Commentary: Alabama football coach Saban manages expectations

gclegg@ledger-enquirer.comMay 12, 2009 

Alabama’s affinity for winning national championships — some would say obsession — has been well documented. The Crimson Tide’s most recent national title, in 1992, did more to whet the fans’ appetite for a return to glory than it did sate their hunger from the famine of the post Bear Bryant years.

As I’ve written a number of times before, most Bama fans take the Smith-Barney approach. They measure success one national championship at a time.

Nick Saban — the $4 million a year coach hired to restore world order — insists otherwise.

“It’s no different. It really isn’t,” said Saban, who was in town Monday night to address the Columbus Quarterback Club. “Every place wants to be successful. Everybody wants to win.”

Yet, the more Saban elaborated to make his point, the more he confirmed the undeniable fact: Expectations at Alabama are off the charts compared to those everywhere else.

“Because we have a lot of passion at our place and a lot of tradition and a very high standard of excellence — which I wouldn’t want to coach at any place that didn’t have high expectation for what they wanted to accomplish — sometimes that has to be managed so that we are realistic in our approach and we do have some appreciation for who we are — the character, the attitude, the kind of competitive spirit we have as a team, and there’s some appreciation we have for that and not just, ‘Did you win the national championship or not’ because it’s a lot more difficult to win a national championship than it used to be.”

Case in point was last season. Alabama finished the regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1 before facing Florida in the SEC championship game.

“In some years, that wins you the national championship,” Saban said. “Now you have to play in the SEC championship game, then you have to go play in the national championship game. So it’s a little more difficult. You have to have the knowledge and experience and competitive spirit to be able to play with consistency against that competition, which we love and it’s a great challenge, but it’s a little more difficult to accomplish.”

Tempering expectations wasn’t a problem in Saban’s first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Mediocrity had become the norm, if not the standard. Just beating Auburn again and being nationally relevant was a more realistic and immediate goal. No one reasonably expected the Tide to do much more than that until Saban could put together three or four solid recruiting classes.

But after last season’s stunning success, expectations of competing for the national championship will be hard to suppress. Never mind that much of the offense — the quarterback, running back and most of the line — has to be retooled.

“As a coach, I want our team to play the best possible football we can play,” he said. “We’re more focused on what we need do to be the best team we can be and to get everybody on our team to playing to their full capabilities, full potential, do it on a consistent basis, be relentless competitors, have great intangibles, team togetherness, play with great effort and toughness so that other teams don’t want to play you.

“We’re not results oriented. We’re process oriented,” he added. “I don’t want external factors to affect our players. Sometimes expectations can do that because you’re focused on the wrong thing. You’re not focused on what you need to do to be a good player. You’re focused on the result, and then you don’t do the things you need to do to get the results. That’s the world we try to stay in.”

The reality is the Tide likely is another year or two away from consistently contending for a national championship. But they will get there soon enough.

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