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
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."
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
IT WAS always a