This update was written live from Birmingham by Doug Gillett.
It was barely 7 in the morning at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., and the lobby was already filling up with Alabama fans waiting to catch a glimpse of their sainted head coach. When Nick Saban finally showed a little bit before eight, a cheer went up that was audible from the Media Days ballrooms upstairs all the way down through numerous thick levels of concrete to the parking garage. (I should know; I was one of the people stuck in the garage and unable to catch an elevator back up to the hotel because every elevator car was clogged with Bama fans.)
During Saban's question-and-answer session, a reporter asked him about one particular fan wearing an "I hate Auburn" T-shirt and what he would say to that fan. "It's not personal. And that's not the way we should respect the opponents that we have," he said. "I think we have two great institutions [in this state], and I think we have a lot of wonderful people who support those institutions in a very positive way. . . . There's a small number of people who probably create [trouble] on both sides, so this is not a criticism of one or the other, and I would like to see our fans show class in terms of how we represent our institution, our state and our athletic programs."
What's this? Nick Saban, a guy whose reputation rests somewhere between Darth Vader and Keyser Söze in terms of intimidation, calling for fan detente between the Tide and the Tigers? Look, you have to understand something about Nick Saban: For all the "Dark Lord" epithets his devoted fan base tosses out there to get in the heads of rival teams, Saban's a relatively soft-spoken guy off the field, and he doesn't seem to mind being trotted out in front of the media. In fact, he arguably had the most effusive praise and thanks for the media of any coach who's made an appearance so far. He even laughed -- audibly! with a teeth-baring smile and everything! -- when he was asked "Do you think Mike Slive kind of acts as a dictator?" by a guy who was apparently one of his longtime friends/sparring prtners in the media.
On actual football matters, Saban seemed almost subdued for a guy whose team is a popular pick to win not just the SEC title but a national championship in 2011. His response to a reporter who asked about his team's status as a preseason favorite: "You all are a lot smarter than we are as coaches, because we could never pick who's gonna win the SEC."
He spoke at length on just how tough the SEC (and the Western Division in particular) has gotten, pointing out that at one point last season, five of the division's six teams were ranked in the top 20. "I think it speaks to the quality of the league on a national basis, not just a regional basis, and i think that's one of the keys with the SEC -- I feel like w'ere the national league of college football. . . . It's a very challenging league to play in, and it's very difficult to have that kind of standard of excellence, but with the quality of players and coaches that we have, it would not surprise me if we at least continued to have someone in a position to be in the national championship game."
Yet other than Auburn, the only team on Alabama's 2011 schedule that Saban mentioned by name was . . . Georgia Southern, the FCS powerhouse the Tide will play the week before the Iron Bowl. He seemed to think this bit of scheduling was a hardship. "If you're gonna play someone in another division, you don't have to play the BEST team," he griped to chuckles from the audience.
Wonder what the "I hate Auburn" guy would make of that. But I know one thing that would make him happy: Despite the fact that Auburn, not Alabama, is the most recent national title winner this time around, Bama had a much bigger and more vocal fan contingent in the Wynfrey lobby than Auburn did a day ago, and whereas Gene Chizik's appearance yesterday had all the energy and excitement of a wake, Saban's appearance on the dais prompted photographers to swarm the front of the room as if Kate Middleton had strolled up there in her wedding dress. Iron Bowl results be damned, there's still only one king of this state, and Birmingham knows who he is.
For more SEC, head to Team Speed Kills. For more on SEC Media Days, stay tuned to SBNation.com's streaming coverage, plus SB Nation Atlanta's as well. Here's the complete 2011 SEC Media Days TV schedule.