Crimson Tide and Sooners ready for the Orange Bowl
It happened around this time, over the holidays, a dozen years ago. That’s plenty enough time gone by to forget, or at least to forgive.
But we don’t. Can’t or won’t is beside the point. We don’t.
Miami’s hate-hate relationship with Nick Saban lives on as the Alabama coach revisits for Saturday night’s Orange Bowl game vs. Oklahoma — the College Football Playoff semifinal Saban hopes will continue the dynasty he has gifted Tuscaloosa.
It was on Dec. 21, 2006, when Saban, then the Miami Dolphins coach rumored to top ‘Bama’s wish-list, had spent so much time deflecting questions about his intentions that, finally, exasperated, he infamously stated: “I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
Thirteen days later, on Jan. 3, 2007, he was the Alabama coach.
Happy New Year and screw you, Dolfans! was the message South Florida heard. “LIAR!” spat the angry chorus of local fans feeling betrayal.
That as an initial gut reaction was understandable. That the animus continues all these later is the curiosity worth exploring.
It’s time Miami finally came to grips with the root-cause of this community’s anti-Saban sentiment stirred anew this week.
It isn’t that he lost here..
It isn’t that he lied here.
It’s that he left here.
His two seasons in Miami — 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs, then 6-10 — were benign. Forgettable. Certainly not good enough, on the face of it, for fans to lament his departure. (That 6-10 was and is the only losing season on his resume’. Just as his departure following it is the only dissonant chord).
As for The Lie? I believe we came to understand that this is what men in Saban’s line of work do, publicly, before and since, as a means of quieting an incessantly braying media. It wasn’t just the lie.
It wasn’t even that Saban followed team medical advice and chose to sign Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees — a seismic decision that has haunted this Dolphins franchise for as long as Saban has reigned at Alabama.
No, it is simply that Saban dared to leave the Dolphins for the Crimson Tide, which at the time seemed a reasonable career move and in retrospect seems just about the single greatest decision any coach has ever made.
Miami fans hate Saban because of what he took from them: His greatness. The Dolphins’ future. The Super Bowl parades that never happened.
Saban’s two-year Fins record of 15-17 didn’t mean he failed as an NFL coach. Hardly. (Miami went 1-15 the first year without him). Wayne Huizenga, the owner at the time, told me after losing Saban (they parted on good terms): “Nick would have been great for us had he stayed. Great. Shula-great. I’m convinced of it.”
Saban and Patriots coach Bill Belichick happen to be very close friends. Belichick says he has more respect for Saban than for any coach he has ever known.
Saban was 2-2 head to head with Belichick in 2005-06 and Belichick has owned Miami since. Saban could stand nose to nose with Belichick — just as he did with Bear Bryant’s shadow and legacty in Tuscaloosa. Saban could match intellects and strategies and coaching skills with New England’s genius. He took that when he left Miami, and the Dolphins have never replaced it.
Saban recalls his Dolphins years fondly because he tuned out the catcalls in his wake. Because he doesn’t understand that when you say “Nick Saban” to most Dolphins fans, even now, you get a face that looks like it just bit a lemon.
“We really enjoyed being here,” Saban told gathered media this week. “Wayne and Marti Huizenga were great people to be associated with, to work for. I probably have never been around more gracious people in all my life. We wish things had worked out a little better in terms of winning a few more games, but the experience helped me become a better person and a better coach.”
Even as they begrudge his leaving, Dolphins fans cannot help but look at the seven national championships Saban has won — six with ‘Bama, including five in the past nine seasons — and not wonder how that greatness might have translated in the pros. Not wonder if Saban, in effect, might have been Miami’s Belichick in the NFL.
And, across town, mustn’t Hurricanes fans daydream what Saban at UM might have meant? As those same fans see a 7-6 season expire in a 35-3 bowl loss while Alabama is so good it is a 14-point favorite Saturday over an Oklahoma team that has the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and averages 49.4 points a game.
Saban is 67 now, so set in his ways he telephones players to communicate. Doesn’t text.
“I guess I’m just old-fashioned,” he said Friday, a shadow of a smile on a face whose natural expression is one of seeming mildly perturbed. “I really don’t email. I don’t have Twitter. Works OK for us, I guess.”
College or pro, any conversation or short-list debate about greatest football coaches ever must include him. His departure from the Dolphins may have been fumbled, but his recovery has been not short of historic.
Miami in its sports history has seen the Hurricanes lose four national-championship coaches, seen the Marlins trade away Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton, and watched LeBron James leave in free agency.
But this sports town has never seen a greater, more far-reaching loss than watching Nick Saban depart before he’d really even begun, and take with him all that might have been.
See, we might not admit it around here, Nick, but Miami doesn’t hate you nearly as much as it wishes you were still here.