ORLANDO, Fla. — Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban paused, then looked at each other. Slowly, each cracked a smile.
The awkward exchange came 18 minutes into the coaches’ joint press conference Tuesday morning. Each was asked what he would do if he could sit down with the other for an hour and talk football.
Finally, Harbaugh broke the silence.
“That would be a real treat. There’s really nobody better. Tremendous respect for Coach Saban.”
There was a subtext throughout the press conference, one of knowledge that Harbaugh and Saban have butted heads before. They’re known as two of the more uncompromising coaches in the country. They squabbled over satellite camps in 2016, and Saban coached at Michigan State in a past life. There’s a lot of room for hate there.
Instead, the response was one of mutual, if begrudging, respect.
“It’s a great opportunity for our team to play an iconic traditional program like the University of Michigan,” Saban said in his opening statement. “(Harbaugh) and his staff have done an outstanding job with their team and had a great season and certainly going to be a challenge for our team to be able to compete against them. We have a lot of respect for what they have been able to accomplish. They certainly played some of their best football toward the end of the season.”
Harbaugh and Saban traded pleasantries throughout. Michigan is “a very well‑coached team in every phase of the game,” according to Saban. Alabama “has no weaknesses,” if you ask Harbaugh.
But for two of the most well-known coaches in the sport, Harbaugh and Saban seem like they should have more history than they actually do. They’ve never actually faced each other on the field. Recruiting spats and coaching gigs at rival schools 15 years apart mean little in the grand scheme of things. Now, they have to show respect — because each knows that if he doesn’t, he could well get burned.
“I never, ever stop trying to learn,” Saban said. “And I would certainly cherish and have tremendous gratitude for the opportunity to be able to sit down with Jim and talk to him about how he does things and how that can improve our organization.”
It’s a statement that seems somewhat out of place for a coach who’s won four national championships this decade, especially referring to one who hasn’t even won the Big Ten. But the sentiment still rings true — coaches who want to stay in the upper echelon have lots to learn from each other. That applies as much to Harbaugh and Saban as anyone else. These are two coaches who love a good challenge, and overcoming a disappointing season by beating the other is a big one for them both.
Ultimately, perhaps the greatest share of respect Tuesday wasn’t the clichés or the compliments. Instead, it was that through the aura of respect, it was clear that neither coach is overlooking the other — because they can’t. Both will be on high alert tomorrow against an opponent too good to disrespect. However they may have felt about each other in the past will be settled on the field tomorrow, and that’s just the way they like it.
As the press conference ended, Harbaugh and Saban stood up, exchanged a few words and shook hands. The Citrus Bowl trophy sat in front of them, a reminder of the only thing worth fighting over.