As Saban Pads His Kingdom, Texas Starts Anew
He is suffocated by his own success and stuck with a perpetual snarl on his face. So, why would Nick Saban stay at Alabama? Why wouldn’t he flee his creation, his monster, where expectations are so preposterously high that only a national championship is satisfying to his constituency and where his kicker received so many death threats after the crushing Auburn defeat that George Bush — Dubya, the 43rd president — sent a supportive note to Cade Foster, who wore No. 43 for the Crimson Tide?
I can tell you why. Not once, in his seven years in Tuscaloosa, has Saban sat down and talked with the president of the Red Elephant Club. It’s one of the largest Alabama booster organizations, yet the head coach wants no part of even a conversation with the man, who must deal with the snub. It speaks to Saban’s hermetically sealed power as the almighty dictator of his program. He must be in complete control of the operation, down to the most punctilious detail, and one of his self-doctrines is that he doesn’t suffer fools.
Texas, as you’ve noticed, has many fools.
In the past week alone, with Mack Brown twisting in the Austin dust before finally resigning under intense prodding, we’ve seen a political tornado as counterproductive as it is headache-inducing. The president of the University of Texas, Bill Powers, doesn’t get along with the chancellor of the greater university system, Francisco Cigarroa, a rift that nearly led to Powers’ ouster at a meeting of UT regents Thursday. But when Powers was given a tenuous boost by Cigarroa after the meeting, it meant Brown, a Powers guy, might have a chance of remaining as coach and CEO of the underachieving Texas football program, even while anti-Powers regents were trying to orchestrate Brown’s resignation and hoping to negotiate a lucrative deal with Saban. In the middle of it all is Gov. Rick Perry — a former yell leader at Texas A&M, of all places — whose future vision of this massive university and athletic factory clashes with Powers’ pursuits. Then there’s Wallace Hall, one of the regents who launched the original Saban courtship process last January, who is facing impeachment. WIth so much swirling, it was no surprise that Brown saw the divisions and had no choice but to quit. The pressure on the football program is excruciating, coming not only from frustrated politicos and good-old-boys but from ESPN executives, who invested $250 million into a 24/7 TV project called the Longhorn Network and are demanding a nationally promiment football program for ratings traction.
Do you really think Nick Saban, autonomy freak, wants any part of this chicken-fried circus?
Very late Friday night — which, by no coincidence, is when the national news cycle has slowed for the weekend — Saban and Alabama announced that he has agreed to yet another long-term contract. The deal, according to the Tuscaloosa News, will pay him between $7 million and $7.5 million a year, making him by far the highest-paid coach in college football and among the highest on any level in the American coaching profession. Yes, he and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, seriously considered Texas. Yes, Saban and his all-influential wife, Terry, are frustrated that his three-championship dynasty is sometimes underappreciated in Alabama, where Saban actually scolded students for leaving games early; apparently, cell-phone reception isn’t top-quality inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, and BFFs are more important to some kids than AJ McCarron’s completion percentage. But in the end, the Sabans realized they have everything they need in Tuscaloosa — and that other places have hassles they don’t need.
The new contract is through 2020. From this point on, we have to believe St. Nick when he says he’s staying for good.
“We are very pleased to have this agreement completed,” Saban said in a statement. “Terry and our family are very happy in Tuscaloosa. It has become home to us. This agreement allows us to continue to build on the tremendous success that we have enjoyed to this point — successes that have transcended the football field. We are excited about the future and the University of Alabama is where I plan to end my coaching career.”
Saban claimed he had no interest in the Texas job, telling ESPN.com, “The way this sort of got spun, it was a little bit more like, ‘OK, he got a new contract at Alabama, so he’s going to stay at Alabama instead of going to Texas.’ I never considered going to Texas. That wasn’t even a conversation. I knew that if Mack stepped down, there would probably be an opportunity, but it wasn’t something I was interested in doing, not at this stage in my career …It wasn’t fair to (Brown) or to me to be speculating about this job, which I haven’t talked to anybody there about. Really, the whole thing from my perspective stunk, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do about it.” Of course, this is Nick Saban talking, the Pinocchio who once told us he wouldn’t leave Michigan State before leaving for LSU and wouldn’t leave the Miami Dolphins before leaving for Alabama.
Nor should it be forgotten that Saban and Sexton initiated the Texas talks last winter after the third national title of Saban’s Crimson reign. There was interest in college football’s sleeping giant, but closer to the point, every conversation Saban has about another job forges more leverage for him in Tuscaloosa. In his paradigm, which he describes as “the process,” he needs every piece of ammunition necessary to hone his recruiting machine and perpetuate the program’s raging success. Securing a deal through 2020 — at an annual salary exceeded only by Sean Payton, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid in the American coaching profession — cements his vice grip.
“This agreement is a strong indication of our mutual commitment to building on the foundation he has established,” said Bill Battle, the Alabama athletic director.
When Saban says he’s “too damn old to go someplace else and start over,” he means it at 62. When he hears talk that Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is ready to mount a state takeover, Saban says bring it on. “I’m not really at the stage of my career where I’m looking for some other big sort of challenge,” he said on his radio show recently. “We’ve got enough challenges right here to try to work with the players we recruited and continue to have a successful program for their personal, academic and athletic success.”
He added Saturday, to ESPN.com: “I don’t want to go someplace else. I don’t know how many times I can say that. Maybe this will be what the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay thing was to the NFL the last couple of years. That kind of ended the pro speculation. Maybe this will end the college speculation. This is where I’m going to finish my coaching career.”
Do not underestimate his wife’s clout in these decisions. Miss Terry, as she is called by her husband and everyone else in Alabama, seems to steer the program as much as he does. And to think they’ve been together since they were teens in West Virginia, where they met at a science fair. “I know Miss Terry well enough. She runs that house,” McCarron told ESPN the other day. “And she’s not allowing Coach to leave either. I think he’ll be at the University of Alabama for a little while.”
The same can’t be said for Brown. College football remains a dangerous and dirty business, and in the nation’s wealthiest athletic program — a $161.9-million budget in 2012, with the football program producing $103 million in total revenue and $79 million in net income — Brown had produced three straight mediocre seasons. He was 30-20 since losing the 2009 national title game to Saban and Alabama and won only one distant national title (2005) in his 16 years. He and his wife, Sally, were allowed the dignity to announce his resignation in a statement.
“Sally and I were brought to Texas 16 years ago to pull together a football program that was divided. With a lot of passion, hard work and determination from the kids, coaches and staff, we did that. We built a strong football family, reached great heights and accomplished a lot, and for that, I thank everyone. It’s been a wonderful ride,” Brown said. “Now, the program is again being pulled in different directions, and I think the time is right for a change. I love The University of Texas, all of its supporters, the great fans and everyone that played and coached here.
“It is the best coaching job and the premier football program in America. I sincerely want it to get back to the top and that’s why I am stepping down after the bowl game. I hope with some new energy, we can get this thing rolling again.”
Without Saban in the picture, the odds of landing a top-of-the-craft candidate dwindle a bit. When you hear a dropped name such as 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who has built an impressive NFL program and has a new stadium coming in San Francisco, please consider that he, too, is angling for leverage in his own building. Having taken the giant step to force out Brown, Texas needs a whopper hire. But who?
It won’t be anyone with the mystique of Nick Saban, who prefers life at Alabama over Longhorn lunacy. Perhaps the good old boys will take it as a hint that championships are won on sod, not in knee-deep b.s.