January 6, 2010

Single-minded Saban chases immortality

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - Kickoff for the 2010 BCS title game is a little more than 24 hours away, and the only thing missing from Nick Saban's game face are smears of eye black.

And the only thing tighter than the smile he is forcing as he faces the media for the last time is the knot in his tie.

Relax, Nick. The suffering is almost over. This is the last time you'll be asked silly questions about Texas' kickoff return game, your backup quarterback and your hoarse voice.

"Is anybody having trouble understanding me?" Saban said. "Just trying to project a positive image. It's something called allergies, you know?"

Count on Saban being in full-throat, drill sergeant form Thursday night when Alabama meets Texas in the BCS title game. There's a lot on the line, besides the Crimson Tides's quest for their first national title since 1992 and the SEC's fourth crown in a row.

For Saban, this one is for icon status.

"He's driven," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He works very hard. His teams are very disciplined. They're well coached, and he wins at everything he touches. I just think when you see what he does, you just admire he way he handles his business, the way he runs his program. He's in charge. He's confident, and his teams play like that."

Saban is too wound up and worried about "clutter," "objectives" and "focus" to contemplate his place in the pantheon of college football history. It's all about what's sitting two inches from his nose at this moment that matters.

The future? His legacy? Forget it. Saban is trying to figure out how to squeeze two more inches out of his off-tackle trap play in the red zone.

But if Saban leads Alabama to a win over the Longhorns, he will stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest college football coaches ever.

So, Saban is playing for more than the national championship. He's playing for immortality. He's playing to be dipped in bronze and placed alongside the four other Alabama coaching statues that stand sentinel near Bryant-Denny Stadium: Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings.

What does that quartet they have in common? They all won national championships. Ironically, there is an empty spot reserved next to that foursome for the next statue of the coach who leads Alabama to a national title.

Saban already has one national championship, leading LSU to the title in 2003. If Saban beats Texas, he will be the first coach to win national championships at two schools.

No, Saban won't have the most wins of any coach. He won't have the most national championships. He won't have the most NFL draft picks. He won't have the most coach of the year awards. But Saban's star will be every bit as bright as other coaching greats with a second national crown in seven years at another school.

Will this be Saban's last stand? He looks 38 years old but he's 58 and may not have another move left in him. But take note: Saban's shelf life has been short at his various stops.

One year at Toledo.

Five years at Michigan State.

Five years at LSU.

Two years with the Miami Dolphins.

And he's in his third year with Alabama.

So, if that pattern holds true, Saban may not be in Tuscaloosa too much longer.

It appears that his hard-driving ways and the maniacal message about effort, toughness, discipline, pride and commitment he delivers with blowtorch force grows stale after hearing it 13,428 times.

But where else would Saban go?

The NFL? Not likely after the way he unceremoniously dumped the Dolphins after a 15-17 two-year run from 2005-06.

Another college? What school is going to top what he has at Alabama? Notre Dame? Penn State? Alabama is the New York Yankees/Dallas Cowboys/Los Angeles Lakers of college football. Saban has everything he needs to keep piling up the plaudits.

Bryant-Denny is being expanded to seat 101,000 seats. The football complex glistens and glimmers. The fan loyalty and rabidness is unparalleled. And money? There are Hefty sack fulls for Saban and his staff.

There really isn't anywhere else for him to go. Once he opts to leave Alabama, Saban may ride off to his vacation home on Lake Burton in Northeast Georgia and never be heard from again.

Or, maybe one day, we'll see Saban working as an analyst. True, he isn't a big fan of the media. But neither was Bobby Knight. Now, at this very moment, Saban's agony in front of the media is about to end.

"I know somebody is going to ask me what do you do different to get ready for this game," Saban said. "So, before you do, I'm going to ask you what do you do different to cover the game?"

We'll take it one keystroke at a time as we prepare potentially to watch you make history.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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