Imagine if a new king were introduced, not with a puff of white smoke from castle parapets, the blare of trumpets and a mighty voice reading the sacred texts of an empire, but instead was declared by a guy stepping out of a Waffle House, wreathed in a cloud of bacon fumes, loudly shouting, “Hey, we’ve got us a quarterback!” to everyone in the parking lot.
Such was the anticlimactic scene in which Nick Saban, practically in mid-sentence, made a starting quarterback announcement on Monday, confirming the obvious reality that Tua Tagovailoa would take the first snap against Arkansas State next Saturday. Tides had been flowing that way for weeks, even though Saban managed to prolong the competition to the very end. (There were plenty of people still guessing that Jalen Hurts might start on Saturday.) Perhaps it did make Louisville prepare for both quarterbacks, Tagovailoa and Hurts. Perhaps Saban’s intention was to guarantee that both players felt that they had been given the fairest of fair shots. Either way, that part of his plan worked.
But not even something as obvious as a steel girder between the eyes has been able to stop the “controversy” yet. The thing has taken on a gnarly afterlife, wrapping its tentacles around semirelated topics, beginning with how Saban should answer questions about the position.
When Maria Taylor of ESPN asked Saban an appropriate question following the Louisville game, he answered gruffly. Saban acknowledged as much on Monday, saying he wished he had answered differently and indicating that he had spoken with Taylor personally. That should end that topic of debate. Whether it will or not depends largely on if some other mini-controversy comes along elsewhere.
Clearly, Saban — who said that he “prays every Sunday not to get angry” — was practicing his patience with quarterback questions at his Monday press conference, answering them calmly, all the while wearing the look of a 5-year old trying his first eel sushi, punctuated with the occasional death stare or two.
Then, waiting at the bottom of it all, was one puzzling word: “vilify.”
No one could have reached the very top of the coaching profession without being a master psychologist. He is correct that there are some people out there, a fringe, that seems as if it will never rest until Saban says bad things about Hurts. (In lieu of that, they say the bad things themselves.) But putting that tiny and miserable element aside, it’s hard to see a clamor for Hurts’ vilification. I don’t think that every media question is a demand for criticism. I have written a variation of the following sentence since January: There is a chance that Tagovailoa is simply better. That happens. That doesn’t mean that Hurts’ many accomplishments should be overlooked, that he should be forgotten or worse. He has done tremendous things for Alabama and, since the future remains unwritten, he may go on to do more. Saban has acknowledged that, to his credit. I believe he loves his players, as he said on Monday. But there comes a point where merely repeating the word “vilify” raises a specter, real or not. If the idea is to “protect” Hurts, who seems quite mature, maybe it could be done in a lower key.
What’s going to be harder will be tempering the media and the fans in their expectations of Tagovailoa. As naturally gifted as he is, he’s flesh and blood and the occasional risky pass. He is about to face an SEC West gauntlet that will be even more difficult than many suspected that it would be a month ago. Acting as if all those opponents will crumble at the sight of Tua does him no favors. Making sure that Tua praise doesn’t fly into outer space and past all the available oxygen is going to be a challenge. But Saban won’t back down from it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.