Hoover, Ala. – Alabama was the choice of the assembled media here to win the 2011 SEC championship, which was no shock. Everybody exalts Alabama nowadays. It was in January 2010, after the Crimson Tide won the first of what would be one consecutive BCS title, that Sports Illustrated proclaimed it “a dynasty,” and it was only last fall we were wondering if Bama was unbeatable.
Then it lost to South Carolina, to LSU and to Auburn (after leading 24-0 in Tuscaloosa), and suddenly we media folks were grasping: How did the program newly seen as the nation’s flagship finish in the bottom half of the SEC West? Didn’t another school from Alabama take the BCS title? Was it possible the dynastic Tide had been overblown?
Guess not. Because we media types are doing it again. The Tide figures to start the season ranked no worse than No. 2 (behind Oklahoma and nobody else) in the polls, and in the conference-sanctioned balloting for SEC champ it drew 62.4 percent of the 157 votes cast. This despite losing four first-round NFL draftees (Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones, James Carpenter and Mark Ingram) and starting quarterback Greg McElroy.
Asked Friday about this apparent incongruity, Alabama’s coach said: “From a logical standpoint, I know there’s a couple other teams in our division — forget about the league — that have just as many returning starters and their quarterback. So even though [sarcasm alert] I have a tremendous amount of respect for the intelligence level and your ability to prognosticate … I don’t understand how you come to the decisions you do.”
The answer, this correspondent of limited intellect would submit, has to do with Alabama’s coach. Nick Saban is considered the best collegiate coach now working by as great a distance as Dwight Howard is regarded as the NBA’s top center. Saban has won BCS titles at different SEC outposts, which proved his black magic was transferable. And it isn’t so much that folks believe Saban is smarter than everyone else but that we know he’ll work his 30-hour days until he figures things out.
Alabama fans are difficult to please — a guy bearing an ursine nickname won pretty big in Tuscaloosa — but they’ve venerated Saban from the moment he arrived. Indeed, a cult of personality has arisen around this coach, and that’s something you don’t often see in SEC football. There was one surrounding Paul W. Bryant and also about Steve Spurrier (though he qualified as an Evil Genius only at Florida), but Vince Dooley (six SEC titles, one national championship) and Urban Meyer (two BCS titles) never had one.
With Saban, it’s really a cult of impersonality. Sometimes it seems the sole difference between Saban and his near-namesake Satan is that the devil has a sense of humor. It was Saban who famously spent the press briefing after Alabama’s breakthrough victory over No. 3-ranked Georgia in 2008 — the Tide led 31-0 after two quarters on the road — raging about how his team had been outscored by 20 points in the second half.
“I know I don’t look happy,” Saban said that night, “but I am.”
Saban never looks happy. The man is so driven you wonder how he hasn’t yet driven himself, and those who work under him, insane. He cracked one smile during his half-hour appearance before the print media Friday, and then only to make fun of Baton Rouge writer Glenn Guilbeau, whom Saban described as “a friend.” (Coach Satan has friends? Who knew?)
As odd as it sounds, the glowers have become Saban’s stock in trade. He appears to take football more seriously than anyone else in his industry, and this plays well in the South, where college football is taken most seriously, and in his state, which is mad for the game.
Another incongruity: The manically intense Saban spent a couple of minutes Friday suggesting that Auburn-Alabama rivalry has grown too intense. “We can be all be a little more respectful to each other and still have just as a fierce a competition on the field as we’ve ever had,” he said.
But that was it for moderation. Saban devoted most of his time to the boilerplate stuff — focus, commitment, all that jazz — and then he stalked away, the smell of sulfur in his wake. Gazing on him, we thought to ourselves, “What mortal can possibly stand against such fury?”
Les Miles, maybe?
By Mark Bradley