Nick Saban has to worry about the health of 100 players, one of the responsibilities of his job. He has a large and talented medical staff to help with the necessary decisions.
He also has to deal with 100 young minds, 100 egos, 100 individuals with different backgrounds and motivations. There are assistants in place to help with that, too, of course. But where medical equipment, X-rays and MRIs and the acumen of team doctors can measure physical things, the more difficult judgments are of the mind and the heart.
For the better part of Saban’s Monday conference, the talk was of muscles and joints, Tua Tagovailoa’s knee or Jalen Hurts’ ankle. Saban seemed to place both in a “wait-and-see” category, not surprising for a Monday. (He didn’t mention offensive guard Deonte Brown’s turf toe, but Brown probably is a “wait-and-see” as well.) He also gave his annual answer to the question about whether he would “rest” players against an underdog non-conference opponent. That answer was “no.”
There was another comment from Saban, though. It was one that suggested that he is worried about psychology — individual and team — as he is about bumps and bruises.
“As a coach,” Saban said, “it’s a little difficult sometimes to manage guys that are injured because regardless of the medical circumstance is, the player has to be confident that he can do what he can do to go out and do his job well. That’s something we can only evaluate as we go through the week of practice.”
There’s a good bit to unpack in that statement. Saban doesn’t single out any players, so he may be making a broad statement, not a specific one (although the question was about “quarterbacks.) He also indicates that there is no magic wand that makes players 100 percent ready. A tentative player isn’t going to perform his best. That makes it seem like this week of evaluation isn’t going to be a simple matter of sticking a stethoscope on the sore spot and issuing a “good to go” diagnosis.
There is also mass psychology involved. When Saban bristles about questions that involve holding players out of particular games, he isn’t just being a curmudgeon (or an NFL throwback.) He’s trying to maintain a culture that took time to instill. The idea is that every game is important, just as every practice, every bench press, every meeting, every class. Anyone with any sense knows that beating Georgia in Atlanta is going to be tougher than beating The Citadel at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But if Saban starts assigning “easy win” to some games, where do the value judgments stop? If he stands at a podium and says “this is a breather, so X and Y can sit out this week,” what message does that send? Furthermore, how do you stop that message? Earlier this season, there were some (not all) fans that wanted Tagovailoa to stay in games that were 42-0 at halftime because of his “Heisman stats” or “he needs fourth-quarter experience.” Were those outcomes not determined by that time?
Common sense is going to prevail. Whoever plays — and Saban did note that third-teamer Mac Jones “has been getting a lot of reps” — will be monitored closely and not overused. But no coach, certainly not Saban, is going to say that on a Monday if he is mindful of the message he is sending.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.