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Saban might not coach the Tide to improbable wins, say Alabama fans. But he will not lose the handle on the games that are winnable and leave Alabama at the ugly end of a soul-killing upset. That is what they want from him, at least right now. In any event, it is unlikely any booster will look into Saban's drill-bit eyes and tell him, "That ain't the way Bear did it."
From the moment Saban was hired, there has been an electricity, a high-stakes poker feel to his every move. In Miami and on the national talk-show circuit he was badmouthed and lambasted for adamantly denying, as the Dolphins' season wound to its 6--10 conclusion, that he would be the Alabama coach, then turning around and taking the job. He was called a liar, a snake and other pleasantries. Of the firestorm he says, "We gave up a little bit to be here."
Then on April 21 Saban walked onto the field for the intrasquad game to that thunder, the pure and positive manifestation of the expectations at Alabama. "There is something special about this place," he says. It is the only time in almost an hour and a half of discussion about football that Saban does not talk about work ethic, goals, discipline. "It was ... emotional."
Saban is not surprised that Alabamans agree with his ideas on what it takes to win. He grew up in coal mining country in West Virginia, pumped gas and broke down tires at a filling station his father owned. "The worst I could ever do is go back to West Virginia and pump gas again," he says. "Life's been pretty good to me."
He understands that in Alabama people believe you have to work for what you get. "The best thing about winning the championship at LSU was that it gave people hope, something to be proud of," he says. "I don't wear the ring. It wasn't a personal accomplishment. But I think the people of Alabama understand what it takes to be successful, understand persistence, overcoming adversity, mental and physical toughness."
Saban does not see himself as mean, brusque or distant: "I think most people who get to know me don't have that feeling." His wife, Terry, told him there might be a slight gap between how he sees himself and how others see him. That, she told him, "is your blind spot. And it's as wide as the Grand Canyon."
"And she wasn't even mad at me," Saban says.
There is no gap between what he wants and what Alabama wants. While "the name of the stadium's not going to change," says McNair, smiling, he believes that Saban, one Saturday at a time, will realign the program with its rich past. "It's been a long, long time since I had this good a feeling."
To find the source of Alabama's hunger, you have to go back further than the Bear. You have to go by train.
IT WAS always a tough room.