Nick Saban: Casting His Own Long Shadow
Four years ago, Alabama head coach Nick Saban was moving from an ugly situation he created (his early exit from the Miami Dolphins) to a big mess at Alabama created by others before him.
At that time, he was viewed as an unlikeable, mercenary for hire. He had been the head coach at Michigan State for five years (1995-1999) which ended, after success, with a rather abrupt exit to Baton Rouge where he lead LSU for five seasons (2000-2004), including significant success (two SEC championships and a national championship), building what Les Miles now has the enjoyment of perpetuating. Winning LSU’s only second national championship in 2003 (the first was in 1958) elevated Saban to mythical figure in Louisiana. It set the bar high. Following the next season that ended with a relatively disappointing 9-3 including a bowl game loss, Saban gave himself a new challenge: bring a Super Bowl trophy to Miami.
Two seasons of 9-7 and then 6-10 made it clear that Saban’s challenge was perhaps insurmountable. And, here’s where so many Saban Haters get their well-worn material.
In November 2006, Alabama announced that then head coach Mike Shula was on his way out of Tuscaloosa. Bombarded with questions every week following that announcement, Saban announced on four days before Christmas that he was “not going to be the Alabama coach.” When the Dolphins lost their 10th game on New Year’s Day in the finale to that season, Saban met with Alabama brass. Two days later, Saban announced that he had accepted Alabama’s job offer for approximately $32 million.
Once upon a time, Robert Neyland’s official job goal was to lead the Tennessee footballl program, that had no significant accomplishments in its history, to defeat Vanderbilt. Beginning in the fall of 2007, Saban had a heavier burden, given the Tide’s long history of on-field excellence and dominance. The Crimson Tide hadn’t won a conference championship for 8 years, its longest drought ever, or a national title in 15 seasons. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant’s shadow was still being cast, and getting longer (with apologies to Gene Stallings). Even the Bryant museum is visible from Saban’s office window.
Saban wasn’t being given an eight-year contract to return Alabama to respectability. He was being given the charge to win championships as soon as humanly possible.
In only his second season, Saban led the Crimson Tide to a perfect 12-0 regular season record, only to lose to Florida in the SEC championship game. That severe disappointment was all that Saban needed. The following season, ‘Bama ended it’s regular season with the same 12-0 mark, but this time, Saban’s elephants routed Florida for the SEC crown, and then brought Alabama the trophy he was hired to acquire when at the Rose Bowl Stadium, Texas became Alabama’s 14th victim of the 2009 season.
I thoroughly enjoyed Nick Saban’s press conference on Monday. In an extension to a response to a question, Saban blew his top:
“We’re worrying about the Heisman Trophy. Now, we’re worrying about playing Missouri rather than Tennessee some time down the road. I could give a sh*t about all of that. Excuse my French. I mean come on. Let’s talk about the game.”
How can you not like that? Totally appropriate.
Even though Tennessee looks to be like one of the easier opponents on his schedule, Saban knows that Alabama-Tennessee means a lot to a lot of people. This game cannot be marginalized because of the state of the Vols. It doesn’t matter if Alabama is a 28-point favorite. This is Alabama-Tennessee. This game, this series, this rivalry, demands respect. Saban knows that.
I don’t remember the time or place, but a while ago, before a previous Tide-Vols match, Saban was asked a question to the effect that the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry seemed lopsided and thus wasn’t as important as it used to be.
Saban snapped back and said something like, “If we lose to Tennessee this week, you’ll see just how important this rivalry still is.”
I like Nick Saban. A lot.