Joe Medley commentary: Nick Saban has chance to adapt like Bear Bryant

January 14, 2014 

BCS Championship Football

Alabama head coach Nick Saban smiles during a T.V. spot at the Rose Bowl before the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game between Auburn and Florida State Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

DAVID J. PHILLIP — AP

Nick Saban has resisted comparisons to Bear Bryant, even as the current Alabama coach's accomplishments have warranted such conversations.

One point Saban often raises is his relatively short time at Alabama and how Bryant adapted, winning championships through his and college football's incarnations through a 25-year reign.

Saban isn't the sort to chase narratives, but his recent words and actions indicate that he sees himself at a Bryant-like crossroads. The college game is changing, and he believes he must change with it.

If his calling the Crimson Tide's state of affairs 2007 all over again didn't give it away, then his staff changes should.

And if that's not enough, how about the poster now hanging above the locker of every Alabama player: "If you continue to do the same thing you have always done, you will get the same results."

Below those black letters are two lines, in crimson letters: "Guaranteed. 0-2."

The bottom line refers back to the top of the poster, which shows the scores of Alabama's two losses in the 2013 season, to Auburn and Oklahoma. Those two losses to end the season left the Crimson Tide at 11-2 and without so much as a division title to show for a season that saw Alabama hold the nation's top ranking from preseason until after the Iron Bowl.

No SEC title.

No fourth national title in five years.

No three-peat … just a repeat of that 2010 feeling with a different message.

Alabama is beyond "never again," the words used to motivate Tide players after 2010. The Tide went from being an undefeated national champion in 2009 to losing three regular-season games in 2010, and Saban sent a message: get back to what made a championship happen.

His message now? We must change.

Saban is pursuing change boldly, spending capital he earned with three national titles in seven seasons at Alabama. After he and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier parted ways, Saban made the controversial hire of Lane Kiffin.

Saban also hired back Bo Davis to coach defensive line after Chris Rumph made a lateral move to Texas, and there has been talk of other staff changes.

Meanwhile, a handful of non-senior players have declared for the NFL draft or reportedly will, four on defense. They will leave with a highly accomplished, 16-member senior class that includes AJ McCarron, Alabama's starting quarterback for three seasons and two national titles.

Player attrition maximizes the chance for change, but motivation for change is clear. Losses to Auburn and Oklahoma also offer hints to the shape of change.

As fast-paced, spread offenses grow more prevalent among teams Alabama will or could face on the path to a national title, Saban wants his team better able to slow them down or outscore them.

He tried it with the program he had. Knowing that Alabama would face seven such teams in 2013, he and his staff spent the offseason studying. They brought in NFL people for idea sessions.

Some of those seven pace/spread teams didn't have the athletes to challenge Alabama, but the Tide lost to Auburn and Oklahoma. Thanks partly to Texas A&M's pathetic defense, Alabama hung on despite a vintage Johnny Manziel performance in College Station.

It's hard to see Saban trying to beat them by joining them. That would take too much of a departure, but he's trying to adapt his program. He wants to make it more nimble.

If the 62-year-old Saban can do it quickly -- and Alabama's talent level would seem to make that possible -- then strike one Saban argument against Bryant comparisons.

-- Joe Medley is a sports columnist for the Anniston Star. He can be reached at jmedley@annistonstar.com.

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