As Texas Calls, Why Stay at Alabama, Nick?

Nothing is humorous about a man losing a job, even when he has won a national title and socked away enough money to live happily until his funeral. But it is a bit funny that Mack Brown is being forced to resign at Texas because, at least in part, he isn’t a TV star. When ESPN once again made a mockery of its editorial standards by sinking $247 million into a burnt-orange-intensive channel called the Longhorn Network, the idea was to maximize the wealthiest of the booming college football factories. As the deposed athletic director, DeLoss Dodds, said in more successful times, “We are the Joneses.”

Well, the Joneses now are trying to keep up with the Jimbos and the Malzahns and the Brileses. And the agenda, with a push from the godfathers in Bristol, is for the next coach to become the all-access star of the Longhorn Network. Brown wasn’t told how pervasive the ESPN people would be inside the team facility; he was shocked one day when he was asked for a key to a certain area. Just as ESPN literally will own college football starting next year with its $7.8-billion investment in the new four-team playoff system, ESPN literally owns the Texas program.

Thus, out goes Brown, a gentleman who was run over by the big-money machine in recent seasons and, with no prodding from Dodds, fell behind in the vital areas of advanced recruiting and weight-room training. Despite the moneyed-and-influenced Billy Bobs in the shadows, and despite the many built-in advantages of doing business in the tech/music/barbecue/stoner wonderland that is Austin, the Longhorns aren’t hooking ’em anymore and have been decidedly mediocre the last three seasons. To replace Brown in this lagging paradigm, in comes … who?

ESPN could have reached into its “Monday Night Football” booth, plucked Jon Gruden and pointed him to Austin. Except for one small problem — he doesn’t wear cowboy boots — Gruden would have been perfect. He’s as telegenic and personable as they come. His cred among high-school prospects is off the charts thanks to his high-profile analyst position and those fun projector sessions he does every offseason with leading NFL quarterback prospects. Remember when he made fun of the dance that Nick Foles, looking like an oversized Tom Petty, was doing with his Arizona teammates? He’d be bringing that image to the Longhorn Network 24/7, baby.

Yet Gruden doesn’t want to coach college football. He wants to return to the NFL, but not until he works one more season on Monday nights. So, the eyes of Texas are upon Nick Saban, again, just as they were last January for a brief flirtation. Already, with Brown’s resignation expected any hour, published reports have Saban signed and sealed in Austin, and while those reports seem premature in this embarrassingly irresponsible era of guessing-game journalism, the concept makes more sense now than ever.

There is no reason for Saban to stay put at Alabama, even if the university, as reported, was preparing a $7-million-a-year extension for him. Even before his dynasty was upended by Auburn, Saban was making noises that his efforts were underappreciated at Alabama. His wife, Terry, echoed those thoughts in a recent Wall Street Journal story, saying, “You come to a crossroads and the expectations get so great, people get spoiled by success and there gets to be a lack of appreciation. We’re kind of there now.” The coach went so far to criticize students who left home games early — all of this BEFORE the loss to Auburn that crushed Saban’s hopes of winning an unprecedented fourth national championship in five years, and BEFORE an ugly fan reaction that included death threats for kicker Cade Foster.

So, why stay? Especially when Saban loses his bedrock leader and quarterback, AJ McCarrron, while Auburn and Gus Malzahn return much of their talent and will be favored to win again in a Southeastern Conference weakened by the loss of several big-name QBs? I can’t imagine Saban wanting to return to the NFL and rebuilding a mess such as that in Washington, where he would inherit the troubled Robert Griffin III, one of those dual-threat quarterbacks he loathes in his old-school mindset.

Texas, with its infinite resources and cosmopolitan environment, would be the perfect final stop in his glittering career. And it’s not as if we haven’t seen this dance before between Saban and the good old boys. Last January, the GOBs tried to fix their cotton-picking mess by looking to Saban. And if you believe them, Saban was the one who initiated the first contact via his agent, Jimmy Sexton. In an e-mail obtained last month by the Associated Press, billionaire power broker Tom Hicks, after participating in a 45-minute phone call with Sexton and UT regent Wallace Hall, said Saban was keenly interested in coming. “Sexton confirmed that UT is the only job Nick would possibly consider leaving Alabama for, and that his success there created special pressure for him,” Hicks wrote to his brother, UT regent Steve Hicks. Enough was accomplished during the call that Tom Hicks, former owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers and hockey’s Dallas Stars, set up a lunch meeting with his friend, Brown. According to AP sources, Hicks informed Brown about the phone call to Saban and asked Brown if he wished to retire.

No, Brown said.

Of course, the regents should have instantly fired Brown, paid him off a relatively small settlement — now $2.75 million, though he is owed $40 million through 2020 — and brought in Saban then to start the reclamation process. Saban has had those straying impulses throughout his career, leaving Michigan State for LSU, LSU for the Miami Dolphins and then, after rejecting Drew Brees as a free agent and struggling in the NFL, escaping to Alabama. But you’ve got to nail him down quickly. The GOBs chose to have lunch with the guy they’re trying to dump, then let him decide his own future.

Some might call it loyalty.

I’d call it foolishness.

But here are the regents again, forcing out Brown this week, ready to dump university present Bill Powers in the same swoop and looking to mount a football power takeover by throwing $10 million annually at Saban. What specifically is the “special pressure” that Tom Hicks mentioned in the e-mail? That would be the intense scrutiny of coaching at Alabama, which only has intensified after the crushing loss to the bitter cross-state rival. There also may be more than smoke in a Yahoo! Sports report, which alleges that five SEC players, including former Alabama All-American tackle D.J. Fluker, received impermissible benefits during their college careers, and that another ex-Alabama player, Luther Davis, acted as an intermediary for agents and arranged for Fluker to receive illegal gifts. It’s quite possible the NCAA — immersed in its own enforcement and organizational troubles and run by Saban’s close friend, Mark Emmert — has no interest in busting college football’s hallmark program of the 21st century. Still, if Saban was itchy last January, why wouldn’t he be now?

The only hitch is the Longhorn Network. Do you really think he wants any part of ESPN’s reality show? But compared to the Alabama microscope, a religion bordering on psychosis, old Nick might not mind being college football’s version of a Kardashian.