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But Saban totes his own national championship prestige into Tuscaloosa—the first Bryant successor to do so—and a résumé that Alabama was willing to spend a reported $32 million over eight years to procure. "I don't think Saban's afraid of the past," says Kirk McNair, founder and editor of 'Bama magazine, who has covered Crimson Tide football across five decades. "I don't think he cares."
Saban is 91-42-1 as a college coach, in stops at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU—all rebuilding jobs. LSU had had only three winning seasons in 11 years when he took over in November 1999. Four years later he coached the Tigers to the pinnacle of college football. His 48 wins from 2000 through '04 ranked third among major college coaches over that span. The Tigers were SEC champs in '01 and again in '03, when they went on to beat Oklahoma 21--14 to win the BCS national title. Saban builds his teams methodically, on a backbone of conditioning, rigid discipline and a swarming, ball-stealing defense.
He leads like a tough-minded CEO. Listening to him, you get the feeling you would not want him to decide your fate if your job production was down and your equipment obsolete. The lore of football, the poetry of it, does not complicate his language. But he knows that before the kickoff of Alabama's season opener with Western Carolina on Sept. 1, thousands of Crimson Tide fans, especially the ones who remember, will look to the goalpost and miss the coach who led them so grandly for so long. It should be that way.
"[Bryant] accomplished as much as anybody ever has," says Saban. "He is someone you respect, admire and appreciate. He established the standard of excellence, him and the players who gave their blood, sweat and tears.
"That, in itself, has no effect on the future," says Saban, who knows that no ghost, or alumnus, has ever thrown a halfback for a loss. "We have to do the work now."
Saban will not go into great detail about his team, any more than he will discuss his opponents. There is no profit in it. But it is clear that 2007 is a true rebuilding year, with a typically tough SEC schedule. Alabama goes against Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Georgia and Ole Miss in the first half of its SEC schedule, then Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. A Sept. 29 game against Florida State in Jacksonville is not exactly a nonconference breather.
It may be a team unfamiliar to fans used to seeing the Tide carried by a talented defense. Alabama lost too many big, fast, scary people. "If you can't stop the run in the SEC, you're in trouble," says Mitch Dobbs, the assistant editor of 'Bama magazine, and a lot of the middle is just gone.
But instead of an offense that was too often effective only between the 20s, Alabama may show off a little with junior quarterback John Parker Wilson and a corps of game-breaking receivers. The offensive line, which bore criticism—well, let's face it, scorn—is expected to be less porous. And a redshirt freshman named Terry Grant, a former Mr. Football from Mississippi, runs like something bad is after him.
Concerns that Alabama's defense would be leaner this year materialized in summer practices, but the offense moved the ball smoothly in scrimmages on days when the temperature reached 106° and 107°. No matter how hot it got, however, Alabama players did not complain. Saban and his coaches would not allow their players to even use the word hot or heat in conversation.
Alabama's athletes could have made Saban's summer a little cooler if they had behaved better off the field. Simeon Castille, an all-SEC cornerback, was arrested early last Sunday in an entertainment district near campus and charged with disorderly conduct. The police were not talking about precisely what Castille had done, and Saban indicated that he will handle the matter internally. Three other players—defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick and Brandon Fanney and running back Roy Upchurch, all reserves—were charged after a disturbance in July.