After weeks of endless, bald-faced, hollow denials wholly detached from reality, Nick Saban bolted from the Miami Dolphins and back into the college game last week, accepting an eight-year deal from the University of Alabama for some thirty-two million dollars.
Nice work, if you can get it.
Let's get the niceties out of the way first. There's virtually no doubt Saban will improve markedly on Bama's recent stretch of disappointments. The physical facilities at Tuscaloosa are nothing less than outstanding. The man's a thrice-proven college winner, having won the MAC in his only year at Toledo . . . having won big at Michigan State, a school cursed with a delicate football psyche, not to mention one in a difficult recruiting position within the Big Ten . . . and having brought LSU back up from its most-recent fallow period to win the 2003 (Mythical) National Championship.
'Course, his talents didn't fit so well with the Miami Dolphins. Saban's epic control-freak act played well with owner Wayne Huizenga, as well as some of the players - but proved less than enchanting to the masses, from the press (who quickly learned that Saban muzzled any assistant coach communications with the media, and eliminated the media workroom and parking at Dolphin headquarters), to the staffers, whose stories about Saban's detestable inside treatment of underlings have gained broad circulation. As ex-Dolphin coach Jimmie Johnson told the Dolphin flagship, WAXY-790-The Ticket, "I don't like the way he treats people who are working for a living". The press, of course, has had its say; Dan Le Batard, a Miami flag-waver that's more of a defender of athletes than an attack dog, termed Saban a " . . . loser . . . weasel . . . gasbag." And ESPN's Pat Forde amply represented the chorus when he said, "(Saban's the) richest member of the Liar's Club."
But Huizenga loves Saban (stepping aside gracefully when Saban decided to take his leave from South Florida, and players like all-world DE Jason Taylor remain publicly-supportive). Saban's ill-considered decision to favor Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees when coin-flipping which way to reach for his '06 quarterback is likely to haunt the franchise - including the next Dolphin coach, throughout the near-to-intermediate future. But that ain't Nicky's problem! Nor is the rapidly-aging defense, as personified by Taylor.
I've always found folks' treatment of service people in public to be a reliable guide to character. So it's hardly surprising that Saban is arguably Bill Belichick's best friend in the profession. Belichick revealed himself as a churl for the umpteenth time when he roughly shoved a working photographer out of his precious way while working through the postgame crowd on the field to deliver his regards to Eric Mangini in the aftermath of Sunday's New England win over the Jets. Common courtesy? Why bother? Unless it's personally enriching . . .
Speaking of personal enrichment, Alabama has thrown all this loot at Saban at a very good time for the veteran coach - in terms of getting a chance to look good by comparison. One of the best paths to success in business life is to follow someone into a position who you'll have to work hard NOT to outshine. Given Mike Shula's failure to get sustained offensive production out of recent Tide editions, Saban's timing is perfect.
Bama's willingness to shell out beaucoup cash is due to their peaking frustration with what they view as a birthright slipping away. This is a program which, by cracky, the website www.rollbamaroll.com refers to as "the greatest program in the history of college football." Michigan and Notre Dame - as well as a dozen others - may beg to differ with this fantasy, but we'll press on exploring those supersized expectations of Tide faithful.
Alabama has a long, honored football history, but the bones of the program were forever-made over the long, successful reign of Paul "Bear" Bryant. Y'all know the deal, but the numbers are staggering. 323 wins . . . one losing season in 38 years . . . 29 bowls (15-12-2) . . . and at Alabama, FIVE national championships (1964-65-73-78-79). . . problem is, everybody in the state remembers, and compares everyone coming through town to the Bear. And the act CANNOT be followed. It was simply too grand. Gene "Beebs" Stallings managed to feed the monster with a national championship in 1992, but program probation followed three seasons later, and Stallings exited in 1996.
We're all aware of the numerous pratfalls the program has endured the past ten years. Will Saban effect the cure? More than likely! He'll need a crack staff, and he's already snagged Kevin Steele (he of all those good linebackers) from the Seminoles, to be his defensive coordinator, with ex-Bama staffer Lance Thompson also already in the fold as recruiting coordinator - with more good people on the way, no doubt. Where enough money is, talent will follow.
Bama's main hope for a quick cure lay in the '07 schedule, with Western Carolina (1-0!), Arkansas, Georgia, Houston, Tennessee, LSU, and La.-Monroe at home, and Vandy, Florida State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn (whoops), on the road. Remember, though, that the Tide's record against LSU in Tuscaloosa is way below par, and neither Georgia or Tennessee are likely to be laydowns. But Bama played Auburn stiff this year with largely-clueless offensive direction, and there's no where to go but up in that series, for certain.
One thing Saban knows he'll get, going in, is sixty-minute effort - that's an Alabama trademark, in good and not-so-good times. But that won't be enough, for either the masters, or the Big Red Mob. Saban can con and spin college kids, and run through each set before too many get wise to him, and can recite all the lines before they're spoken. He'll get results. But eight years at $4 mill per season is national-championship money. The promise is implicit. But there are no guarantees, the road will be more than rugged . . . and there are going to be a lot of little people outside of the state of Alabama who are going to be rooting - against. Be nicer to who you meet on your way up, Nick . . . because some of 'em will go out of their way to look you up, on your way down.