Welcome to Johnny Football vs. Nickie Hardass. Or, in the parlance that is college football in the modern day, a cultural collision between the authority-trashing, money-grabbing, gesture-making, LeBron-texting, alcohol-counseled, touchdown-maniacal, party-till-it’s-on-Twitter rap rebel and the old-school authoritarian who dog-whips the media, embraces a “process,” usually looks constipated, demands a yes-sir mentality from players and has won three of the last four national championships with a strict foundation of old-school principles and mean-dad fear tactics.
This is the crotchety man with the garden hose, telling the punk to get off his front yard and enlist in the Marines.
Somehow, we’ve come to love and hate them both.
All you need to absorb about this too-classic-for-September generational mashup is that George H.W. Bush — the very old Bush — likes Johnny Manziel … while Charles Barkley can’t stand him. This is what Charles, proud alum of Alabama-rival Auburn and a Manziel-like troublemaker much of his life, said in an ESPN Radio interview about Texas A&M’s quarterbacking pinball: “Johnny Manziel, he’s doing something I never thought was possible. He’s going to make me root for Alabama this weekend. I never thought I would say those words. I am so close to saying `Roll Tide.’ Johnny Manziel is annoying me so much.
“Johnny Manziel, oh my God, the only thing saving Manziel is Miley Cyrus. I just think that Johnny Manziel has done a lot of stupid stuff in the last three or four months.”
Yeah, you could say he has. About the only thing he hasn’t done is twerk, and that could be coming any night now, including last night. After an offseason of round-the-world clubbing and celeb-schmoozing, Manziel managed to draw even more attention with an autographs-for-pay scandal, getting away with it when the suddenly feeble NCAA cried uncle and stopped its “investigation” after about three weeks. Rather than tip-toeing away and feeling fortunate to escape with a 30-minute suspension, Johnny Jackass spent his first game rubbing his fingers and thumb together — the universal sign of money — and annoying many more people than Barkley. Recalling how his worried father wondered if he’d crash and burn, we seriously wondered if Manziel would make it to this day in College Station.
He has. Which sets up the best story line in eons for a regular-season college game: Can he re-enact last year’s demonstration of “yard ball” — Saban’s term for Manziel’s thrilling ad-lib, dash-and-pass skills in a 29-24 upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa — or will Saban, with eight months to prepare his revenge game plan, do what he normally does in a rematch and win handily? The game, certainly, means more to Johnny Football. He has reached an early crossroads in his career, the point where he has to keep making a pathway in history and prove he’s not just a fad. If he beats Saban and Alabama again, he will have demonstrated he can overcome a rock-star existence in the social media age and topple what might be the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history, which would push Texas A&M into national-title contention and possibly lead Manziel to a second Heisman Trophy. If he loses? He’ll fade back into the pack as other college stars — Tajh Boyd, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston and, of course, Alabama’s AJ McCarron — grab the national spotlight. Down yonder in Kyle FIeld, where he’ll be followed non-stop by CBS’ “Johnny Cam,” Manziel can grow his legend to unprecedented collegiate heights.
His teammates, who love him, are expecting just that. “Last year the Alabama game was a stage for the whole world to see what kind of player he is,” running back Ben Malena said. “He deserved it along with this team, to be put on a stage to show what we can do and what he can do. I think this Saturday is another similar stage and the world is going to see how much better and how much more he has progressed along with the whole team.”
Better? Not if Saban, disrupter of dreams and upstarts, can have his way. If there’s a knock on what he has accomplished at Alabama, it’s how he has been burned by athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks who chop up his traditional physical defense. As we’ve discovered with much celebration over the last year, read-option, high-tempo, spread-style speed offenses not only are all the rage, they’re the basis of a revolution about to become the new football normal. The stars of the NFL at the moment are Colin Kaepernick and Chip Kelly. The stars of college football these days are Johnny Football and Whoever Replaced Kelly at Oregon. It is 2013. Can Nick Saban, coach-groomed in the 1970s in the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler Midwest, reach back and find a way to slow down the scrambling, irascible Johnny Football? He already has spelled out the cardinal rule.
