Sports

Greg Cote: Alabama coach Nick Saban is the man we love to hate, but it is time to move on

Nick Saban and his Alabama football team arrived in Miami on Wednesday to play Notre Dame in one of the most anticipated championship games ever in South Florida.

For Dolphin fans, Saban’s return to the scene of his overblown crime is as good an occasion as any to take a fresh look at the man we love to loathe, the man at the center of this much-anticipated title fight.

Water cannons shot arcs of spray over the Delta team planes as they landed. Dolfans, if in charge of the arrival, might have ordered the cannons aimed squarely at a deplaning Saban.

Well, South Florida, it is time to finally bury Nick Satan.

I mean that with benevolence, not malevolence.

It is time we moved past the past, beyond all of his old deceit and our stubborn animus. Past all of the stuff that makes so many of us look at Saban — even now, years later — and still want to conjure feelings so close to hatred and apply that devil’s nickname that fits so neatly.

I say it is time to forgive Saban his clumsy departure from the Dolphins.

Do more than forgive. Appreciate what he has accomplished, what he has become, since he moved on and we felt jilted.

I am being serious with all this, by the way, in case your incredulity gives you doubts.

Two points:

First, Saban, around this time of year as 2006 swung into 2007, made a career decision that was justifiable at the time even though we were too enraged with betrayal to see it.

And that same decision, in hindsight, looks smart bordering on brilliant. Genius.

To say it worked out for him ranks in the understatement category with saying Mark Zuckerberg made a buck or two off Facebook. Saban is favored to win his second consecutive national title and third in four years for Alabama.

A statue of him already has risen in Tuscaloosa, where he is the diminutive coach grown to Brobdingnagian stature.

Second, the way he left Miami wasn’t all that heinous to begin with, come to think of it, and his recent remorse over any hurt feelings seemed pretty genuine.

On Dec. 21, 2006, Saban was finishing up his second season with the Dolphins when Alabama fired Mike Shula and rumors immediately leeched onto Saban. After several days of insistent pestering from the media, Saban at last said, infamously:

“I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”

Thirteen days later, he was introduced as the Alabama coach.

He was not the first man in major sports to bend or manipulate the truth, to lie outright, to dramatically change his mind or to do some combination of all those things.

I have covered sports, and coaches since newspapers were dropped on lawns by pterodactyls, and I can testify very few coaches will hesitate to look you in the eye and say whatever suits their best interests.

Saban has since said he said what he said simply to shut up the media and erase the distraction from his team’s mind at the time. After the Dolphins season ended and Alabama contacted him, things changed. Things happen.

Besides, Wayne Huizenga, then the Dolphins owner, had hired Saban (from Louisiana State) with the understanding Saban would be free to leave at any time if he found he missed college coaching. To this day Huizenga and Saban maintain a great relationship, even as most Dolfans continue to rather obsessively vilify the man about whom Huizenga — ostensibly the man most betrayed — never felt an ounce of ill will.

Astonishingly, six years later Saban is still being asked about how he left the Dolphins and is still, in effect, asking forgiveness.

“The biggest [regret] was probably not handling the way I left very well. That’s always been a thing with me I’ve never ever really felt good about,” Saban admitted the other day, on 790 The Ticket.

“We all make mistakes. I don’t feel good about it, and I’ll probably never feel good about it.”

That was awfully touchy-feely for Saban, 61, whose public persona is that of a cold, unsmiling man along the taciturn lines of his mentor, Bill Belichick.

I suspect Nick, far from dumb, was being calculating, playing South Florida the way he plays recruits and their moms in living rooms — presenting himself at his best and most likable.

In any case, let’s call a moratorium on the mea culpas and move on. Saban shouldn’t have to continue to explain six years ago any more than we should keep picking at old scabs.

For the record, I think Saban would have been successful here and turned the Dolphins around had he stuck it out. He might still make a good NFL coach some day, if unrelenting rumors have any basis.

In any case it’s his career and life, not ours, and not even the most stubbornly bitter Dolfan could claim Saban’s decision hasn’t been justified.

A win Monday night making it three national championships in four years would give Saban’s Tide the first true dynasty in college football in the BCS era, since 1999, and maybe since Nebraska in the earlier ’90s. Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy in the 1940s was the previous coach to bunch three outright titles within four seasons. And Saban has done this coming out of the mighty Southeastern Conference, remember, the best and deepest league in the sport.

Another championship would be Saban’s fourth in 10 seasons (he won at LSU in 2003), and no coach in more than a half-century has done that, not even ’Bama’s legendary Bear Bryant. Saban will never be Bryant in Tuscaloosa, but he has earned his way into that good company now. Saban already is the only coach in The Associated Press poll era (since 1936) to win national championships at two different schools.

Saban does this with superior recruiting — so superior that eight of his underclassmen have left early for the NFL draft, all first-rounders, four of them top 10 picks, and yet his Tide keeps rolling, the cupboards always fully stocked.

Saban does this with attention to detail, too, and with a blinders-on focus to the task ahead.

He shows his team a video of Michael Jordan talking about making game-winning shots. From that, Saban extrapolates this point, as he said upon arrival Wednesday:

“The only [shot] that matters is the one he’s about to take,” Saban tells his players. “That’s the whole deal. Can you focus on that next shot?”

Saban is good enough that his protégés include current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Florida’s Will Muschamp, both from his staff at LSU.

None less than the great Bobby Bowden calls Saban the coach “as good as anybody there’s ever been.”

Alabama raised Saban’s salary to $5.62 million before this season and extended his contract through 2020. At the announcement the coach said the extension “represents our commitment to the University of Alabama for the rest of our career.”

It is hard to envision he’d ever leave his Tuscaloosa kingdom for another college job, but the NFL rumors don’t quit. He was Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator under Belichick in 1991-94. The two years in Miami indicated an unfulfilled appetite for the pros, perhaps. Well, the Cleveland job just came open. Speculation, anyone?

“I don’t know where all this stuff comes from,” Saban said of the NFL talk. “It’s to the point now that anything you say about this, nobody believes.”

Plenty of Dolfans might snicker at that and say Saban’s past lies have invited that lack of belief in what he says.

Six years is a long time, though.

It is enough time for a coach to stand a few days from minting a dynasty, and putting himself on the path to being judged among the best ever in his sport.

It should also be enough time to move on, Miami — to step back from the petty hate and appreciate something pretty great.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments