It is almost here. The biggest college football game of the season is on the immediate horizon. The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers will converge on the city of Glendale, Arizona for a gridiron contest on January 11 that will determine which school will win 2016 College Football National Championship.
The media frenzy over this high profile football game will no doubt reach a fever pitch, and The Christian Index doesn’t need to be bringing up the rear in its coverage of the hoopla surrounding the event.
Interestingly, both teams come from the Bible belt and both coaches profess to be extraordinarily religious. Nick Saban, the coach of Alabama’s football team, is a devout Catholic. Dabo Swinney, the coach of the Clemson team, is a professing Christian and attends NewSpring Church in Anderson, a church affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
The pressure of being a college football coach and trying to satisfy millions of fans, managing a multi-million dollar budget and yearly contending for the highest prize the NCAA offers almost demands a belief in something or someone higher than oneself.
Saban faithfully attends Mass at St. Francis of Assisi University Parish in Tuscaloosa. The church where Saban and his wife, Terry, are heavily invested is less than two blocks from the practice fields where the Alabama head coach puts his team through their paces. In recent years the church has experienced significant growth and has found favor with the University to the extent that they have been able to lease several acres of land from the school in order to build a larger building next to its present facility.
The Sabans spoke at a Mass, urging people to pledge money to construct the new building, and yes, they made a pledge, and since $5 million is needed for both phases of the building program this editor suspects that the Sabans’ pledge was a generous one. After all, part of the money will be used to renovate the old building, which will be called the Saban Catholic Student Center.
Saban has been called the most famous Catholic coach in America. When Alabama played Notre Dame for the National Championship three years ago one website stated, “The most famous Catholic University will battle the most famous Catholic coach.”
Several newspapers have reported that Saban has his team pray the Lord’s Prayer before and after every game.
Greg Garrison wrote an article in which he discussed Nick Saban’s faith. He quoted the Alabama coach as saying, “I don’t think it’s my faith necessarily, but I think having faith is something that helps us all sort keep our moral compass in the right direction. I think it reinforces a lot of things about being good, serving other people, trying to do the right things.”
Because Saban may not always hold his emotions or his tongue in check and while it is safe to say that the coach may never be known as St. Nick, he has a church named after him.
Dabo Swinney, on the other hand, may insert a salty word into a post-game interview from time to time, but he has incurred the wrath of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which increases his stature in my estimation. In 2014 the FFRF sent the university a letter of complaint citing, “constitutional concerns about how the public university’s football program is entangled with religion.”
Swinney is a University of Alabama graduate and was a walk-on wide receiver for the Crimson Tide football program. He eventually earned a football scholarship, played on the 1992 national championship team and earned a degree in commerce and business administration, but his path to success was marked with formidable obstacles.
Upon arriving in Tuscaloosa he found an apartment, which he shared with a friend from his hometown of Pelham, Alabama. However, in the two-bedroom apartment the two guys had to make room for Dabo’s mother, who came to Tuscaloosa with her son.
Dan Wetzel, writing for Yahoo Sports, reports, “It was a move of necessity. His family had no money after his father’s business failed when Dabo was in high school. Ervil Swinney, Dabo’s dad, quickly plummeted into a cycle of domestic abuse and alcoholism.
“I come from the most screwed-up, dysfunctional situation,” Swinney said “You’ve got violence. Police at your house. Your dad’s gone. Nowhere to live.”
From those problematical circumstances Dabo and his mom became extremely close and he rose from a life of poverty and uncertainty to become the coach of one of college footballs most successful programs.
Swinney explained that the turning point in his life was during high school when he went to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. The speaker for the meeting was former Alabama wide receiver Joey Jones, now head coach of South Alabama.
ABC News reported Swinney as saying, “I thought he was going to talk about touchdowns and all the money he made playing for the Falcons and for the USFL Stallions. All he talked about was his faith in Christ and his relationship there. If you’re not saved and you want to be saved, here’s what you have to do. I realized I wasn’t saved.
“Joey Jones led me to the Lord that night.”
Swinney coached under Tommy Bowden, who professed to be an evangelical Christian. When Bowden was terminated Swinney became the interim coach and then won the head coaching position. He makes no apology for his Christian values and has infused an evangelical spirit into the very fabric of his program. Michael Weinreb, writing for Slate.com, reported, “In 2012, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was baptized in a livestock trough at the 50-yard line following a practice.”
While the two men discussed in this editorial are both heralded coaches, like the rest of us they likely struggle with their faith and their walk with God. This editorial is not intended to judge them, but to simply say that following Saban and Swinney will never be as profitable as following the Savior, Christ, the King.