Saturday, January 06, 2007

Playtime's over

The anecdote is familiar, if apocryphal: A recent transplant to the South notices that the natives, almost to a man, treat college football not so much as a spectator sport as a religion. Why, he asks a neighbor one day, does he see college flags flying from so many of the houses? Why does he hear so much water cooler talk about football even in the middle of spring? Why, exactly, are Southerners so enamored with football?

Bemused, the neighbor patiently clues the newcomer in: "Because we're good at it."

It's a simple sentiment, but it's the sort that can attract major national attention and bring an entire state's media to a halt for days when its flagship university hires a new head football coach. That's particularly the case when the university in question has 12 (or 17, depending on your source) national titles to its credit and just hired a coach who has one, too.

Alabama's hiring of Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban on Wednesday thus is sweet vindication for UA athletics director Mal Moore, much maligned after his three previous coaching choices ended up going awry in some form or fashion. It effectively has washed away Bama Nation's memory of the awkward handling of former coach Mike Shula's firing and has excited the fan base like no other hiring since the man in the houndstooth hat roamed the sidelines. The elephant just charged back from the wilderness, and now he's determined to return to the top of the mountain.

Saban won big and recruited like gangbusters at LSU, and he'll do the same at Alabama, where alumni and boosters will pony up for any staff or facilities necessary for gridiron success. With most of this season's starters returning in the fall, the Crimson Tide will be in the mix for the SEC West crown in 2007, and the sky will be the limit once the team is stocked with Saban's recruits. With the brand-new facilities, end of NCAA probation, and talent on hand to win right away, Saban takes the Alabama helm at the most fortuitous time in the last decade.

The circumstances under which he left Miami galled many sports observers, though. Dolphins fans, stunned that their coach would bolt two weeks after saying "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach," have leveled every invective imaginable against Saban. The Miami media, defending the city's honor, joined in the excoriation. (Most notable among the rhetoricians was a Miami Herald columnist who vituperatively unloaded on Saban, calling him a loser, weasel, and traitor -- and those were some of the more polite terms.) Nor were national commentators shy, condemning Saban for his less-than-forthright answers to questions about the Alabama job and UA officials for pumping their coach's salary to $4 million a year, the highest in the NCAA.

I very much wish Saban had stuck to "no comment" rather than give in to the pressure to deny his interest in Alabama. In trying to shift the focus from his future to his team's quest to keep its playoff hopes alive, Saban only made things worse for himself when he headed back to the college game. Recalling Tide fans' reaction upon Dennis Franchione's departure in 2002, I also agree that Miami fans have the right to feel enraged right now.

But as ugly as Saban's sudden departure may look, it unfortunately is nothing unique in the modern sports world. Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville fled Ole Miss two days after promising he'd only leave Oxford "in a pine box." Franchione flew to Texas A&M without so much as a goodbye to the players he convinced to stay despite crippling NCAA probation. But years after those unseemly incidents, the circumstances of the coach's arrival at those schools seem not to deter many, if any, high school recruits. The same will hold true at Alabama under the Saban regime.

Critics have accused Alabama fans of hypocrisy for embracing Saban after roundly condemning Franchione for bailing on the program, but that analogy ignores one very important point: money. NFL players are paid six or seven figures a year and can jump from team to team relatively easily. They understand that their game is a glorified business venture. College athletes, on the other hand, play for free, usually never play a down in the pros, and typically can't transfer to another big school without losing a major chunk of eligibility. Pro players know their game is all about dollars and cents, but many amateurs still hold fast to the idea of playing because they love the game and are loyal to coaches and teammates. NFL players have millions of dollars to ease the pain of losing a coach; college players have only each other.

After all is said and done, the Tide has Saban for the near future. He says he wants Tuscaloosa to be his last stop, and despite his history of job-hopping, it's tough to think of where he'd go after burning the NFL bridge and grabbing a college job that guarantees him $32 million in less than a decade if he just sticks around. Still, even if he jumps again in a few years, Saban will leave Alabama positioned as one of college football's top teams. A football team that competes regularly for SEC and national titles. A football team that can claim those honors again.

A football team that, as the old anecdote says, is "good at it."


Blogger Altoid said...

I don't know what to say. That is an excellent post. Roll Tide!!!

1:48 PM  

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