Last week, when NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski was a guest on his radio show, Alabama coach Nick Saban told a funny anecdote about pulling up at a red light alongside a “hot tamale Mustang” that he outraced in his high-performance German sports car. As good stories do, this one made a point, highlighting the competitive side of Saban that fans see every Saturday in the fall. It also, probably without coincidence, got in a plug for Mercedes-Benz.
On Wednesday, Saban’s mind was racing as fast as that sports car, telling stories that ranged from his father’s gas station back in West Virginia — a fairly familiar setting for his reminiscing — to games he coached at Michigan State against Joe Tiller, the Purdue coach and offensive innovator who passed away last week. The gas station story was promoted by a question about Hurricane Harvey’s effect on the Crimson Tide’s Texas players. The answer had nothing to do with hurricanes. Instead, it was about as close as you can come to a parable in a story that includes a threatened butt-whipping. (Saban used slightly more colorful language.)
If you thought about the point, it became clear. The young Saban has broken up with a high school girlfriend. His father noticed the change in his attitude and, with the wisdom of a Socrates, pointed out to his son that a bad attitude at the gas station was going to lead to poor performance — and more profound problems than his romantic setback. Thus, while he expressed appropriate concern for all hurricane victims and noted that Alabama had been notably supportive of the families affected, Saban also made his point: If his players are distracted from the task at hand against Texas A&M, they will still have their original problem — the hurricane — and the additional problem of a loss to go with it.
Saban could have answered the question with a throwaway coaching cliche — “we play the games one at a time” and that would have sufficed. But the story was far more interesting. So was his answer about Tiller, who Saban called “ahead of his time” — but not without making reference to quarterback “nemesis” Drew Brees as well.
This is amateur psychology at its most hyperextended, but it’s possible that one reason Saban is so thoughtful in his answers this week is because he’s sailing in uncharted waters. It’s not simply the fight against complacency. That’s been the great Saban struggle since at least 2009.
He has coached national champions and repeat national champions. He understands the signs. But the past two weeks — the massive blowout scores in back-to-back conference wins, the 125-3 margin in those games — is something of a different order. He’s certainly still sending those messages, stressing that Texas A&M is Alabama’s toughest opponent yet (This rankles FSU fans, but he may have a point) and grousing about “15 missed tackles” in the Ole Miss game.
He’d like to be able to slam on the brakes and stop the hype the way he’d stop his sports car, but the momentum seems unstoppable. Alabama was the subject of the majority of SEC teleconference questions on Wednesday, the object of a combined awe and fatigue from across the nation. It is, to Saban’s way of thinking, problematic. Players hear it. But they have to understand that believing the praise is the best way to lose it. One problem becomes two — or, as Daddy Saban put it succinctly, it ends with a tail-whipping.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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