Making sense of the Nick Saban-to-Texas talk; Walkthrough
Nick Saban knows no one will ever believe him. After all, he is the guy who said he wouldn't be "the Alabama coach" in December 2006 just days before he left the Miami Dolphins to become the Alabama coach. So this week, when Jim Vertuno of The Associated Press unearthed a September email written by former Texas regent Tom Hicks that detailed his phone call last January with current regent Wallace Hall and agent-to-the-coaching-stars Jimmy Sexton -- best known as Saban's guy -- the report stirred up angst in Tuscaloosa and hope in Austin.
Saban did his best on Wednesday to douse the story with liquid nitrogen. "I don't know where y'all get your information, but I've already commented on all of this stuff," Saban told reporters at a press conference. "There's nothing new or different that's ever happened. I'm very committed to the University of Alabama. Love being here. We've talked about it before, don't need to talk about it again. We've got a big game with LSU this week, and that's where our focus is and that's what we're focusing on. There's really nothing new to comment about."
If Saban ever did decide to leave the Crimson Tide, it would be both surprising and unsurprising. The surprising part would be Saban leaving a program that gives him near-absolute power and virtually all of the resources he desires. The Longhorns make more money than 'Bama and can afford more resources, but the bureaucracy is far thicker in Austin. Also, a guy who films his television show on the field after each game would not enjoy the demands of the Longhorn Network.
The unsurprising part would be Saban -- or any high-profile college coach who keeps winning -- choosing to leave a major school after fewer than 10 years. When USA Today released its coaching salary database on Wednesday, the newspaper noted that salaries have risen more than 90 percent since 2006. Coaches are being paid like the CEOs of publicly traded companies, and fans and school officials have the same unrealistic expectations about performance as do stockholders. So going forward coaches are probably going to act more like those CEOs. They're going to work until they burn out. They they'll recharge and move on to take over another organization. (For a prime example, see: Meyer, Urban.)
Saban doesn't want to be Bear Bryant, who led the Crimson Tide for 25 years. The days of the iconic coach who becomes inseparable from the program are over. There will probably never be another Bobby Bowden. On a teleconference on Sunday night, a reporter asked 68-year-old South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier if he would consider working into his eighties. "No, I don't see myself coaching," Spurrier said. "It's always three to four [years]. I used to say four or five. I said three or four one time and [assistant and son] Steve Jr. said, 'Pop, you need to say you're planning on going four to five. That sounds a little bit better for recruiting.' So that's what I've always said, that I'm planning on going four to five. Someday if it's time to hang it up, I'll probably know. We'll all know and move on."
It was Spurrier, upon leaving Florida after 12 seasons in January 2002, who wrote the following sentence in his resignation letter: "I believe that 12 years as a head coach at a university in the SEC is long enough." Now, 10 years may be too long. That Mark Richt has managed to stick around and seem content at Georgia since 2001 feels like a minor miracle given the current pressures of the job. So if Saban wanted to leave Alabama for a new set of challenges, it would make sense.
But Saban swears that he isn't going anywhere. Assuming he's telling the truth -- I know, I know, "not going to be the Alabama coach" -- the January phone call was probably no more than an attempt by Sexton to create a little behind-the-scenes leverage.
Before we go any further, let's remember something: Mack Brown is still the coach at Texas. The retirement last month of athletic director DeLoss Dodds, and the school's hiring earlier this week of Arizona State's Steve Patterson to become the Longhorns next AD, suggests that change is on the way, but the job of Texas football coach isn't currently open. It may come open in the next month, but it certainly wasn't open last January when the phone call took place. Still, the contents of Hicks' email to his brother Steve (another current Texas regent) certainly were titillating. "Sexton confirmed that UT is the only job Nick would possibly consider leaving Alabama for, and that his success there created special pressure for him," Hicks wrote, according to the AP, which obtained the email through an open records request.
That "special pressure" really has nothing to do with Saban's success. The Crimson Tide's football program has the most intense fan base of any team in America, college or professional. Don't believe that? Go to Google and type the word "Alabama," followed by the phrase "tree poisoner." Or click here, here or here. Saban is probably the coach best suited to handle the intensity of Crimson Tide fans, because he doesn't seem to care about most external factors. On Wednesday, he said all the pressure he feels is self-generated. That is completely believable.