“I told our players, there’s a lot of NFL games on Sunday,” Saban told the media. “If you want to watch the quarterback, go watch those games. But if you start watching this guy in our game, you’re going to get busted, and it happened last year. He’ll (run) if he needs to, and he’s very instinctive when he should and shouldn’t. He does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield so when he does scramble he can find people that are open and receivers do a really good job in how they adjust their routes relative to how he scrambles. The guy is going to make plays. I think what you try to do, though, is don’t allow him to make plays because of what you did incorrectly on defense.”
It isn’t often when Nicky Hardass is that complimentary of a foe, especially one who shocked and awed Alabama last season. Though Manziel wouldn’t last two seconds in his camp, Saban is an admirer. “I haven’t seen him get rattled. I really haven’t,” he said. “Regardless of any other circumstance that goes on around him, when he’s playing on the field, he’s doing everything he can to help his team win, and he is a fierce competitor.”
Be certain that no Alabama player will engage Manziel in trash-talk, as Rice did and others will this season. All that does is pump him up. “Never take your eyes off your man, or the minute you do he’ll be somewhere else and throw the ball 40 or 50 yards,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “It’s very important you stay locked in on your keys and assignments. When he takes off running, you’re thinking, `Maybe I can go get him,’ and the next thing you know he’s throwing it to your guy. He’s an amazing quarterback.”
Equilibrium is going to win this game. Yahoo! Sports, which conducts investigations better than the NCAA, rattled Alabama days before the game with allegations that former Crimson Tide All-American D.J. Fluker, now with the San Diego Chargers, was one of five SEC players to receive impermissible benefits. According to the report, another former Alabama player, Luther Davis, acted as an intermediary between the players and several NFL agents. Obviously, as Saban has said often, agents are vultures who can sabotage a program — in this case, if the NCAA is still serious about rules enforcement, Alabama conceivably might have to vacate a national championship or two.
At first, Saban kept his cool, saying he hadn’t read the piece. “I say from an administrative standpoint and a compliance standpoint, our people here do a fantastic job,” he said. “I know we have one of the best agent education programs in terms of what we try to do to help our players make good choices and decisions about what they do and what they don’t do when it comes to agents. I have full confidence in our leadership. We’re going to do whatever we need to do to handle the situation appropriately, and I know that we will. I don’t know anything about any current players that would have any circumstances relative to this. So there’s no sense in asking about that.
“For as high profile players as we’ve had around here, I’m really pleased with the way most of them, for the most part, have managed their circumstances and situations and focused on what they’ve needed to do for the University of Alabama.”
But when the subject turned to how long Alabama has known about the Fluker-related allegations, Saban’s mood went sour and his voice boomed through the state he owns. “You want to know that, ask (athletic director Bill Battle), all right? We’ve done a lot of investigations here about a lot of things,” he said. “Whenever somebody brings something up, we investigate it. There’s nobody in this organization that wants to do anything not above board, and we don’t want our players to do it either. That’s not what our program is built on. I made a statement. Don’t ask me any more questions about this.
“This hasn’t been a distraction for me. We have good people to manage this, and if people didn’t do the right things, we’ll take the appropriate action to take care of it.”
Then he asked the media to pose questions only related to the game. If that was rather rude of him, such is the control freakdom that defines Nick Saban. It makes him a dislikable guy at times, but come Saturday in College Station, there’s no coach I’d rather have attempting to extend a dynasty at the expense of Johnny Football’s bratty legacy. Boyd, the Clemson quarterback, is one of the few who don’t like Alabama to win. “Honestly? I got A&M,” he told reporters. “A lot of people say Saban won’t be beat twice; it’s at A&M. it’s going to be a competitive game. It’s going to be a fun game.”
Most of all, it’s going to be a comeuppance game.
And Alabama, assuredly, won’t be doing the money-grab rub when it’s over.