Commentary

Saban, Tide good for each other

Originally Published: January 5, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- No one handed out 3-D glasses. There was no blue skin, no avatar at all. But one look revealed a warrior in an alien world.

On the first full day that No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Texas spent in Southern California, the Citi BCS National Championship Game brought Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to Disneyland for a news conference. That's something like bringing Will Ferrell to the Broadway stage as Hamlet.

When you think of Saban, you think of office lights burning into the night, not The Happiest Place On Earth. You think of molten intensity, of the coach who slammed his headset into the ground when Alabama committed a penalty inside the LSU 5 earlier this year.

At the news conference, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times asked Saban, "Is this fun?" Saban repeated the question in an incredulous tone and looked away in mock disgust.

The answer doesn't matter. The key is the mock disgust. No one works harder. No one demands more of his players, his coaches or himself. But Saban also knows how to milk that image.

A few minutes after the news conference, Saban had a huge grin on his face.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireSaban has lost just two games the past two seasons at Alabama.

"My daughter [Kristen] wants me to go on the roller coaster with her," he said.

Saban and roller coasters. Lady Gaga on "The Lawrence Welk Show"? Peyton Manning playing in the fourth quarter on either of the last two Sundays?

"I am a roller coaster nut," Saban said. "When [Kristen and son Nicholas] were kids, we used to take them on roller coasters all the time. Now she's grown, and she wants me to ride the roller coaster. I love 'em."

You going to ride?

"Naaah," Saban said, and he walked away. His nose missed the grindstone.

On one side of the Rose Bowl on Thursday night will be Texas coach Mack Brown, who never met a stranger. On the other will be Saban, whom a stranger never meets.

In three seasons at Alabama, Saban has proved it is possible to turn a battleship in a bathtub. No longer is Alabama a used-to-be. Saban has washed the stain of probation off the crimson. He has returned Alabama to No. 1. He has returned Alabama to the Rose Bowl to play for the national championship, a feat that not even Bear Bryant could pull off.

If the Crimson Tide defeat the Longhorns on Thursday night, Saban will become the first coach since The Associated Press poll began in 1936 to win a national championship at two different schools.

Yes, Saban is making history at Alabama. But there's another way to look at his tenure, too. Alabama has been very good for Saban. In 11 seasons as a collegiate head coach at three other schools before he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Saban never achieved the sustained success that he has at Alabama.

Over the past two seasons, Saban is 25-2. For the first time in his career, he has won 10 games in consecutive seasons.

Saban would rather talk about the health care bill than himself. Asked what has happened to him personally in Tuscaloosa to account for the success, Saban said, "It's not about me at all." He recited a litany of people and resources that are available to him at Alabama, most of which also were available to his predecessors.

It's not like he changes from year to year. I think he's gotten more comfortable at Alabama because the transition's there.

-- Alabama DC Kirby Smart

None of them went 25-2.

Saban and Alabama are "a good fit," according to one of the leading experts on Saban, his wife Terry. Part of that is his delight in returning to college football. It took him two seasons with the Miami Dolphins to realize that, on the career ladder, the NFL had been a rung too far.

"I guess you could call West Virginia southern," Terry Saban said, referring to their home state. "We kind of consider ourselves southern. Alabama is a state of hard-working people, coal miners. My dad's a coal miner. There are just good down-home people. That's a natural fit.

"I'm not saying Miami wasn't but …" Terry's voice dissolved into peals of laughter, "Miami wasn't."

So there's comfort on a personal level, and there's comfort on a professional level. Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain came to Tuscaloosa from Fresno State. He played at I-AA Eastern Washington and worked at that level for the first 15 years of his coaching career. McElwain doesn't take the size and scope of Alabama football for granted.

"Because of the importance and the magnitude of what is Alabama football, he's been around long enough to understand it, and [know] how to deal with it," McElwain said. "… Otherwise, this could kind of get out of control a little bit."

Leave it to other campuses to foment tension between the university administration and the athletic department.

"There's the willingness of the president [Dr. Robert Witt] and the athletic director [Mal Moore] to say, 'We know how important this is,'" Terry Saban said. "… That is the window through which the world looks at the university."

Personal and professional comfort should not be confused with Saban becoming comfortable. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart coached for Saban at LSU. He went with him to the Dolphins. He has seen him win, seen him lose, and now seen him be more successful than ever.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kirby Lee/US PresswireWho knew Alabama coach Nick Saban was a rollercoaster junkie?

"You'd like to say he's 'softened' a bit," Smart said. "But as soon as you think that, there comes a day. And you realize that's probably not the case.

"It's not like he changes from year to year," Smart continued. "I think he's gotten more comfortable at Alabama because the transition's there. It's not like the first year, where you're training everybody. Now everybody's got the idea ingrained. It's a lot smoother. The longer it goes, the better it goes."

Saban has not been a head coach on any campus for more than five years. Alabama fans would like to believe that the wanderlust that marked Saban's career before his arrival in Tuscaloosa did not follow him there. He feels settled enough to serve as a mentor for new Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant. He and his wife Chris visited the Sabans' home on Christmas Day.

In the wake of Florida coach Urban Meyer's resignation-turned-leave, Saban joked last week about following suit.

"My motivation is, I figure I can work here and take the stress here or I can retire and go home and work for Terry and take the stress there," Saban said. "So, so far, I've been trying to keep my day job, because I would be working just as hard at home. That's kind of my motivation. I don't think I really feel like I have an out right now, so I'm willing to hang in there."

Terry is in no hurry, either.

"There's an energy at the university that travels, like a karma," she said. "When things are going well, that karma needs to spread to everything."

On Thursday, Alabama will find out if Saban can spread that karma all the way to Pasadena.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com