It’s showtime for Nick Saban.
Alabama‘s $32 million man faces the first major challenge of his tenure in Tuscaloosa when his Crimson Tide (2-0) play host to No. 16 Arkansas (1-0) at Bryant-Denny Stadium tonight for a Southeastern Conference showdown.
Ordinarily, a first-year coach would be given an extended grace period for program rebuilding. Given Saban’s predecessor at Alabama, Mike Shula, was 26-23 over the last four seasons, including four consecutive losses to hated rival Auburn, it only seems reasonable that Saban receive a free pass for a season or two while he restocks the roster with talent and indoctrinates the troops with his schemes and philosophies.
But the 55-year-old Saban had best not expect such slack.
When a coach is given the most lucrative contract in college football history ($4 million a season for eight years), folks expect instant results, not gradual improvement. When a coach grabs the headset in the house that Bear built, his boys better be ready to dominate from day one. And when a coach alienates and aggravates the media at virtually every turn, he better expect no quarter from the Fourth Estate.
There will be 93,000 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium and plenty of interested parties in the college football community watching tonight. And most will be wondering whether one of the college game’s most hotly debated personalities can justify his colossal contract.
“I don’t think anyone expects miracles this season,” said John Eyster, a Decatur, Ala., attorney and long-time Crimson Tide fan. “Our defense is pretty young, and our recruiting hasn’t been up to our historical standards in recent years. So, I think 8-4 or 9-3 with a good bowl appearance would be pretty decent this year.”
Eyster is more realistic than most Crimson Tide fanatics, many of whom don’t seem to realize that 8-4 has been Saban’s standard as a college coach. In 11 previous seasons at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99) and Louisiana State (2000-04), Saban compiled an overall record of 91-42-1. Now, while that’s an unquestionably solid track record, it only equates to an average season of 8.3-3.8, hardly Hall of Fame-type results.
Entering this season, four other SEC coaches boasted considerably better career winning percentages than Saban’s relatively modest mark (.679): Florida’s Urban Meyer (.836), Georgia’s Mark Richt (.775), Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer (.770) and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (.756).
Like Spurrier, Saban enjoyed very little success during his dalliance with the NFL, bolting Miami after a two-year experiment yielded a forgettable 15-17 record. And even Saban’s crowning achievement, a Bowl Championship Series title at LSU in 2003 (13-1), deserves a monstrous asterisk. LSU’s championship season didn’t include a date with Southern Cal, which pummeled Michigan in the Rose Bowl in 2003 to earn a landslide share of the crown among Associated Press voters.
These are some of the reasons questions were raised when Alabama made Saban college football’s richest sideline sultan. But among many insiders, the ultimate question mark concerning Saban was how his brusque personality would jibe with an Alabama booster core with extremely Southern sensibilities.
In some respects, Saban is a difficult guy to like. He’s the anti-Bobby Bowden, an irascible, micromanaging perfectionist who has no patience for the gentile, if admittedly inane, customs of Southern courtesy.
When Saban was with the Dolphins, he notoriously sent out a memo banning secretarial staff from engaging him in small talk after a receptionist complimented him on a new haircut.
He has a clause in his contract with Alabama that specifically limits his mandated public appearances.
Asked by Sporting News columnist Tom Dienhart whether he felt people were afraid of him, Saban replied in the August Q&A: “I do sense it, and I don’t like it. I have no idea why they’re afraid of me. I think a lot of it is the image that has been created publicly.”
Yet the media didn’t invent its version of Saban. He’s the guy who made a public relations hash of his awkward departure from the Dolphins to take the Alabama job. Few folks faulted him for playing the game and denying that he was interested in the Alabama job, but it’s the way he went about his denials that caused the furor. Saban was incredibly adversarial when asked about the Alabama job, stating he was “insulted” by the questions about the job he would later smilingly accept.
And he’s already making enemies among the Alabama press. Saban, who personally authorizes all player interview requests, won’t allow assistant coaches to speak to the media and closed Alabama practices, and erupted on members of the team media last month for asking players about the team’s depth chart using some strange language.
Said Saban: “If they make comments about the depth chart, you’re just putting them in harm’s way, because we don’t have a depth chart. And our players are not supposed to evaluate our players.”
All coaches are extremely intense and wrapped a little tight; it comes with the high-stress nature of the profession. But the bottom line is if Saban doesn’t win, win big and win immediately, his brusque attitude toward the media and those around him is going to wear very thin, very quickly.
Is it a coincidence he has never stayed at any school for more than five seasons? For Saban’s sake, that winning better continue today against Arkansas in a game in which Alabama is favored by three points. Because Saban’s honeymoon in Tuscaloosa is likely to end the minute the $32 million coach piles up a couple of unanticipated losses.
Florida State’s Bowden once told this reporter, “My momma told me a long time ago that you’ll go a lot farther with a smile and quip than a curse and a whip.”
That mentality has resulted in a 41-year career in which Bowden has won 367 games.
The jury is assembling in Tuscaloosa to begin witnessing the case for Saban’s style.