tampabay.com

Another new beginning

Alabama coach Nick Saban knows what is expected in his first year.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published July 27, 2007


HOOVER, Ala. - To many, Alabama coach Nick Saban is the face of much that's wrong with college football - the man with the outlandish $4-million annual salary, who talks around the truth and jumps ship whenever it suits him best from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama within a three-year period.

He is the only person on the cover of Alabama's media guide, lending credence to the notion he's all about himself, not the game.

But as Saban revealed during an introspective moment Thursday, in many ways he still feels like the little boy who began pumping gas as a 10-year-old in rural Fairmont, W.Va., for $1 an hour, continued until his high school graduation, and for years worked for nearly nothing just to be a part of the coaching profession.

Misunderstood? Perhaps. A little full of himself? Sometimes.

"My wife says I have a huge blind spot," said Saban who 106-59-1 in 13 seasons with Toledo, Michigan State and LSU. "What you think you are compared to how you're perceived to be. She said mine is as wide as the Grand Canyon."

Three years after he left the league for the NFL, Saban returned to SEC Media Days trying to narrow that canyon and promising he'll do everything he can to bring back the glory to Alabama football.

And judging by the crowd that gathered in the hotel lobby for a glimpse of Saban and a possible autograph, Alabama fans are putting a lot of stock in the 56-year-old coach as the Tide's savior.

"Alabama has been kind of down and kind of asleep for a few years because of a number of reasons, whether it be NCAA probation or we're firing coaches every two or three years," said Kenny Stabler, the former Tide and NFL quarterback who is now a color analyst for the Crimson Tide Sport radio network. "There was no stability. I think he brings some stability, and something feels good about that. I think he wants to be here, I think he's here long term. I think he's going to try to win a championship as hard as he can. I see him doing some good things."

At a place where football is like a religion, Saban is trying to keep fans as realistic as possible, but is well aware of the growing outside expectations.

"We would not want to coach someplace where they didn't expect to win," he said.

Though he has spent much of the time since he was hired sparring with the Alabama media and deflecting accusations of improprieties (often by other coaches), his players say he's a welcome change.

"He is fiery, but he is also genuine," center Antoine Caldwell said. "If you have a problem, you can go to him and he will sit down with you in his office and talk to you. He comes off as intense, and he is on the field, but he is really genuine."

And Saban wasted no time proving that his reputation as one of the best defensive coaches in the nation is well-earned.

"I've been playing defensive back for a long time, but it's amazing how much he taught me in just one spring," senior Simeon Castille said.

In his defense, Saban said he never wanted to be the media guide's cover boy, and points out he took a pay cut to go to Tuscaloosa. When it's all said and done, he hopes the outside world will see Alabama as a winner once again and Saban as the humble young man who started coaching as a poor graduate assistant at Kent State in 1973.

"To me, I'm still that way, but maybe sometimes I don't realize that," Saban said. "Sometimes, the things I say mean a lot more than what I would intend them to be. Sometimes, because I'm a little bit shy, maybe that's misinterpreted as not being very outgoing. But I try my best, and I'm getting better and I'm trying to improve every day."

So is Alabama.

Antonya English can be reached at English@sptimes.com For more on SEC Media Days, go to blogs.tampabay.com/gators/