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Understanding Nick Saban: Winston Groom Chimes In

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[Ed's note: For Wright Thompson's piece on hating Nick Saban, please click here. Below is noted author Winston Groom's—he's an Alabama alum—take on the same man.]

It all started last summer when Alabama's Crimson Tide acquired a 400-pound man named Terrence Cody to play nose tackle. The editors of this magazine wanted a story on him, but it seemed premature. What if he don't play, I asked? Do we write a story headlined, "400-Pound Man Warms Bench?" The next week, it was revealed that Cody would in fact start in the opener against Clemson. That was the good news. The bad news was that he didn't weigh 400 pounds anymore. Nick Saban had sweated it out of him during pre-season practice.

But Cody is as good an example as any—emblematic, as it were—of Saban's football savvy. He plucked him out of an obscure junior college on the Gulf Coast last summer and turned him into a stellar noseguard. The big guy is not only big, he's good (really good), agile and quick. Nobody with a brain tries to run through Bama's line—or at least not for long—while that creature is on the loose. Cody sprained his knee three weeks ago in the Ole Miss game, but will return for LSU this Saturday.

After a sorry 8-6 season last year, everybody was predicting this would be a "rebuilding" year for the Tide. But Saban—and the team, including 18 true freshmen—had other ideas, and they are now unbeaten, 9-0, and listed at No. 1 in the country by all major polls, headed into the big showdown with LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday.

Louisiana fans are apparently furious with Saban over his decision to come to Alabama. That's a shame, because he left LSU with a national championship, and a championship-caliber team for the following year, to quadruple his salary in the pros. What man with a young family wouldn't leap at a chance like that? Turned out, though, Saban didn't like the pros; he realized he liked coaching college kids.

Well, what was he supposed to do—go back to LSU and ask them to fire Les Miles? Apply for a job coaching Slippery Rock?

So he took an opportunity to go to the University of Alabama with all its mighty reputation, but a team of dubious talent and competence, and by dint of uncanny powers of persuasion he acquired what is generally recognized as the best recruiting class in the country. Most of those guys are on the field Saturdays, executing the "Saban System" tango.

And for this, Saban has apparently become perhaps the most reviled man in Louisiana, aside from the mayor of New Orleans. 'Tis a pity. In my book, it's okay if you want to hate the likes of Osama bin Laden, politicians, child-molesters, etc.—but hating football coaches? Get a life.

LSU fans do seem to have a problem with taking football too seriously. For example, take the case of Alabama defensive end Luther Davis, a former LSU prospect who joined the Crimson Tide last year to be with Saban. He told the Mobile Register this week that decision caused "a whole city and state to turn their backs (on him)." He was called all sorts of names and his father was almost fired from his job, he said, "just because you didn't do what was best for them, but rather for yourself."

What Saban has accomplished so far is astounding, and much of it can be credited to his remarkable abilities of organization—of not only putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place just right, but of inventing the perfect jigsaw puzzle to put them in.

But here I am in danger of getting ahead of myself. Even though Alabama is 9-0, and so far has trailed only once, by three points, for about three minutes, there are still noticeable chinks in the armor. Tulane, which was supposed to be a breather, gave the Crimson Tide all it could handle. I still look back in astonishment that beating a team 22-6 caused such a cataract of vituperation from the fans and sportswriters—as though Bama had actually lost the game.

Saban had warned of the prospect of a "letdown," beginning the night of the opening game big win over Clemson, then picked to win the ACC. He harped on it publicly and privately all week until he got on everybody's nerves. And sure enough it came to pass anyway—at least offense-wise. He started in again after the spectacular win against Georgia, and sure enough, the next week Kentucky nearly ate Alabama's lunch. So did Ole Miss in the next game.

But in the end, neither opposing team did, and that's the important thing. In that aspect, Saban resembles the sainted Bear Bryant—he'll find a way to beat you. Discipline is such that Bama has the lowest number of penalties in the SEC and is among the lowest in the nation. Because of Terrence Cody and others, opposing teams have been held to less than 65 rushing yards per game, and the Tide ranks No. 2 in the nation in rushing defense. The much touted true-freshman wide-receiver Julio Jones has lived up to his billing, and is playing like a seasoned senior, while special-teams leader Javier Arenas, when he receives a kick or punt, is reminiscent of nothing so much as (no offense intended) the pig in a greased pig chase.

In the Tennessee match-up two weeks back, Bama at last demonstrated its ability to play a complete ball game for 60 straight minutes, relentlessly grinding down the hapless Volunteers 29-9. There was no danger of letting them off the hook. All of Saban's ranting about second-half letdowns seems to be taking hold.

I was a freshman at Alabama the year Bryant won his first national championship, and during my entire four years we lost exactly four games. So it's exciting to see this team, with all its freshmen, dash out on the field with what appears to be precisely the sort of confidence and poise of the teams that Pat Trammel, Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler led.

But—and I would rather set my hair on fire that say this—the rest of this season could always become the revolting downhill disaster that last year's became after coming off a bye-week. I seriously don't believe it will. There seems to be greatness in this team, if not this year, at least next. They're young, they're tough and they smell blood. All Saban needs is to keep steering the course he's set, keep the intensity, and with a little luck, they may go all the way. Of luck, Bryant used to say, "We make our own luck, out there on the field." I'd bet money Saban feels the same way.