Plus, it isn't clear why Saban would want the Longhorns job, other than for the idea of facing a new challenge. The aforementioned Longhorn Network would be a huge issue, as would the Texas administration's attitude toward roster management. Saban's practice of signing more players than he has roster spots helped prompt SEC and NCAA limits that cap the number of players programs can sign each academic year at 25, as well as an SEC regulation that requires the conference to rule on all attempts to use a medical hardship to open up a scholarship. In the last five recruiting classes, the Longhorns have signed 110 players; Alabama has signed 128. Signing more players creates more competition for jobs and helps cover recruiting mistakes. Unless the Texas administration relaxes a stance that favors 18- to 22-year-olds over millionaire coaches, Saban, were he to move to Austin, would be working at a built-in competitive disadvantage compared to his old job.
So why would Sexton take a call from a Texas regent? Because that's Sexton's job. He's supposed to explore every potential moneymaking opportunity for Saban so that Saban doesn't have to. If a situation arises that can generate some leverage for Saban, that's good for business. Why would Sexton suggest Saban might leave the Crimson Tide for the Longhorns? Because an agent doesn't create leverage by saying his client isn't interested.
Saban seems fine with his situation at Alabama. He doesn't seem unhappy about his $5.5 million salary, which is the highest in the game. So what would he like? The same thing every coach wants. An unlimited pool of money for his assistant coaches and his support staff. Saban's staff has demonstrated success year after year. This makes members of that staff desirable to other schools looking to plug holes and recreate the Crimson Tide's winning formula. No matter how much a person may enjoy working at 'Bama, an offer of a significantly higher salary is difficult for anyone to turn down. If Saban wants to keep his people, he has to be able to offer them one of two things:
• More money than another school might offer for a parallel move.
• So much money that they'll turn down a promotion to stay at Alabama. (The best example of this is defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who makes $1.15 million -- so much that he won't leave for a head-coaching position unless the situation is nearly perfect.)
And what happened three months after Sexton's phone call with Hicks and Hall? The compensation committee for the Alabama Board of Trustees approved an annual pay increase of a combined $575,000 for the Crimson Tide's assistant coaches. This year, they'll make a combined $4.38 million. Saban's contract was unchanged.
No organization is in the business of handing out 15-percent raises without some sort of external motivation. Sexton provided that motivation. Saban got more money for his assistants. Saban remained as happy as Saban is capable. That's probably all that call with Hicks and Hall will ultimately amount to. It has made for some intrigue this football season, but it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. The concrete results of that call are visible every other week when Alabama's assistants look at their pay stubs.
Still, Crimson Tide fans should begin mentally prepping themselves for Saban's eventual departure. It may not happen this year or next, but it will happen sooner rather than later. That's just the way the business works now. Richt is still going after 12 years at Georgia, and Bob Stoops seems content after 14 years at Oklahoma. But few other coaches seem wired for the long haul.
• Florida State at Wake Forest: Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston was quick to point out after last week's win over Miami that Florida State lost in its last trip to Winston-Salem in 2011. A similar loss would require a letdown of epic proportions. The Demon Deacons will be without receiver Michael Campanaro, who broke his collarbone last Saturday against Syracuse. Wake Forest wouldn't stand much of a chance against the 'Noles with its best playmaker. Without him, forget it.
• Auburn at Tennessee: The last time the Volunteers played at home, they knocked off a ranked opponent (then No. 11 South Carolina). Can Tennessee coach Butch Jones work that magic again? He didn't sound confident on this week's SEC teleconference. "I think the thing right now, in the realities of building our program, is we have absolutely zero depth," Jones said. "That's been extremely evident." The Tigers have been quietly putting together a special season, but -- barring another injury that exposes the Vols' lack of depth -- Tennessee has just enough talent to upset a team looking ahead to the two bigger fish (Georgia and top-ranked Alabama) remaining on its schedule. As long as Auburn focuses on the task at hand, it should be fine.
• Kansas State at Texas Tech: Davis Webb will start again at quarterback for the Red Raiders, who will try to stop their regression to the mean against a Wildcats team that has won two in a row since losing to Baylor on Oct. 12. K-State has made its two-quarterback system (Jake Waters and Daniel Sams) work, and tailback John Hubert could have a big day against a Texas Tech defense that showed some flaws against the run in a 52-34 loss to Oklahoma State last Saturday.
• Vanderbilt at Florida: Gators offensive lineman Tyler Moore, who has started six games this season (including at left tackle against Georgia in place of the injured D.J. Humphries), crashed his scooter and broke his elbow this week. Though it was a tight race with the Bulldogs for a while, Florida has inherited the mantle from Missouri in 2012 as the SEC team with the worst injury luck. As pitiful as it sounds, this situation probably helps Gators coach Will Muschamp. He can create some hope for '14 by pointing both to the freakish number of injuries this season, and to the fact that an almost-full-strength Missouri squad has started 8-1. As for the rest of this season? Yikes. Vandy is no gimme, and Florida still has to play No. 13 South Carolina (Nov. 16) and third-ranked Florida State (Nov. 30).
