Nick Saban doesn't waste opportunities, and his comments about Jahleel Billingsley carried a lesson | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Nick Saban seemed to be giving a stock coaching answer about Alabama football player Jahleel Billingsley on Sunday, talking about the talented tight end who blossomed into one of the many weapons in the 2020 Crimson Tide's arsenal.

Only with Saban, there are no stock answers. Only messages. 

“(Jahleel) has also got to buy into the principles and values of the team and be a good teammate,” Saban said, stinging like a bee after floating like a butterfly for a moment. “Do the things that everyone else in the organization does so that he has the respect of his teammates. We’re certainly trying to help him do that and hopefully he’ll be back out there with us in a few days. We’ll see how that all develops."

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Suddenly there was the usual speculation about Billingsley, the internet thirsting for information and filling in every blank with speculation. Saban didn’t specify. The short timetable for a possible return indicated that perhaps the situation was not a full-blown Code Red and events bore that out. Billingsley was back at practice Monday

But it also made a connection that might have passed unnoticed without paying close attention. One of Saban’s favorite sayings is “never waste a failure,” frequently repeated after the rare Crimson Tide loss.

The standard interpretation is that players should learn from their mistakes. But the flip side is that Saban practices what he preaches, applying those words to himself in two ways. First, he never wastes a trip to the podium. That’s probably a lesson from his early days in coaching: You either set the agenda or someone else will set it for you. Second, just because Alabama went undefeated last season, that doesn’t mean Saban or the team has nothing to learn. He isn’t going to take the lessons he learned in 2010 and waste that three-loss failure (probably his opinion) even in 2021. 

There wasn’t a master plan at work Monday when the Alabama media opportunity featured three of Alabama’s experienced offensive leaders, at least in terms of sending a message to Billingsley or others. But those players were all on the same point. For instance, Brian Robinson Jr., the team’s most venerable veteran — he signed in the same recruiting class as Jerry Jeudy and Tua Tagovailoa, now entering their second NFL seasons — was asked the advice he would give to the Crimson Tide’s newest five-star running back, Camar Wheaton.

“My advice to Camar would be to just focus on learning the playbook so that he can play as fast as he can,” Robinson said.

If that extends past advice to teaching, even if only by example, that’s the effect Saban was seeking. Call it the “Julio Rule.” Saban talks frequently about the importance of Jones as a recruit, not just because he was so talented but also because he set an example of hard work at practice every day.

The 2020 team had numerous players who led that way, so many that the team could have gone on cruise control, especially on offense. The 2021 team may develop that identity, but it is younger and less experienced. The rate of maturity is a critical factor in 2021. That’s why Saban, who wastes no opportunities, made it a subtle talking point in his very first comments after fall practice began. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.