Turning the 'Tide
Saban looks to do things his way despite expectations
Posted: Thursday April 10, 2008 12:40PM; Updated: Thursday April 10, 2008 1:51PM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At Alabama, even the architecture applies pressure to the head football coach. In the plaza outside the north end zone at Bryant-Denny Stadium, there are four bronze statues. One is a 150 percent-scale replica of Wallace Wade wearing a three-piece suit. Another is of Frank Thomas in a warm-up jacket. Then there's Paul Bryant -- only out-of-towners call him Bear -- wearing his iconic hat and squeezing a play sheet in his right hand. Finally, there's Gene Stallings wearing his wing-tips. Around each coach is a concrete ring detailing each year he led the Crimson Tide to a national title. Now look past Stallings. There's another ring, bare but for a fuse box buried in the ground.
That ring is reserved for the next coach who leads Alabama to the national title.
Nick Saban has gazed upon those statues and upon that empty ring, but he has not pondered their metaphorical significance. He does not feel the pressure from a fan base spoiled by decades of success and then starved by a decade of bungling. He knows how badly those fans yearn for a title. He knows they want him to deliver Alabama's program back to its rightful place among the lords of college football, but he understands that may take longer than they are willing to tolerate.
Of course the fans want championships. More than 90,000 of them came to Saban's first spring game, and they may pack Bryant-Denny again for Saturday's A-Day Game. The boosters who helped foot the bill for his $4 million annual salary want results. Since Stallings retired after the 1996 season, they've suffered through four other head coaches, NCAA probation and a 74-61 overall record. Yet none of it seems to affect Saban.
"External pressure has never been something that's ..." Saban says, his voice trailing off before picking up again. "I want to be good because I want to be the best."
And that's why Saban may be the only man who can handle the Alabama job.
Think about it. Until Bobby Petrino pulled a vanishing act on the Atlanta Falcons late last year and reappeared at Arkansas, no coach had inspired so much venom. Saban, then coach of the Miami Dolphins, famously said "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach" less than two weeks before he was introduced as the Alabama coach. Because of that, he was branded a liar and a quitter. In South Florida, they called him Nick Satan. LSU fans, furious their former coach would dare accept a job at a SEC division rival, blasted the "Nicktator." Never mind that on the day Saban was introduced as Alabama's coach, Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga told The Associated Press: "I'm not upset, because it's more involved than what you think."
In media reports, stories described Saban's sometimes tyrannical treatment of his coaching staff. Saban would say later that such portrayals bruised him, but that seems difficult to believe, because Saban seems so consumed by the process of reviving Alabama's program that he has neither the time nor the energy to concern himself with his public image. That's why he's perfect for Alabama. If the Tide coach truly worried about every word written or spoken about him by sportswriters, radio talkers and fans, he'd leave town in a heartbeat, just as Dennis Franchione did after the 2002 season.
Like Saban, Alabama fans have been painted with too broad a brush. They don't all live in the past. They don't all pine for a coach who eats his breakfasts at the Waysider, who wears a houndstooth hat and who munches Golden Flake potato chips while growling through the highlights of the past game. Saban doesn't have to be Bryant reincarnated. College football's most passionate fans want only one thing from their coach -- to win right now.
Saban, the architect of the LSU's 2003 BCS title team, believes championships -- be they division, conference or national -- come only after a team throws itself headlong into the winning process. Teams only change, Saban explains, when players change. A team of elite athletes who strive for perfection in every aspect of their lives can win a championship, but that can't happen until enough elite athletes buy into the process.