Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

January 1, 2014

Column: Is Nick Saban human?

NEW ORLEANS —

Coaches reveal themselves in so many different ways, and frequently not in the ways they intend.
Like, every time Bob Stoops would rather talk about the small picture than the big, about the fine points of execution rather than the topsy-turvy sweeping narrative that’s been his season, he may think he’s telling us a football truth, that it’s all in the details, when in fact he’s telling us a personal truth.
He’s telling us how HE relates to the game, how HE approaches things as a coach, how HE works it. And when you think about it, it reflects Bill Snyder more than anybody else: 
The dogged pursuit of detail will set you free, though Stoops may pull it off more efficiently than his mentor. 
It’s an approach that has paid big dividends, for certain, but it does not reveal a football truth. Just take a look at Texas. There’s a program with big picture problems, reminding us that when something goes bad, it can really go bad.
Now take a gander at the man on the other sideline of tonight’s Sugar Bowl contest between Oklahoma and Alabama, Nick Saban.
He’s almost not human. 
Frightfully controlled, running himself like a ship so tight, he had to refer to notes in his opening statement at Wednesday’s final pre-game press conference. 
Apparently, he was unable to express how rich Alabama’s Big Easy experience had been without being reminded where he was and who he had to thank, like there’s no room in his brain for anything but information helpful to beating OU. 
It made you wonder, Wednesday morning, had he been asked, if Saban could even have accurately offered up his kids’ birthdays and ages.
And, for a guy, offering so much control, you still had to wonder if he should be taken seriously even when talking football. Or, was it all misdirection.
Because to hear the Great Saban explain it, the Crimson Tide has lost its way.
It began when he recently signed a contract extension, after which he said, “I’m looking at it like we’re starting all over again, that this is 2007 again.”
Wednesday, he was asked to expand on those comments. 
He said there are all kinds of building blocks to success. Fundamentals and details and discipline and buying in that must take place.
“If those are the fundamental things we want to accomplish, sometimes you do inventory and you say we’ve gotten away from that a little bit and maybe we need to get back to it,” Saban said. “So maybe people need to be more accountable to it, maybe they need to be more aware of it, whether it’s coaches, players, myself, whoever is involved.”
Really, who knew Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal at the Iron Bowl had exposed the cesspool Crimson Tide football has become? 
Indeed, Saban might want to thank Davis for the favor, because if he hadn’t returned the ball 109 yards to victory, Alabama would have been left miserably fat and happy, playing for a third national championship in four seasons, completely unaware of the mountain crumbling beneath its feet.
In that description, Saban is revealing one of two things about himself. 
One, he’s a maniacal head coach who believes his own malarkey, that the sky’s really falling because his team lost one game on the final play of the regular season, and his believing it is also what makes him great, because complacency will never reign.
Two, he doesn’t believe it for a second but he knows others will take the Great Saban at his word and, scared to death of losing their place in line, will clear any hurdle, even to their own personal detriment, in the name of Alabama football.
I’m going with No. 2.
He is amazing to watch. You wonder if he has no soul, ever shows emotion beyond anger at the threat of being pushed off course, or if his blood is even red.
Perhaps tonight, OU can offer the Great Saban and his Tide some real adversity. Simply losing to Auburn doesn’t count.
Rivalry games are rivalry games, you can throw out the record book, we’ve heard it so many times. Also, the one game Alabama lost just happened to come to the eventual national champion or the eventual runner up.
If Saban were being honest OR HUMAN, he’d file his Auburn loss under the “sometimes incredible things happen at your expense because it’s your turn” file.
Wednesday, it took Stoops, not Saban, to tell the truth about the Crimson Tide.
“In my eyes, they’re still the best team in the country,” he said. “Here they are, they’ve been the best team in the country for three years, up to the very last play of the regular season.”
To say nothing of the fact that, against any opponent, on a neutral field and quite possibly any field, Alabama would be judged the favorite by any oddsmaker.
So, yes, here they are.
The Sooners and the Crimson Tide, tradition-rich in a tradition-rich game in a tradition-rich city and not just because so many local politicians have ended up in prison over the decades.
Saban would have you believe Alabama, in a city famous for voodoo, finds itself in search of its lost soul.
Maybe OU can make it real. 
If you think about it, it would be yet another favor to the Great Saban, who must know it’s easier to sell real adversity than the false variety, and falling to a 16-point underdog like OU ought to count.
Wouldn’t it be great?
A win-win.
Why not?

———

Clay Horning is the sports editor of the Norman (Okla.) Transcript. This column was distributed by CNHI.

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