“It’s human nature to be average,” Nick Saban tells me via the matinee screening of “Nick Saban: Gamechanger.”
That’s an aphorism – “a terse saying embodying a general truth.” But because it’s Saban’s aphorism, Saban’s truth, I found myself wanting to reject it. I am Auburn, he is Alabama. We are natural enemies locked in eternal battle, so natural, so eternal that the thought of me, a college-student in my navy Auburn shirt with the faded-from-repeated-washing lettering, surrounded by the scattered, middle-aged crimson bodies of four no doubt die-hard Alabama fans, who had likely never sat in a college class, much less at Alabama, shut-ins probably, the five of us watching various athletes and media peoples preach the gospel of Saint Saban—Saban who doesn’t want to be average, ever – is still difficult to process.
But there I was in Montgomery, bored, skipping class, driving around our state capital on a Friday afternoon seeking any non-college-related activity, and somehow, instead of catching an art-house flick, taking a stroll downtown or touring a historic site, I pull into Eastdale Mall out near the AUM campus after seeing “Nick Saban: Gamechanger” on the marquis. I’d like to think it was a whim. I honestly had not heard one word about “Gamechanger,” shocking as that sounds. At that point, I might have been the only person who hadn’t. I soon found out it was a documentary about Saban’s coaching career and time at Alabama and how he changes games with hard work and black magic. For an Auburn student, that was a pretty non-college-related activity. And for a writer, surely good for material. I bought a ticket.
I’ve never entered a movie more skeptical, more ready to satirize, vilify and deconstruct. I sat in the dark, notebook ready, smug, malevolent grin in place, ready to destroy Saban and his Alabama acolytes—the piece would practically write itself.
Then the music started… mixed with the flashy editing… and I got chills, honest-to-God chills . . . while basically watching Alabama football porn. Somehow the movie had hit all the right receptors in my brain, the ones connected to football and Saturdays and youth. I’d been tricked.
Not just tricked –seduced. I found myself impressed by Nick Saban. Each tingle felt like a betrayal of my Auburn heritage. The music, editing and lofty words had bypassed the logic centers in my head and hit me right in the gut. It’s hard not to be impressed with the man, with his gamechanging-ness. Even as an Auburn fan, an Auburn fan forever and ever amen, I cannot deny the man’s abilities. We hate him, but I think we all know his power. He is not average.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Alabama’s locker room is just how clean everything is. Sterile even. There are no televisions or murals of former players. The colors are muted—grays, blacks, silvers and crimson; it’s like walking into a Sin City scene. The lockers are arranged numerically and lack any personal affects. Each one contains the player’s jersey, number and name facing outward, cleats, helmet, which has been buffed, pants, undershirt, current game program and a small piece of paper with a list of former Alabama All-American’s who wore the same number in years past taped to the top.
Various trainers and helpers wander the room, shining helmets, straightening shoes, making sure everything is perfect, perfect and in its proper place. A carpeted scripted A on white background dominates the center of the room. The white is the color of beached bone. I was warned not to step on or near it, sacrilege or some such.
Walking from locker to locker, I got the sense that the names on the jerseys are unimportant. Greg McElroy is Alabama quarterback No. 12. He isn’t an individual; he’s an idea. His position, his job, has overtaken his personal importance. He has been sacrificed at the altar of Alabama football. That list of the All-Americans only feed this idea. To remember his relative lack of importance, all a player has to do is look at his locker.
Maybe this is part of The Process. To be your best as a player, Nick Saban has to break you down and rebuild you in his image. Throughout “Gamechanger,” Saban talks about “finding players who fit his system,” players who want to work and who will listen. Nick Saban seeks cogs for his machine.
To humanize Saban, the director of “Gamechanger” includes interviews with his children. The son says Saban is a great father. He works hard, he uhh…, he uhh… leaves early and gets home late. And uhh… he makes sure to spend at least five minutes with the family every night, because he’s a good father. The daughter, Kristen, loves “Daddy Sabes.” She even made a sign for his birthday. When they’re on the lake, Daddy Sabes cranks up the Eagles and plays air guitar. Can you picture it? Nick Saban with the family, listening to the Eagles, pantomiming guitar strumming and enjoying water-related activities? (Nick Saban would like the freaking Eagles.) That’s the movie’s only real attempt at showcasing Saban’s non-Sisyphean side.
