SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
7/26/2007 03:58:00 PM
Saban Takes Center Stage (Again)
Crimson Tide fans have treated Nick Saban like a rock star ever since he took the Alabama job.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Alabama fans are not generally known as a patient bunch, so give credit to the 150 or so diehards who waited in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel for upwards of four hours Thursday morning just for a glimpse (and, for a few really lucky ones, an autograph) of a certain, $4 million coach.
Thursday marked Nick Saban’s much-anticipated return (at least in this state) to SEC Media Days, this time as the coach of the home-state Crimson Tide. And while the scene in the lobby was every bit as chaotic as imagined, Saban’s 40-minute session with his favorite group of people -- the media -- was far more anticlimactic. No public dressdowns. No expletives. And barely any informative nuggets about his first Alabama team.
“I can't really answer all the questions about our team with the [lack of] exposure to and experience with our team," he said. "Some of you may know better than me."
The most enlightening moment came in response to the inevitable question, “What do you think is the biggest misconception about Nick Saban?” Over the minute or so that followed, Saban offered a rare, somewhat candid window into Nick Saban the person (as opposed to Nick Saban, the football coach).
“I’ve never adapted very well to the position that I’m in. I’m a country boy who grew up in [Fairmont], West Virginia and pumped gas from the time he was 10 years old until he graduated from high school. Made a dollar an hour providing service to other people, cleaning windows, checking oil, changing tires.
“To me, I’m still that way, but maybe sometimes I don’t realize that. Sometimes the things I say mean a lot more than what I would intend them to be. Sometimes, because I’m a little bit shy, maybe that’s misinterpreted.”
So that’s what this is all about? Saban’s gruff demeanor, his infamous temper, his often condescending attitude to those around him -- it’s all just because at heart he’s still a small-town country boy uncomfortable with the spotlight that tends to follow someone who makes $4 million a year?
As a fellow writer noted during Thursday’s session, Saban, for all his bluster, gets visibly nervous at times when discussing certain topics. For instance, when a reporter asked him why Alabama’s 2007 media guide features pictures of him but no players on the front and back cover (Saban claimed he “didn’t make that decision,” but it’s hard to believe such a well-noted control freak wouldn’t have signed off on a media guide cover), Saban dug his hands into his pockets and began rocking a little like a high school kid forced to speak in front of the class. At other times he began tapping his fingers on the podium.
But when the questions were more mundane -- like when reporters asked him to discuss his football philosophy or his proclaimed love of college football -- the hands came out, and in fact he often gestured with the confidence of a guy who ... well, a guy who’s won a national title and makes $4 million.
If that last paragraph seems like I’m way over-analyzing the guy, it's because I am. But that’s nothing compared to the extreme level of curiosity that surrounds Saban in this state. Rarely has a coach ever generated so much publicity before even coaching his first game.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” one reporter said to him half-jokingly, “but pretty much everything you’ve done this offseason has been in the news.”
Saban better get used to it. He’s a long, long ways from that gas station in West Virginia. And while he certainly dealt with plenty of scrutiny at LSU and with the Dolphins, Alabama football is a beast unto itself (as evidenced by the 90,000-plus turnout at the spring game).
Make no mistake, whether this state ultimately embraces him will depend almost entirely on wins and losses. But this is also a state that grew up on the iconic Bear Bryant, a mythical figure whose stern but down-home personality was on full display for all to see.
Once the initial honeymoon wears off, you have to figure most Tide fans will eventually want to feel some sort of connection with their coach. Whether that ever happens may depend on whether Saban finally finds a way to be comfortable in his own skin.
Love him or hate him, Coach Saban is a good addition to the SEC. He add legitimacy to a program in decline over the last decade. His wins will elevate Bama and his losses will allow other teams to crow about beating a revamped Bama football team.
For the record, his first loss will be Sept. 15th when the Hogs come to Tuscaloosa.
I as a Bama fan of forty years do not need a feeling of personal contact with our coach. We had a great pr guy in Mike Shula. Sadly, he could not translate his vast Pro football knowlege into the college game. Better luck for him as he continues to grow into a Pro coach. We desire a coach who will instill a winning attitude in our team. Watching Shula teams over the years be outcoached, outplayed, and out hustled brings this desire forward.
CNS has proven he can do this at all of his coaching stops in the college ranks. We see signs of that already taking place in the attitudes of our young team. As long as this process is in place the titles and the opportunity for greatness will take care of itself.
What is a reaistic expectation this year? Seven wins. What would be out of the box and really require a Saban miracle? Eight to Nine. If any fan realistically expects more they need a bed reservation at Brice Mental Health Center...
What we will see is a team working everyday to dominate their opponent and in time thier efforts will pay off.
I attended UA during the days of Bryant, the bottom line is posting wins, all the rest is hyperbole. LSU, Auburn, Tennessee,..got to win them. Otherwise, Tuscaloosa will continue to grow in one aspect, ex-coaches' new McMansions up for sale.
The expectations in Tuscaloosa are no different than they are in Gainsville, Austin, Columbus, LA, Ann Arbor, South Bend, Tallahassee or the city of any other big-time college program. Contrary to national media coverage, Bama fans simply want a team that is competitive all of the time and in contention for SEC and national championships frequently. Where is the fault in this level of expectation?