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Tough enough

Dolphins display new attitude in Saban's first game

Posted: Sunday September 11, 2005 8:02PM; Updated: Monday September 12, 2005 2:53PM
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The Dolphins' Junior Seau, top foreground, and Sam Madison tackle Denver's Ashley Lelie.

MIAMI -- Well at least now we know what all the fuss was about.

After a few offseasons of both eliciting and spurning NFL head coaching interest, Nick Saban finally took the plunge this season, nodding a somewhat tentative yes when the Miami Dolphins came calling to hire him away from LSU.

Despite his national title with the Tigers and the rest of his glossy resume, it was a bit of a gamble both for Saban and the Dolphins. The trend of heralded college coaches stepping up into the big leagues hasn't been working like gangbusters of late (see Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis and Dennis Erickson).

But on this, the first day that really mattered in the Dolphins' Saban era, you can't quibble with the early returns. The surprising proof was flashing right there on the Dolphins Stadium JumboTron scoreboard: Miami 34, Denver 10, in a game that was so ugly it was beautiful.

Especially for those with aqua in their blood. Consider the rest of the NFL on notice: The AFC East now has another superb head coach among its ranks.

"This is not really about me at all,'' said Saban, minutes after his lightly regarded Dolphins registered one of the biggest upsets of Week 1. "I'm really pleased for the players. These players have suffered a little bit over the last year. I think that they all wanted to prove something, and I'm just happy that we could help them accomplish that.''

Things are always exciting at the start of something new, and the NFL is no different in that respect. The Dolphins started 0-6 last year and finished 4-12 -- their worst record since 1969 -- and there was seemingly no end to the suffering. There was the Ricky Williams debacle. The quarterback miseries. The resignation under fire of fifth-year head coach Dave Wannstedt after the club started 1-9. The Dolphins were defeated and deflated.

But enter Saban, who knew exactly what he wanted from the 2005 Dolphins: A team that looked, acted and sounded like him. Tough, resilient, tenacious, with a spine that wouldn't easily bend. Looking back in regret at the fate that befell them last year was officially outlawed. What the Dolphins might lack in talent, Saban demanded they make up with determination.

And on a steamy late-summer Sunday against the heavily favored Broncos, the mentality Saban has been drilling into his rebuilding team paid off instantly.

"We tried to create a little bit of an identity as a team today,'' Saban said. "I'm proud of the effort that we put in and the way we persevered and overcame adversity. The big thing that this team did today was they had a little tenacity, a little perseverance. And I think that's something you definitely need in this league relative to the competitive balance and what you have to do to win games.''