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A new-look Alabama Crimson Tide, the same old Nick Saban

Nick Saban knows you want to know what he thinks. About the prospect of COVID-19 disrupting another college football season. Name, image and likeness rights for college athletes. The revolving door on the transfer portal thanks to the one-time free transfer rule.

Winning a poll-era record seven national championships, six of the past 12, including the 2020 title, has earned the Alabama football coach a bully pulpit. It’s also earned him the right to admit he knows what he doesn’t know.

“I know there’s a lot of interest in a lot of those things,” Saban said Wednesday at SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel. “I almost feel that anything that I say will probably be wrong because there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of the things that we are creating, whether they’re good opportunities, even if they’re good opportunities, there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of these things are going to create, whether they’re good or bad.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban talks NIL, vacationing, sustaining success and a past SEC Media Days memory from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The more college football changes, the more Saban and Alabama adapt to those changes and keep winning. They went undefeated to capture the 2020 national championship despite COVID disruptions such as Saban himself missing the Iron Bowl because he tested positive for the virus, and two games being rescheduled.

Saban explained how Alabama has handled the subject of vaccinations for the disease with its players heading into this season. He broke it down into “a personal decision” for each player and “a competitive decision” on how that choice could affect the team.

How has that approach worked to date?

“I think that we’re pretty close to 90 percent maybe of our players who have gotten the vaccine,” Saban said, “and I’m hopeful that more players make that decision – but it is their decision.”

Speaking a day earlier at a Texas high school coaching convention, Saban weighed in on the newest phenomenon affecting college athletics, NIL rights. He dropped a nugget that Alabama’s heir apparent at quarterback, sophomore Bryce Young, has earned almost a million dollars in endorsements. Saban didn’t expound on Young’s earning power Wednesday but applauded the opportunity for players to make money.

He also questioned the impact that a disparity in NIL earnings could have on the roster “because it’s not going to be equal, and everything that we’ve done in college athletics in the past has always been equal. Everybody’s had an equal scholarship, equal opportunity.”

“Now that’s probably not going to be the case. Some positions, some players will have more opportunities than others. And how that’s going to impact your team, our team, the players on the team, I really can’t answer because we don’t have any precedent for it.

“I know that we’re doing the best we can to try to get our players to understand the circumstance they’re in, the opportunity they have, and how those opportunities are not going to be equal for everybody, and it will be important for our team’s success that people are not looking over their shoulder at what somebody else does or doesn’t do.”

What Alabama does in trying to compete for another championship without 10 NFL draft picks from last year’s team, six of whom were selected in the first round, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, will reflect the program’s ability to adapt to the new era of college football “free agency.” Tennessee transfer linebacker Henry To’oTo’o, a potential “quarterback-type guy on defense” in Saban’s words, is one of the newcomers expected to make an immediate impact on a team that will start the season in a much different place than last season.

With eight new starters on offense and a new offensive coordinator and play-caller in former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien, the experience this time around is on defense. Just the same, Saban said, after setting school records last season with 48.5 points and 541.6 yards a game, “we’re not changing offenses.”

“We’ve got a good offense,” he said. “We’ve got a good system. We’ve got a good philosophy. Bill has certainly added to that in a positive way, and we’ll probably continue to make some changes. But from a terminology standpoint, from a player standpoint in our building, our offense was very, very productive, and we want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players that we have who are playmakers who can make plays, and I think Bill will do a good job of that.”

So as a new season awaits, Saban and Alabama find themselves in a familiar place in a new world, trying to defend a national championship with a new cast of featured players and assistant coaches. Saban called it “the penalty for success.”

“The challenge is you’ve got to rebuild with a lot of new players who will be younger, have new roles, less experience, and how do they respond to these new roles? That’s why rebuilding is a tremendous challenge,” Saban said. “That’s why it’s very difficult to repeat.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban speaks at SEC Media Days 2021 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Saban, who has won back-to-back national championships just once in 2011 and 2012, is heading into his 15th season at Alabama, his 20th in the SEC, including his five years at LSU. The SEC coach next in line in seniority is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who’s entering his ninth year. Eight of the league’s head coaches are in their first or second year.

Someone asked Saban the secret to his longevity.

“I think that’s simple,” he said. “You’ve got to win.”

Mission accomplished. Again and again and again.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)