Football has long been a sport intertwined with misery: It is tough, and it is grueling, and it may even be needlessly cruel to the human brain. Any sort of gratuitous fun is often frowned upon as antithetical to its very purpose. For this, we can thank the coach, whose objective is often to turn what was once a kid’s game into laborious drudgery.
This basic idea of Joyless Football dates back to the 1800s, to the moment when Yale’s Walter Camp transformed himself into the first of the authoritarian football coaches, but it’s possible that over the course of the past several seasons, we have achieved peak Joyless Football.
And for that, we have Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, longtime comrades in misery, to thank.
Who will be remembered as the pre-eminent grouch of this era, the coach who best exemplifies the deep dissatisfaction of these modern times? Let us examine the record.
On Monday, Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide will play for their fifth national title in eight years, a rematch of last year’s College Football Playoff championship game against Clemson. For the ever-striving, eternally unhappy Saban, it would be his sixth national title as a head coach, equaling Alabama legend Bear Bryant, and furthering the case that Saban is the greatest college football coach in history. Which would likely mean very little to a man who doesn’t seem to enjoy much of anything, who subscribes to the same morning routine and doesn’t even deviate in his choice of processed sweets.
Meanwhile, Saban’s former mentor, Bill Belichick, has a very real chance of winning a fifth Super Bowl in February as coach of the New England Patriots, the No. 1 seed in the AFC heading into the playoffs. This very notion, of course, brings a shudder to virtually every American who lives south or west of Hartford, largely because Belichick is viewed as perhaps the least likable coach in NFL history.
If Alabama and the Patriots both win titles, then, it will pretty much solidify these two men as the all-time greatest of the Joyless Coaches, if not the all-time greatest, period.
But which one is more joyless? Who will be remembered as the pre-eminent grouch of this era, the coach who best exemplifies the deep dissatisfaction of these modern times? Let us examine the record.
1. Player Treatment
Belichick, according to a recent story by The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, specializes in the sort of Don Rickles-style insult comedy that every cranky high school football coach in America strives for. Belichick’s locker rooms and meeting rooms, it would appear, are perpetual roasts where any player might, at any time, become the object of ridicule. But that still might be better than Saban, who tends to communicate more in straight-up fire and brimstone.
“I thought my name was ‘Fucking Asshole’ for a long time,” said one of the players from his tenure with the Houston Oilers, according to Monte Burke’s biography of Saban. “First name, ‘Fucking,’ last name, ‘Asshole.” Saban’s darkest moment may have come when he reportedly stepped right over a Miami Dolphins player suffering from a seizure, which feels a lot more severe (and a lot less funny) than threatening to replace a fumbling quarterback with a gas-station employee.
2. Working Absurd Hours
Belichick, writes Burke, “turned out to be the most demanding boss Saban ever had,” which may been due in part to the fact that Belichick—who made his name as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants—had hired Saban to coordinate his defense in Cleveland. Sometimes, said one player on the 1992 Browns, he’d come into the team facility at 10 at night and see Belichick and Saban watching agility drills from that day’s practice. “Bill could outwork all of us,” one mutual colleague, former Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage, said.
Of course, I imagine Saban—whose nickname among the Browns was “Grumpy”—has ramped up his workaholism since getting to Alabama. He once famously groused to a friend, after winning the national championship, “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting.”
3. Alienating People
We all know about Spygate and Deflategate, but Belichick may have ramped up his notoriousness a notch by issuing a letter of support (or a letter of something, I guess) for Donald Trump in the hours before the election. Even though he walked it back a day later, Belichick succeeded in alienating the one demographic—Massachusetts liberals—with which he enjoyed widespread support.
Four years ago, as the no-huddle offense began to take off in college football, Saban bemoaned what it might do to the sport, and asked, “Is this what we want football to be?” On Monday night—after hiring and then essentially firing the universally loathed Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator—Alabama will run much of its offense from a no-huddle, hurry-up style. So neither man is much for keeping his promises.
4. Making Football Boring Again
If not for the creativity of offensive coordinators like Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels—and if not for the enduring presence of Tom Brady at quarterback—the Patriots would have no doubt hunkered down long ago into the self-protective style of offense that Saban prefers.
Against Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal, ’Bama resorted, once more, to the strategy that has won it championships over and over again: Play relentless defense, and then pound the ball with a bruising running back until the opponents’ will breaks. By doing so, Saban has shattered the hopes of every college football coach that even attempts to get around him through creative means.
5. Never, Ever Being Happy
What do childhood friends recall about Saban? “I don’t remember him ever being happy,” one of them told Burke. “I swear I don’t. He was always so serious and disciplined.” Years later, after winning the Rose Bowl as defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Saban was slumped in a corner of the locker room, smoking a cigarette. When a local reporter asked him what was wrong, Saban said, “Did you see what they did to my defense?”
Said one colleague of Belichick, who admittedly even wore Saban down with his demands: “If he has a motivational style, I’d say that it’s constant emotional discomfort. That’s why his teams never flatline.”
And the Winner Is: Belichick
While Saban delivers perhaps a purer form of joylessness, the reputation Belichick carries with him—the scandals, the mumblecore press conferences, the steady stream of creative insults—make him the most dynamically Joyless Coach of this or any other era. And he’s not done torturing us yet.