In a time of unprecedented unknowns, Alabama has one sure thing: Saban
How do you get better when you’re already the best?
You find new opportunities. Or in some cases, they find you.
If you haven’t yet, watch Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance.” Depending on whose stories you believe, he literally concocted reasons to humiliate opponents in order to keep himself motivated.
Or for a more current example, turn your gaze toward Tampa. Tom Brady has everything. But there’s a reason he hasn’t hung it up yet.
Now circle around to the topsy-turvy world of college football in 2020. It’s the third week of September. The SEC hasn’t kicked off yet. We’ve seen more than a dozen games moved or canceled because of COVID-19. Dozens more teams and conferences throughout all levels of the NCAA aren’t playing at all. Painstaking medical protocols are the bare minimum for merely making it to Saturday with a viable roster. Racial tensions have rocked the country and many college communities.
“Far from perfect” is an understatement. But it may be the perfect scenario for Nick Saban.
Look, it can easily be construed as low-hanging fruit, looking for new ways to praise a coach who’s already considered by many the best ever. But this is a time when very little looks like it used to.
Saban’s prowess is one glaring exception.
No leader– and as a result, no program — is better equipped to handle the manifold factors that could make or break any FBS team’s season this fall. The culture he’s built breeds accountability; you won’t stay below the SEC’s COVID-19 thresholds without it.
It’s one big reason Alabama has been testing players daily. The SEC currently requires 3 tests per week.
“We just thought that it gives the players a better peace of mind,” Saban said. “It’s the best thing for the players — it’s the best thing for the program. We have the capabilities and resources to do it, so we’re happy to do it.
“We’ve been testing 3 days a week, which we didn’t have to do that, either … but we just decided that we would go test our guys every day, and with that, hopefully everybody feels safe and that it will help the fact that we won’t have to be able to maybe quarantine some of these guys, minimize exposures. Everybody’s got to sort of manage their personal space so that we have the most players possible available for every game but especially the first game.”
The rules also include a minimum of 53 healthy players — the exact number on NFL active rosters. That’s not a foreign concept to Saban, of course, after his time as head coach of the Miami Dolphins earlier this century.
He has dealt with managing a roster that size. Training-camp holdouts. Contract disputes, prima donnas and the oft-unsavory underbelly of professional sport.
Depth and dexterity will be more important than ever when/if COVID-19 strikes locker rooms this season. Positive tests are one thing. A completely altered offseason schedule is another.
Just look at the NFL, where several top-tier players have already gone down with injuries. Experts will tell you the rash of them is directly related to the league’s short offseason.
The consistent top-10-class recruiting machine overseen by Saban certainly helps.
But so does his ability to bring that type of talent in from all over the country and meld it together. That’s been more important than ever this year as social justice has taken center stage next to COVID-19.
Look no further than his appearance in a strong anti-racism video along with his players for proof. He was also part of a team march on Aug. 31.
“I think our players have tried to be positive, they recognize the issues that we have, but they try to be positive in terms of what can we do to impact the future and create change in a positive way,” Saban told ESPN’s “College GameDay” on Sept. 12. “That’s why I’ve been very proud of the way that our players have approached it and I think they are doing some things that can affect change in our community as well as in the messaging that they’ve sent that all lives matter, including black lives.”
That goes way beyond the pursuit of passing Bear Bryant with a 7th national championship. Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Clemson and perhaps Ohio State, among others, will have something to say about that, but the Tide enter this season as an odds-on favorite to challenge for collegiate football supremacy. The revenge factors comes in when you consider that last year marked the first time since 2010 the Tide lost 2 regular-season games, and saw its 5-year College Football Playoff streak snapped.
Who else can’t wait for Nov. 28 and the latest edition of the Iron Bowl after Auburn’s pair of pick-6s sent Bama packing last year?
Saban’s off-the-field ability to forge relationships is, however, one more reason he’s admired by his players, revered by his colleagues and beloved in Tuscaloosa.
From a purely football standpoint, that’s likely hard for fans and media in other markets to get on board with. But Jordan, Brady, Bill Belichick and countless others were vilified as much as they were idolized during their primes — in many cases, more hated than romanticized.
You can be the hero and the villain. But as Saban breaks in a new quarterback and seeks to squeeze the most out of every athlete on the roster — starting Saturday against Missouri — there’s more to it than that.
This is a historic era that’ll have its own chapter in history texts someday. And no matter how the season shakes out, Saban will surely have a historic impact.
Just like he has for the past 20 years.