cohen described an environment in which Alabama pays meticulous attention to preparing its players for the next level. Since Saban's hiring in 2007, Alabama has placed 11 players in the first round of the NFL draft, by far the most in the country. Saban is considered a seductive recruiter; he made a memorable cameo in the 2009 football movie "The Blind Side," smoothly complimenting Sandra Bullock with the memorable line, "The Windsor valances are a nice touch."
At Sunday's conference, Saban was asked about the influence of late father, Nick Sr., or Big Nick, and how he learned from him the importance of attention to detail. It's the type of question that coaches (and athletes) get asked a lot, and it's usually deflected with a polite sentence of respect, and minimal insight. But Saban took the question and embarked on a precise story of working in his father's West Virginia service station, starting when he was 11 years old. He wasn't just pumping gas—"it was a service station; it wasn't a self-serve," he reminded, a gentle flick at modern values—but also cleaning the windows, checking the oil and tires, washing the exteriors. He said he grew to hate navy and black cars because it was hard to wash out the streaks; if Big Nick saw streaks, Little Nick would have to wash the car again.
"That sort of perfectionist type of attitude that my parents instilled…made you always strive to be all that you could be," Saban said. "That's probably still the foundation of the program that we have right now."
Those humble days are long gone. Service stations have become unrecognizable and so has college football. This title game in South Florida is commodified within an inch of its life, from the abundant corporate sponsors to its nest-egg-draining ticket prices to those $1,000 hotel rooms on South Beach. It's hard to look at the lavish coaching salaries and fetishistic TV coverage and not conclude that the sport has gone totally amok. College football in 2012 is a business. Period. Both Saban and Notre Dame's Kelly spoke urgently Sunday in favor of payments to players—not million-dollar largesses, but small amounts of spending money. Kelly said players were simply too busy between playing football and studying to get part-time jobs. The suggestion that a scholarship is adequate compensation feels quaint. Because it is quaint for a game that just collected a $5.6 billion deal for its new playoff system.
Kelly's news conference followed Saban's. His hair, of course, is less familiar. It's a disciplinarian's cut—short, crisp, parted into hospital corners. Kelly's voice is sharp and cuts through the air like a line drive, and the 51-year-old, reluctant to goose the Irish hype earlier on, spoke stirringly of returning a once-hallowed program "back into the conversation." He and Saban have been aware of each other for decades—"I got a chance to know him when he was at Toledo [in 1990]," Kelly said, and spoke of how the Alabama coach had created an enviable expectation among his players and recruits that they'd play in this big game every year. "We need to do the same thing at Notre Dame," Kelly said.
Alabama is favored to win, but it's hard to believe the 12-0 Fighting Irish, so improbable all season, cannot deliver a competitive game, if not a championship upset. Notre Dame believers are prone to magical thinking, and Kelly was asked if he believed in a team of destiny. "Honestly, I don't," he said. "I think you get what you deserve." What's deserved will be decided by players on the field Monday night. Saban and Kelly, admired and elevated, can only do so much. But when it's over, somebody's hair is going to be a total mess.
A version of this article appeared January 7, 2013, on page B8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: This Is Championship-Caliber Hair.