FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Washing cars. That’s how it began. Washing cars for his dad’s service station.
That’s when Nick Saban began learning focus, work ethic, and attention to detail that have helped him win so many football games. Those lessons serve as an unbroken thread from his childhood in Fairmont, W.Va., to today as he tries to lead Alabama to a third national championship in four years.
He wasn’t born with this work ethic. He didn’t learn it from Don James, who coached him at Kent State and hired him as an assistant. Bill Belichick added to Saban’s knowledge of football and managing a large organization, but he didn’t teach him his focus.
Nicholas Lou Saban Jr. learned it from his father, Nicholas Lou Saban Sr., who died in 1973 from a heart attack at age 46.
“Brother” — as Nick Jr. was known to everyone there — got his first job from “Big Nick,” his dad, who owned a service station and a Dairy Queen back in Fairmont. That’s where Saban absorbed the spark that helped turn him into the coach he is now.
“I started working at that service station when I was 11 years old pumping gas,” said Saban, who is now 61. “Notice I said it was a service station; it wasn’t a self-serve. So you cleaned the windows, checked the oil, checked the tires, collected the money, gave the change, treated the customers in a certain way. We also greased cars, washed cars.
“So the biggest thing that I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly. There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out, and if there were any streaks when he came, you had to do it over.”
Saban said he realizes now how much he learned beyond simply how to wash a car. He didn’t know it at the time, but he said he sees it now.
“We learned a lot about work ethic,” he said. “We learned a lot about having compassion for other people and respecting other people, and we learned about certainly the importance of doing things correctly.”
The lessons didn’t stop there. His father coached Pop Warner football and American Legion baseball, and he played for him.
“When I started to play for him in Pop Warner football, he was the same way as a coach: attention to detail, discipline, do things what you’re supposed to do, the way you’re supposed to do it, when you’re supposed to do it, the way it’s supposed to get done, all those things that we’ve all heard about, discipline was engrained in just about everything that we did,” Saban said. “And I think that sort of perfectionist type of attitude that my parents instilled sort of made you always strive to be all that you could be, and that’s probably still the foundation of the program that we have right now.”
Saban said he tries to extend his program beyond that. He wants his program to develop players academically and personally as well as athletically. He wants his players to have a better chance at life after they’ve played in his program than they did before.
He wants as much as anything for his players to gain something they can use 50 years down the road, even though playing for Alabama isn’t nearly as mundane as washing a car at a West Virginia service station. He said that’s his desire.
“I think Big Nick … had a lot to do with that,” he said.