Thursday, 10:30 a.m.
The coaching staff meets with Dr. Roger Grooters, associate athletic director for student-athlete support services, and his assistant, Chris Helms. The tenor of this meeting, in the same room where strategies are debated and players evaluated in salty locker room English, is almost surreal.
Michigan State has three players in serious academic trouble, and a fourth, a redshirt freshman, who is headed in that direction. Only one of the four plays much. "Get these guys in to see me," says Saban. Helms follows the bad news with some good: Spartans players, including Irvin, senior linebacker Tyrone Garland and sophomore tailback Leroy McFadden, have been praised for their participation in a reading program with local schoolchildren. Saban pauses and runs his hand through his hair. "You know, we're always getting on guys when they don't get the job done academically," he says. "I'd like to let them know when they're doing something good, too. Try to get a note to me whenever a kid gets an A on a test or does something good in the community." The room is briefly silent.
Thursday, 1:15 p.m.
Saban stands by a window in his office, looking out at the gray afternoon. He's a disciplined football man who revels in planning strategy. He seems perfectly suited to the NFL, but last year he turned down an offer to become coach of the New York Giants. He has cleaned up a soiled program, restored its dignity and made it a national power again. From last winter's crossroads, he came to understand his own place. "I think college coaching is a better job," he says. "I mean, sure, it's difficult to recruit and there are tough issues, social, academic and disciplinary. But the pro game is a business, and with the rules now you can't even build team chemistry over time. I look back on the Browns and think about a guy like [16-year Browns linebacker] Clay Matthews. Man, he was a Cleveland Brown. But that doesn't happen anymore. Guys are gone in a year. In college there are so many intangible rewards. You can be a part of the community. The kids [Saban and his wife, Terry, have a 10-year-old son, Nicholas, and a six-year-old daughter, Kristen] can say, 'Dad, let's go see Sparty,' and we can do that." He shakes his head, as if surprised.
Saban is nearing his biggest game as a coach, and he is anguishing over which buttons to push. It is his style to educate rather than to harangue. "I like to tell little stories that I find in motivational books [Miami Heat coach Pat Riley's, for instance], like the one about the two-by-four," he says. "I'm running out of stories." For Friday's final meeting with the whole squad, he's considering bringing in a guest speaker, "To balance me with something emotional." He's also considering getting emotional himself. "I'm not a Knute Rockne kind of guy," says Saban, "and I don't believe kids generally respond to that stuff. But for a game like this, a really hard, emotional game, they might."
Thursday, 6:20 p.m.
A light drizzle falls as the week's final full practice ends. "Forty-two hours," Saban shouts at the finish. "For the next 42 hours, I want you to keep thinking to yourselves, We are going to beat...their...asses."
The last to leave the field is Gardner, whose kick was blocked at Northwestern. "I'll take the same situation, again," he says.
Thursday, 7:10 p.m.
Tranquill stands in a doorway outside the Duffy, sheltered from the sprinkles, smoking a cigarette. Will you win? he's asked. "Michigan is really good," he says. "I know we'll play hard." Hours earlier, Saban had spoken precisely the same words. No promises.