The rest is Saban working: making calls, evaluating recruits, reviewing film, starring in ESPN commercials where he plays Jenga against Mac Brown. Alabama fans took pride in his refusal to celebrate the national championship for more than a day. “It’s about next year.” Or: “It continues.” Or some other pithy statement implying impending Alabama football imperialism. The next day, Jan. 8, Saban and staff met at 7:30 to begin preparing for success in 2010.
Here’s the thing: Alabama fans freaking love him for that. They love that he works that hard, that all he thinks about is winning and “dominating his opponent.” His inherent lack of likability and his abruptness excused as honesty only endears him more to Alabama fans. He’s an asshole, but he’s their asshole; they don’t just allow it, they celebrate it.
I’m not so sure that would fly at Auburn. Or at least I like to think it wouldn’t. Being an Auburn Man or Woman is about more than winning and losing. It’s about the process, not The Process—how you conduct yourself on a daily basis, with pride and respect for Auburn. Because “Auburn was great before we ever got here.” I’m not so sure there’s any room in The Process for such talk.
I also like to think Auburn wouldn’t welcome Saint Nick because Auburn has always been a family, a family of individuals, something Saban and The Process discourage. Bo and Pat. Shug and Dye. Cadillac and Ronnie. While Auburn values team and unity, it – the essence of Auburn… fans, students, alumni, the city, everything which makes Auburn Auburn – has always been about the person you are, the person Auburn makes you.
Alabama has never been about the individual. Before Ingram, Alabama fans took a sort of pride in not having a Heisman winner. They could then eagerly remind all within earshot of 12. “We ain’t got a Heisman, but we got 12. Whoo weee. Roll Tide.” And they’re right. Alabama has had more success as a team. And that is the ultimate goal of football: team success. Which makes Alabama’s heroes national championship trophies and the old white men who focused, laser-like, the talented masses of crimson-clad 18-22 year olds. Their fans worship years. The parts don’t really matter, only the outcome, The Process. (Adlib your own grayshirt joke.)
And Auburn? Not sure, honestly. I’d like to think it’s a mixture of both—the respect for the individual and a love of team. Really, I’m way too much of an Auburn fan to give a clear, non-biased account.
But I do know it’s not Alabama. Maybe that’s enough right there.
“Boy, you’re standing on hallowed ground. How does it feel to be on a real field?” Surreal should’ve been my answer. Surreal and slightly disgusting. Instead I made a joke or said something self-effacing. I was deep in enemy territory and it seemed like the right play. The asker happened to be a police captain from the town adjacent Auburn. He is an Alabama fan, a real Alabama fan, as is his daughter, with whom I’ve somehow become romantically entangled—enough to be standing on the 50-yard line three hours before the kick-off of the Alabama-Penn State game.
“Let me tell you, Auburn’s a great place. My daughter graduated from there. Got her a fine education. But there’s just something about Alabama. When I hear that Million Dollar Band. . .” whispers the Mayor of town adjacent Auburn, his hand on my upper arm, his face inches from mine. Before the stadium tour, he was knocking back screwdrivers and trying to elicit “Roll Tides”. Mixed with his rambling spiel is Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Highlights from last season play on the four new jumbotrons. The voices of the Mayor, Freddie Mercury and Eli Gold all mix to a barely comprehensible drone. If Alabama had re-education camps, this is what they’d play over the loudspeakers, I think.
So yeah, basically, on Friday and Saturday of last week I did a lot of weird Bama-related shit. Two days of that does weird things to you if you’re an Auburn fan. Up is down. Good is bad. Your equilibrium gets jacked up.
I knew I was going to Tuscaloosa for the game before walking into “Gamechanger.” And so I began thinking of myself almost as an explorer. I would watch their movie and walk their tainted town and return full of knowledge and understanding. I would expose their lies and narrow thinking. I would serve as combat journalist, but instead of bullets and bodies, I’d report on arrogance and assorted jackassedness.
I watched. And watched. And watched.
