I wasn’t trying to start a fight – or imply that anyone else had – when I asked Nick Saban about fighting on Monday.
To the best of the media’s knowledge, Alabama practices have been the usual well-organized preparation, physical but without any flaring of tempers. Winning teams can have angry exchanges at practice, of course. That’s part of a physical, sometimes volatile sport. But one of Saban’s talking points this season has been team unity, a message that seems to have been received.
So the question was designed, not to explore any incident, but to analyze one aspect of the remarkably complex balancing act that Saban has to execute in order to keep the No. 1 team on top. After all, Alabama faces opponents at a high emotional pitch every week. They hear the trash talk from teams that try to overcome physical disadvantages with psychological warfare.
Thus, it’s about team chemistry – but also a part of preparation.
“First of all, what I try to get the players to understand is that respect for the other players on your team is a big part of being able to trust the other players on your team,” Saban said. “So (we) respect the other guy’s effort and what he’s trying to do to get better, which will really, in essence, help you get better. If he’s competing well against you, (that) should not be something that should create a negative circumstance or a negative situation (or) would cause people to make emotional decisions.
“We try to use it as a learning opportunity because I usually take both guys out of practice when they do that. I say, ‘You guys would be kicked out of the game or get a 15-yard penalty, one or the other. These are the kinds of choices and decisions when you make them emotionally that usually are the things that you’re sorry for, that you wish you didn’t do, that have negative consequences for you and the team.
“I want you to play with a lot of toughness, I want you to be aggressive, I want you to be relentless in how you compete – but making emotional decisions that get you penalties are not the way to show your toughness and doesn’t really help our team in any way.”
A connection is there to Saban’s other, far more publicized theme of the week – the “rat poison” of positive press. More precisely, he meant the players’ reaction to glowing reviews and pats on the back. The similarity? Anything that values the individual ego over the team – and fighting is, after all, an expression of an individual’s personality – is “poisonous.”
People who talk constantly about Alabama’s “five-star talent” sometimes overlook how hard it is to contain the egos of such a collection of stars. But we see examples of what happens without that control all the time, from Iowa State over Oklahoma to a USA soccer defeat in Trinidad that shattered its World Cup dream. It wasn’t talent that determined those outcomes. It was attitude.
So the answer is also one more glimpse into Saban’s personality. He didn’t take the question as an affront or an accusation. He recognized that it’s something that can happen in the course of a football game, no different from one perspective than a dropped pass or a blocked punt. All those things – even fighting – are negative. They cannot be wholly eliminated – last year’s Alabama team had some game-day squabbles, especially in the late going of the CFP semifinal game against Washington. But they can be controlled with concentration and preparation — and anything that can be controlled, Saban will try to control it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.