NEW ORLEANS (AP) — They rose to the top of their profession from different sides of the line.
Nick Saban, the defensive mastermind.
Urban Meyer, the offensive genius.
The areas of expertise may be different, but their coaching principles are cut from the same cloth.
A demanding quest for perfection, even though they recognize it will always be just out of reach. An absolute rejection of anything that feels like contentment, no matter how many championships they might win. A neurotic obsession with every little detail, while recognizing that some delegation is required.
Make no mistake: When Saban’s top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide faces Meyer’s No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl tonight, two figures will tower over everyone else. It doesn’t matter that neither will play a down in the semifinal playoff game.
This is like a paint-off between Picasso and Monet, a chance for the rest of us to savor two savants at the top of their games.
Not that they’ll be relishing the moment.
“It’s always about the next play. It’s always about the next game,” Saban said Tuesday, speaking from a podium on the floor of the Superdome. “I’m always looking toward the future.”
Saban has already won four national titles, three of them coming in the last five years at Alabama. Meyer captured a pair of championships at Florida and is two wins away from adding to his haul with the Buckeyes.
If you’re looking for some perspective on what it all means, better ask someone else.
“I don’t really think much about the past,” Saban said. “I always like to say, ‘Be where your feet are.’ What’s happening right now? What do I need to do to affect that? That’s where your energy is always focused.”
Meyer takes essentially the same approach, though he does “try to force” himself to appreciate the good times.
“Maybe when you’re younger, you don’t always do that,” the 50-year-old said. “You’re always swinging, swinging, swinging.”
That’s about as far as he’ll go. Anyone who thinks Meyer softened up a bit after taking a year off from coaching, a sabbatical he said was necessary because of the toll it was taking on his health and family, just listen to Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.
After serving as interim coach between the scandal that brought down Jim Tressel and Meyer’s arrival, Fickell remained on the staff at his alma mater. But Meyer was none too pleased with breakdowns in the pass defense last season, so he brought in a new co-coordinator, Chris Ash. To say that caused some bitterness would be a massive understatement.
“Mad, uncomfortable,” Fickell said, describing his feelings after some of the tougher meetings with his boss. “But the reality is: That’s what makes you better, that’s what makes you grow. You ask, ‘Why did you stay?’ Well, everybody wants to be challenged. Sometimes it’s not the greatest way to live your life.”
Freshman quarterback Stephen Collier felt the wrath of Meyer during Monday’s practice. Getting some work with the first team, mainly to help rest the arm of starter Cardale Jones, there were a couple of plays Collier didn’t run the right way. That’s understandable, considering he started the year as a fourth-stringer and has only moved up because of injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.
But in Meyer’s world, no excuses are allowed.
“It’s very tough and uncomfortable in the beginning,” Jones said. “But when you see the results and rewards of that, you buy into it, you understand it more, and you learn to like it.”
Well, that’s not entirely accurate.
Meyer never wants to create an environment that anyone likes.
“I can think of some bad words, but ‘complacent’ falls right up there with those bad words,” he said. “That’s the leader’s job, to make sure there’s no complacency. If you see it or feel it, you’ve got to poke the tiger. I don’t want to say discomfort, but discomfort usually breeds production. I don’t want guys to feel like they’ve arrived, because we have not arrived.”
At 63, Saban gives off the exact same vibe, though there’s one challenge he has no intention of tackling again — the NFL. Two years with the Miami Dolphins was enough.
“I learned that maybe my best legacy as a coach or a person or whatever might be better realized in college,” he said. “I never really thought about ever going back to the NFL.”
No matter what, Saban and Meyer have ensured their place among the giants of the college game.
It’s not necessarily been a joyful journey.
It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.
But for these two, it’s the only way.