Then, the very next day, I was in Tuscaloosa. Amongst the heathens. I did it all: I toured the locker room. I walked on the field. I meandered through the Bear Bryant Museum. I even saw last season’s championship trophy. It was terrible.
I started to question long-held assumptions: What does it mean to be an Auburn fan? An Alabama fan? Does the choice say something inherently about you as a person? Is it an arbitrary decision largely based on factors outside human control?
Not sure, honestly. But we like to at least pretend the choice matters. To live in Alabama is to view the world in one of two ways, either as an Alabama fan—the king of the hill, the traditional power, the rightful heir—or an Auburn fan—the consummate underdog, the striver, the little brother. The initial decision might be arbitrary (your dad went to Auburn or your best friend from childhood liked Alabama or 1,000 other reasons) but everything after is deliberate. Once the choice is made, you are pushed to pathological hate of the other side, for better or worse.
But does your choice really say anything about you as a person? I don’t know. That’s what this is at least partly about. I wish I knew; I’ve spent hours trying to find the words to explain it, all for naught. Maybe the question is too complex. Maybe there isn’t an answer or single truth. Regardless, I think it’s worth considering.
We’re a state split between two sides, each side assuming superiority – two ways of life, if you want to get hardcore about it. Two ways of looking at the question. Two football teams. What does that say about us as human beings?
“We have an opponent in this state that we work every day, 365 days a year, to dominate.”
I’ve been raised to hate Alabama from birth. In Sunday School, I’d get into shouting matches with the Alabama children, my War Eagles being met by four or five Roll Tides. From kindergarten through third grade, I only colored with orange and navy. Walking through the halls, it was easy to pick out my tree or house or fire truck.
Part of me is still that 10-year-old boy, spent blue and orange markers covering his desk, his teacher eyeing him disapprovingly as he finishes yet another Auburn-themed masterpiece. That 10-year-old boy didn’t stop to consider sociological implications or “reason.” He loved Auburn and hated Alabama. That was enough.
The 10-year-old version of me understood enjoying sports rationally is boring. Older, less wise Ben tried enjoying sports with Vulcan-like logic once in 2009. Don’t do it. It sucked. Be exceedingly irrational. I’m now convinced that’s the only real way.
Because the most meaningful part of sports is their meaninglessness. Same goes for writing about sports. On some level, it’s all meaningless. In our blind grasping and grafting we fabricate dichotomies and metaphors and grandiose statements to add some heft to sport. The undersized white middle linebacker is heart, grit and willpower. The deaf outfielder is courage and faith. Miraculous recoveries and tragic collapses. We all know the stories.
And the stories are why we watch. Or at least that’s why I watch. For me to enjoy sports there has to be something more than just technical proficiency. I watch sports for less tangible reasons. I watch sports for the sense of community and schadenfreude and because I played sports and because my dad introduced me to sports and because of 100 other reasons I cannot articulate.
All of that, all of this, is true for me, but it might not be for you. You might be an Alabama fan who doesn’t mind Auburn or you might be an Auburn fan who doesn’t hate Alabama. To a certain extent, we all get to create our own sports reality. In my reality, Auburn is inherently good. Alabama is inherently evil. I am, it is.
Being around them – watching their propaganda, walking their cursed grounds, hearing their blasphemies, reminded me: I hate Alabama’s machine-like approach. I hate crimson and white. I hate Big Al. I hate hounds tooth. I hate the town of Tuscaloosa. I hate non self-aware arrogance. I hate Rammer Jammer. I hate obstinate ignorance. I hate balloon-necked Jimmy Sexton chuckling as he says Nick Saban has to “win or be miserable.” I hate being referred to as the “University of Auburn.” I hate Got 13? bumper stickers. I hate all processes, but I especially hate The Process. I hate Nick Saban. I hate the University of Alabama and everything it represents.
And I’ve just about decided I don’t care why.
Ben is a student at Auburn University. Most of his time is spent doing as little as possible, eating, and controlling manageable vices. He will one day graduate with a degree in journalism and maybe find a job. Fingers crossed. Write to him at [email protected]. (Did you read his story ‘The Mysterious Auburn Man”? It was reprinted in the winter issue of Auburn Magazine).