• Penn State at Minnesota: With coach Jerry Kill watching from the press box, the Golden Gophers have continued to fight a certain portion of their anatomies off for acting coach Tracy Claeys, but things are about to get much tougher. The Nittany Lions come to town this week, followed by consecutive games against Wisconsin and Michigan State. This game is the most winnable of the three.
• Mississippi State at Texas A&M: Remember three months ago when Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel was the biggest story in college football and his every move was fodder for discussion? On Saturday, he'll be playing what will probably be his final game at Kyle Field, and we're barely talking about it.
• BYU at Wisconsin: This should be a fun matchup of two coaches with quite a history. There's no rivalry between the Cougars' Bronco Mendenhall and the Badgers' Gary Andersen. Far from it. Justin Giles of the Deseret News has a great story about how Mendenhall helped Andersen break into college coaching.
• Nebraska at Michigan: Michigan State destroyed the Wolverines last week in a game that should force Michigan to re-evaluate where it stands as a program. The Cornhuskers were probably headed for a hard look at the future of their own program before a miracle finish delayed the inevitable for at least another week. One of these teams will remain in the hunt for a Legends Division title -- mathematically, at least -- come Sunday. Both still have an awful lot to prove.
• Virginia Tech at Miami: The Hurricanes have to overcome the humiliation of last week's defeat at Florida State and the loss of tailback Duke Johnson to a season-ending broken ankle. If they want another crack at the Seminoles in the ACC title game, they'll probably need to beat the Hokies on Saturday as well as Duke the following week. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer reiterated his faith in quarterback Logan Thomas, who threw for 391 yards, but who also committed four turnovers, in a loss to Boston College last Saturday. The Hokies can get back into the hunt for the ACC Coastal title this weekend, but Thomas will have to take care of the ball.
• Houston at UCF: With Louisville leaving for the ACC next year, the folks at the American Athletic Conference would love for one of these Conference USA call-ups to win the league and claim the final automatic BCS berth for the league formerly known as the Big East. The safest bet would be a Knights win this Saturday, which would give UCF a 4-0 conference record with some of their easiest games yet to be played. A victory by the Cougars would put them in control of their own destiny, but they have to go to Louisville next week. The Cardinals will be pulling hard for Houston to help them get back in the title hunt.
• UCLA at Arizona: We knew tailback Ka'Deem Carey was good, but the recent improvement of the Wildcats can be directly traced to the rise of quarterback B.J. Denker. In the four games since a miserable 14-for-35 performance in a 31-13 loss to Washington on Sept. 28, Denker has completed 91-of-144 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, with one interception. He has also rushed for 334 yards and five scores. If the Bruins want to keep the Pac-12 South race from becoming a free-for-all, they will need to contain Denker on Saturday.
While preparing to face Alabama in Tuscaloosa, LSU coach Les Miles celebrated his 60th birthday a few days early (it isn't until Sunday). USA Today called this "the most LSU birthday cake ever." Of course, that would only be true if Miles sliced through the fondant to reveal five gallons of crawfish etouffee.
Miles also received a thoughtful oversized novelty card. As a tribute to the signers, Miles may use it as his two-point conversion chart against the Crimson Tide.
This isn't the first time that the Tigers have faced a defending national champ in Tuscaloosa as a serious underdog. In 1993, LSU was 3-5 when the Tigers went to Bryant-Denny Stadium to face Alabama, which hadn't lost in 31 games. But Crimson Tide quarterback Jay Barker missed the game with a shoulder injury, and neither of the two backups used by Alabama coach Gene Stallings could spark the offense. The Tide finally got going when Stallings moved receiver David Palmer to quarterback, but the move came too late for Alabama to dig itself out of a hole. LSU won 17-13 and probably saved coach Curley Hallman's job. The Tigers would finish that season 5-6 and then go 4-7 in 1994. That got Hallman fired.
Houston will visit UCF on Saturday, and the Knights could take full command of the race for the American Athletic Conference's vestigial BCS bowl berth with a win. If you're headed to the game, drive to the Orlando suburb of Winter Park and grab some brisket, bacon-wrapped jalapenos and Krispy Kreme bread pudding from 4 Rivers Smokehouse. This is the best barbecue in Florida. The recent expansion of the restaurant to Jacksonville and Gainesville -- as well as other locations in the Orlando area -- has some (OK, me) worried the quality might dip and turn 4 Rivers into another Sonny's. But the quality at the satellite locations seems to be as high as at the original Fairbanks Avenue location.
How good is 4 Rivers? The original didn't have indoor seating. Yet even during the blazing summer months, people lined up for an hour or more to get a taste.