This wasn’t baseball, so Nick Saban didn’t get an ejection on Saturday, just a 15-yard penalty.
But if there was ever a week when Saban would have welcomed an early shower and a few minutes to unwind (as if the Alabama coach has ever been unwound), this was that week.
August camp is always a grind, and that was no different this year in Tuscaloosa than it ever is. By the time school starts, and certainly by the arrival of the first game week, the players are tired mentally and physically and the coaches probably ache a bit more. This week, though, was especially taxing for Saban. One of the team’s best players, Dylan Moses, was lost for the year in practice. Some of the others were suspended for a small but vexing transgression of team rules, giving Saban something else to handle. There were the usual media demands, the million-item minutiae that accumulate over a long month without the relief of a game. Saban’s tachometer was clearly revving on the high end by Thursday night, when he suddenly started in on general team conduct (across college football, not just his own team) with a highly illustrative but unfiltered rant.
At least it seemed unfiltered until Saturday, when the lip-readers in the audience were able to finally see the depth of the accumulated frustration.
Saban was contrite about the penalty, which came, oddly enough, after one of Alabama’s best plays in a 42-3 win over Duke. Trevon Diggs made a sparking interception in front of the Alabama sidelines and his teammates, on the field and off, reacted in celebration — only to draw a sideline penalty.
It was a decision that Saban chose to debate. The Big Ten official’s rebuttal was a yellow flag.
Afterward, Saban was contrite.
“Undisciplined,” Saban said, in the tone that St. Thomas More might have used when saying the word “heretical.”
“You know, one of the things that we wanted to establish here was discipline, and the coach did a poor job … of setting a good example. I guess my reaction was … the kids are having fun. So the guy intercepts the ball and everybody jumps up and down on the sidelines and we get a flag. My reaction to that was, the kids are having fun.
“But I deserved it. I’m not making any excuses for it. I don’t remember the last time it happened but it’s been a long time. I’ll learn something from that, too.”
This isn’t to chastise Saban for showing a little emotion, or to clutch at pearls over his vocabulary, for which he has been quick to make apologies. There may be, in his frustration, some answers as to why Alabama started slowly, a misfire here, a penalty there, and how it recovered.
As balky as the first quarter was, that’s the nature of football games. Holding penalties that turn 60 yards of positive offense into 30 yards of negatives have a big effect in the short run. So do turnovers that set the other team up in scoring position. Alabama survived those miscues, shook itself off and realized that it still had players like Diggs and Tua Tagovailoa and Jerry Jeudy stacked on top of young talent. That was way too much for Duke, no matter what the Blue Devils tried. But it’s been a long month for those players, and for Saban.
There are areas that need work. The offensive line didn’t get the sort of push in the middle that was expected. The running game can be more productive. These are usual first-game issues, except at a program where the first game is expected to immediately fast-forward to the last game and a relentless revenge tour.
There is a lot of pressure involved in that and if someone, even Saban, finally reached that “makes me want to holla” inner-city Atlanta blues threshold, that should not be a total surprise.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt