We may currently be witnessing two of the greatest coaches in the history of American football, one at the college level and one at the professional. In fact, one could make a strong case that Nick Saban of the University of Alabama and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots are thetwo greatest coaches ever at their respective levels. A Jean Cocteau play and a Flannery O’Connor short story about a serial killer help me identify things they have in common.
Applying these works doesn’t make the two men appear in the best of lights so it may be necessary to offer a disclaimer. Both men have made my life miserable over the years. Saban’s LSU and then Alabama teams regularly beat up on the University of Tennessee, and Belichick made life even worse for my hero Peyton Manning, first when he was playing for the Colts and then, this past year, for the Broncos. Saban has won four collegiate championships, including three of the last four. Belichick year after year gets his team to the playoffs and often to the Super Bowl. Both men resemble “infernal machines.”
That’s the title of Cocteau’s version of the Oedipus story and may be the best thing about the play. It’s a very good description of how events unfold inexorably to crush the hero. The more Oedipus twists and turns, the tighter he pulls the noose around his neck. It’s as though he is, well, Notre Dame playing Alabama, which ran around, over, and through the vaunted Notre Dame defense in the national title game. Or the Houston Texans, who the Patriots appeared to toy with in the second round of this year’s NFL playoffs.
The dramatic irony for which the Oedipus story is well known is that everyone knows ahead of time what the outcome will be, even though the self-confident hero thinks that he has control over his own destiny. We hear what Oedipus says and weigh it by what we know is going to happen to him. That’s what it was like to watch the Fighting Irish and the Texans these past couple of weeks. We knew from the start what the eventual outcome would be and just had to watch a couple of series to confirm that, yes, this is the story we thought it would be.
Saban and Belichick: like fate, they remorselessly grind you down.
Furthermore, both men do it without smiling or seeming to enjoy themselves. This brings to mind the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
The Misfit appears out of nowhere, like an avenging dark angel sent to punish the narcissistic grandmother. Showing no compunction, he orders the murder of her son, his wife, and the two kids, and then he shoots her. The mayhem is complete.
But when one of his gang members wants to enjoy the moment, the Misfit stomps it out:
“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
That’s how Saban and Belichick appear to their victims: cold-blooded and humorless.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.