CECIL HURT: Nick Saban has stayed the course, and Alabama football will be prepared
On Monday, March 9, 2020, Nick Saban was planning to start his 14th year of spring practice later that week.
By Friday March 13th, because of a microscopic virus and an NBA player named Rudy Gobert, who contracted it, there was no spring practice for football or any other sort of athletic activity. College campuses were closed — not because of anything that Gobert did but because he was the first rock in a landslide, the symbol, not the cause, of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. And there was nothing that Nick Saban, or anyone at Alabama, could do except what Saban does well — figure out what came next.
There would be no spring practices, chances to work on fundamentals and acclimate early-entry freshmen to college football, no position competition except perhaps in the weight room where such on-the-field matters are rarely settled definitively.
Saban regrouped. He never abandoned the season — that didn’t really become a hot-button topic until after Memorial Day, but he never railed or demanded any sort of decision.
“I think we still have to, No. 1, sort of listen to the experts on what is really safe for us to do,” he said on an April SEC Network appearance with Paul Finebaum. “I know that is a difficult thing when you’re out of work and suffering a little bit, but I think the message is you (have) to keep trying to do the right things and try to not do the wrong things. Every individual can do the best they can whatever their circumstance is. Those who can help, should help. Those who need help should ask for it so others can help them.
“I really think we have just got to be patient, stay focused on what’s in front of us, try to do the best we can but follow the rules. Stay home, practice social distancing, wash your hands. I do think they’re making scientific progress here, so maybe we’ll have a breakthrough here in two weeks, a couple weeks, and we can get back to normal.”
Things didn’t get normal. Saban leaned on the structure he had instilled in the Alabama program — and on patience. As the undisputed dean of college coaches, he could have grabbed headlines, politicized the issue, maybe even affected decisions with his powerful voice. Instead, he deferred to the SEC office, which chose a deliberate course that may turn out for the best — no one knows — but certainly precluded the month-long course of chaos and contradiction that other leagues chose to follow.
Now, if the coronavirus permits (that may not be an absolutely certainty until kickoff), there is a season. And to the maximum extent that it could be, Alabama sounds like a team that is prepared for it.
As with any season opener, there are questions. The answers, from a media point of view, aren’t obvious because even our normal limited practice access was a casualty of COVID-19. The coaches know more, obviously, but they aren’t telling. The evidence that everyone from fans to famous prognosticators are counting on consist of past performance of Saban’s teams, the tremendous amount of proven offensive talent —including a quarterback with at least some experience — and a suspicion that the defense will probably be better based on a defensive coordinator who has had a year to learn and the fact that the injuries can’t possibly hit as hard as they did last year.
No team in the SEC checks every single box with proven, experienced talent. Georgia will be good, and LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, Florida. Maybe Tennessee or Kentucky will rise up this year, but they all have question marks, too (and given the 10-game conference schedule, there’s a chance that someone who feels pretty good right now will be 5-5 in December, wondering what happened).
That won’t be a new feeling in 2020. At some point in the last six months, we’ve all had a “what just happened?” moment. But seeing SEC football at all this season has an element of that as well. This is a big day, no matter what happens, and Alabama may be the team that is best prepared to deal with it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt