For any story to be riveting, two elements are required: a protagonist and an antagonist. What’s more, the antagonist has to be interesting: either equally powerful or at least representative of a meaningful, if opposite, point of view.
Heroes who simply beat up on weaker opponents all the time might be servicing the greater good, but would you rather see Batman foiling the occasional convenience store robbery? Of course not. You want to see him trading wisecracks and punches with the Joker. All great stories are the same: Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, Seinfeld vs. Newman, all the way back to the beginning where Adam and Eve got tricked by the pesky serpent.
Now, one person’s hero can be another person’s villain. For Alabama fans, the hero of the past decade is Nick Saban. Ask a loyal fan of any other SEC school who the biggest villain is, and you’ll get the same answer: Nick Saban.
Second, this is college football, not global war. Anyone who makes this particular “villain” list is on the list because of football, which is supposed to be fun. No one is making any moral judgments. Tim Tebow, for instance, is one of the nicest, most genuine individuals I’ve ever met. But in a certain way, that made him all the more irksome as a football opponent to Alabama fans in 2008. In fact, someone can be a villain at one point – Tennessee Lane Kiffin – and a hero, or at least the hero’s sidekick, at another.
But with that said, here are the top 10 villains of the Saban Era. Kudos to all of them, because they made things far more interesting.
10. Tim Tebow
An outstanding football player and a better human being, but lots of Alabama fans took a guilty pleasure in his sideline emotions after the 2009 SEC Championship Game. (Even those tears, though, were a genuine reflection of a fierce competitor, as sad for his teammates and his school and for himself.) Partly that was because Tebow had everything that Alabama fans wanted for their team – a national championship, a Heisman Trophy – made all the worse because he was sort of the last great hope for the Mike Shula Era. Shula’s prolonged recruiting campout at the Tebow house (it continues to grow with time, from eight hours to 12 and will eventually reach 40 days and 40 nights in legend) was somehow symbolic of Alabama coming in second, which was exactly what Nick Saban was brought in to change.
9. Johnny Manziel
The anti-Tebow. Brash, arrogant, loud; but when he was good, he was very, very good. The two games he played for Texas A&M against Alabama were everything that Saban has grumbled about for years – high-scoring and unpredictable. As with Tebow, Alabama had the final word or the ill feelings wouldn’t have turned into a sort of grudging respect. And I imagine Johnny’s only complaint about being on the Villain List is that he didn’t rank higher.
8. Tennessee Lane Kiffin
Kiffin was only at UT for one year, but was as annoying as most coaches could be in five. And he’d have been a lot more annoying if Terrence Cody hadn’t blocked a field goal. He’s mainly here to show the thin line between love and hate, though, as he has subsequently helped Alabama win games at unprecedented levels, so he’s done a full Severus Snape heel-to-hero turn. But Kiffin is entirely capable of winning a bunch of games at Florida Atlantic, taking over at LSU when Ed Orgeron floats away down the bayou and – guess what? – he’s a villain all over again.
7. The Sugar Bowl/LSU fans/Les Miles
Instead of trying to separate all these diverse elements, I did what any good Louisiana chef would do and dumped them all into the same pot, letting the fact that Saban came from LSU serve as a spicy flavor enhancer. It’s irony that about the only 0-fer of the Saban Era is the Sugar Bowl. (The BCS win over LSU in the Superdome was not, technically, a Sugar Bowl game.) The Utah and Oklahoma losses might have been the disheartened efforts of Crimson Tide teams that had missed out on loftier goals, but the Ohio State defeat proved decisively that some leftover New Orleans voodoo is at work. Miles was so endearingly goofy that it was hard to think of him as an enemy, even though he won his share of games against Saban early on. As for the LSU fans, think of it this way –they once hung Saban in effigy, and that was before they were nearly as frustrated as they are now.
6. Hugh Freeze
Leaving recruiting out of this, he has the last two SEC wins by anyone against Alabama (and made it uncomfortably close to No. 3) with no semblance of a running game and what (from an Alabama perspective) was an inordinate amount of good luck. Personally, I say give credit where it’s due, and Freeze is due more than any coach left in the league.
5. Danny Kanell
Danny is actually a pretty good guy, but of all the many media types that get under the skin of Alabama fans, he seems to be the most adroit at pressing the right buttons, as well as bouncing back when Alabama, as it often does, proves him wrong. So we’ll use Danny as the representative for all the shock-jock, Alabama-weary “analysts” out there, ranging from Colin Cowherd to, well, supply your own name (I get in too much trouble as it is). As an aside, I don’t think that Saban himself pays much attention to the naysayers, saving his main media missiles for the reporters he sees every day (and are therefore the likeliest to know that he’s talking to his team in 99 percent of his rants).
4. Cam Newton
More talented than Tebow, more enigmatic than Manziel and, far worse for Alabama fans, a perfect 1-0 against the Crimson Tide as an Auburn starter. It’s not just Alabama fans who find Newton polarizing, but there’s a reason that every Crimson Tide fan worth his shaker was pulling for Denver (and Peyton Manning!) in last year’s Super Bowl.
3. Urban Meyer/Jim Harbaugh
Let’s look at it this way. If Saban is No. 1 among today’s college coaches, Meyer is 1A. They’ve battled on equal terms for the most part, on the largest stages, although Meyer has the most recent big win. As for Harbaugh, think of it this way in the hero/villain world: Saban is Dorothy, Meyer is the Wicked Witch of the Midwest and Harbaugh is one of the winged monkeys, jumping up and down and saying “Satellite camps! Satellite camps!” I’m sure that he received lovely College Football Playoff postcards from both Saban and Meyer this year – and Dabo, too!
2. The HUNH
“Is this what we want football to be?” That famous Saban quote still resonates, although history has shown that it was the quality of the quarterback as much as the shiftiness of the hurry-up, no-huddle scheme that gave Alabama (and all defenses) such trouble. What people now realize, though, is that Saban wasn’t just going to sit around and complain. He appropriated what he liked about the offense and, at the same time, recruited the kind of defensive players that could stop it, or at least slow it down. This was the perfect example of how a negative can ultimately be a positive, if you learn from it.
1. The Kick Six
In terms of sheer disappointment, the only moment that rivals Alabama’s 2013 loss at Auburn was the 1973 Sugar Bowl defeat against Notre Dame. Both losses resulted in great Crimson Tide teams failing, when favored, to grasp history and instead losing to fierce rivals. That loss to the Irish, however, never boiled down to a series of final-minute (and last-second) plays, any one of which would have reversed the outcome had it gone the other way. Had one more second elapsed, the kick and return would never have happened. (What would have happened in overtime can be debated, but never decided.) On top of all that, it gave all other fans – Auburn fans, especially, but everyone – their greatest chance to say. “See, Saban isn’t perfect after all!” If you don’t think it still rankles Alabama fans, watch their reaction every time Gary Danielson mentions it on the air. There is no telling how many subsequent wins over Auburn it will take to erase the sting, although Saban does seem well on the way to finding out.