Kevin C. Cox
With just one SEC title under his belt in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban is already hailed as a god among coaches. Is he really that good, or are Alabama fans just desperate to believe?
Editors note: This column was carefully constructed in an attempt to troll Alabama fans. We do not believe a word of this
Mark Richt has brought a pair of SEC titles to Georgia after a 20-year drought. He's just clinched the eighth 10-win season of his coaching career and holds a .750 winning percentage. And yet even that résumé isn't enough to keep people from writing "Richt on the hot seat" columns anytime the Bulldogs falter. Should the Dawgs lose to Alabama in this weekend's SEC Championship Game, those folks will probably write dozens more.
Nick Saban, meanwhile has won a single SEC championship at Alabama. He's got seven 10-win seasons and a career winning percentage of .740. Should the Tide falter in the Georgia Dome this weekend, their fans will be disappointed, but they'll continue to rally around the Saban statue they've already erected next to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
A lot of folks would point to this comparison as a sign that Georgia's standards are too high. But maybe the truth is that Alabama's standards are too low. After a quarter-century of wandering in the wilderness following the departure of Bear Bryant, it's possible that Alabama fans have become so desperate they'll deify anyone who offers them even the slightest possibility of reclaiming past glories.
Not that Saban is a bad coach. Far from it. After all, he did win two SEC titles and a national championship at LSU — which had to have stung for Alabama, considering that during that same period, they were dealing with the embarrassing failure of Mike Dubose, the betrayal of Dennis Franchione, the humiliation of the Mike Price scandal and the growing pains of the Mike Shula era. When the time came to admit the Shula experiment was a mistake and begin the next chapter of Alabama's football history, it's no wonder they turned to someone with Saban's track record of success in the SEC.
But as Saban nears the end of his sixth season in Tuscaloosa, it's time to ask whether he's really delivered on the promise of a return to glory. Is one SEC title in five long years enough to balance the frustration of a 6-6 regular-season record in 2007, the embarrassing bowl loss to Utah in 2008, and the fourth-place SEC West finish in 2010?
Perhaps Alabama fans view things differently because they, along with everyone else in their state, view things through the prism of the Iron Bowl, where in-state superiority means everything. Indeed, Alabama had already tied its longest losing streak to Auburn at the time of Saban's arrival, and set a dubious new record when Saban lost to Tommy Tuberville in his first Iron Bowl visit. It would seem that Saban has returned in-state superiority to the Crimson Tide, and in that respect you can forgive Bama fans for perhaps being a little over-enthusiastic. But even there, Saban's reputation has been over-inflated relative to his actual accomplishment. A 4-2 record against an in-state arch-rival? Mark Richt is 11-1 against his. Richt not only won his first time out against said rival, he also faced off against that rival's best team of the 21st century and won — neither of which Saban can claim.
Again, I'm not saying that Saban is a bad coach, or that Alabama fans shouldn't be proud of what he's accomplished so far. But after years of failure by one coaching prospect after another, it's possible Tide Nation became so desperate they were determined to anoint him as a savior without any regard to how his teams actually performed on the field. It's possible that a fan base accustomed to holding its football program to the highest standards of success let those standards drop so that they could feel like the long march through the dark ages was finally over. Which it may be, though the light isn't quite as bright as they'd have you believe.
But there that statue of Nick Saban stands, erected after a single SEC title in 2009. You'll notice Georgia didn't put up a statue of Mark Richt after he won an SEC championship in 2002, nor even after his second in 2005. Maybe it's because Bulldog Nation demands a little bit more from its program than Bama fans do. They went through a rough patch before their current coach just like Alabama did, but maybe instead of making them desperate, that period of trial and tribulation made them stronger.
Maybe after all this, Nick Saban does beat Mark Richt this weekend and finally evens the SEC championship tally between them. Maybe then you can make the case that Saban has lived up to the glittering portrait his fans have already painted of him — had painted, in fact, before he even set foot on campus. If that happens, though, Tide Nation may become a victim of its own PR campaign, because with two SEC titles at Alabama, Saban would then become an even more attractive target to the NFL teams that are supposedly circling him on an annual basis.
If Saban did jet off and make his long-rumored return to the pros — let's say as the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, the team that seems to figure most prominently into those rumors — where would Alabama be then? Having built up a grandiose mythology around their current coach, they would then be charged with the unenviable task of finding someone who could fill the shoes of the giant they'd created. But don't gloat too much about that prospect, Georgia fans, because it's possible the only person who stands any chance of doing that is the coach who will be standing across the field from Saban this Saturday.