Thursday April 10th, 2008

At Alabama, even the architecture applies pressure to the head football coach. In the plaza outside the north end zone at Bryant-Denny Stadium, there are four bronze statues. One is a 150 percent-scale replica of Wallace Wade wearing a three-piece suit. Another is of Frank Thomas in a warm-up jacket. Then there's Paul Bryant -- only out-of-towners call him Bear -- wearing his iconic hat and squeezing a play sheet in his right hand. Finally, there's Gene Stallings wearing his wing-tips. Around each coach is a concrete ring detailing each year he led the Crimson Tide to a national title. Now look past Stallings. There's another ring, bare but for a fuse box buried in the ground.

That ring is reserved for the next coach who leads Alabama to the national title.

Nick Saban has gazed upon those statues and upon that empty ring, but he has not pondered their metaphorical significance. He does not feel the pressure from a fan base spoiled by decades of success and then starved by a decade of bungling. He knows how badly those fans yearn for a title. He knows they want him to deliver Alabama's program back to its rightful place among the lords of college football, but he understands that may take longer than they are willing to tolerate.

Of course the fans want championships. More than 90,000 of them came to Saban's first spring game, and they may pack Bryant-Denny again for Saturday's A-Day Game. The boosters who helped foot the bill for his $4 million annual salary want results. Since Stallings retired after the 1996 season, they've suffered through four other head coaches, NCAA probation and a 74-61 overall record. Yet none of it seems to affect Saban.

"External pressure has never been something that's ..." Saban says, his voice trailing off before picking up again. "I want to be good because I want to be the best."

And that's why Saban may be the only man who can handle the Alabama job.

Think about it. Until Bobby Petrino pulled a vanishing act on the Atlanta Falcons late last year and reappeared at Arkansas, no coach had inspired so much venom. Saban, then coach of the Miami Dolphins, famously said "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach" less than two weeks before he was introduced as the Alabama coach. Because of that, he was branded a liar and a quitter. In South Florida, they called him Nick Satan. LSU fans, furious their former coach would dare accept a job at a SEC division rival, blasted the "Nicktator." Never mind that on the day Saban was introduced as Alabama's coach, Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga told The Associated Press: "I'm not upset, because it's more involved than what you think."

In media reports, stories described Saban's sometimes tyrannical treatment of his coaching staff. Saban would say later that such portrayals bruised him, but that seems difficult to believe, because Saban seems so consumed by the process of reviving Alabama's program that he has neither the time nor the energy to concern himself with his public image. That's why he's perfect for Alabama. If the Tide coach truly worried about every word written or spoken about him by sportswriters, radio talkers and fans, he'd leave town in a heartbeat, just as Dennis Franchione did after the 2002 season.

Like Saban, Alabama fans have been painted with too broad a brush. They don't all live in the past. They don't all pine for a coach who eats his breakfasts at the Waysider, who wears a houndstooth hat and who munches Golden Flake potato chips while growling through the highlights of the past game. Saban doesn't have to be Bryant reincarnated. College football's most passionate fans want only one thing from their coach -- to win right now.

Saban, the architect of the LSU's 2003 BCS title team, believes championships -- be they division, conference or national -- come only after a team throws itself headlong into the winning process. Teams only change, Saban explains, when players change. A team of elite athletes who strive for perfection in every aspect of their lives can win a championship, but that can't happen until enough elite athletes buy into the process.

"We live in a very result-oriented world now," he says. "Everybody talks about instant instant coffee, instant tea, instant self-gratification, instant everything. Because of that, these kids grow up a little bit more result-oriented. You know, 'I want to catch 50 passes' as opposed to 'What do I need to do to catch 50 passes?' But when they don't catch 50 passes, they're very frustrated. Their whole motivation is toward the reward."

Saban's mission is two-pronged. First, he must make current Crimson Tide players embrace the process instead of the result. Second, he must stock his roster with players talented enough to produce the desired result. When Saban took over at LSU in 2000, he inherited a team that had gone 3-8 the previous season. He also knew he sat on a goldmine of raw athleticism with no in-state competition for players. That sped up the timetable for improvement, and Saban won the SEC title in his second season.

The state of Alabama typically produces fewer elite players than Louisiana, and Saban must fight Auburn -- the winner of the past six Iron Bowls -- for every one. The state produced a bumper crop this year, and Saban picked most of them. He signed receiver Julio Jones from Foley, linebacker Jerrell Harris from Gadsden and offensive tackle Tyler Love from Birmingham. When the fax machine stopped humming, Saban had assembled a class ranked the nation's best by several recruiting services, and he's already enjoying interest from current juniors. (During a half-hour interview last week, two recruits from the Class of 2009 called Saban's office to chat.) Of course, that only increases the expectation that this season, Alabama will re-establish itself as a national power with the help of its fine freshman class.

"They're going to put a lot of pressure on themselves, because there's been a lot of expectations created for them," Saban says. "That's the thing we try to get them not to worry about. We just want you to be who you are."

The youngsters will get that same message from Alabama's veterans, who now grasp what Saban wants from them. Antoine Caldwell, now entering his fourth season as the Tide's starting center, explained the gap in perception on opposite sides of the locker room wall.

"That's something you've got to understand about Alabama football," Caldwell says. "There's no pro team. There's the tradition here. Fans are always optimistic -- probably past the point they should be. But that's what's important for us to go out there and realize. We've got to put in the work."

They also must meet Saban's expectations off the field. Since Saban arrived, eight players have been arrested, including five for disorderly conduct near Tuscaloosa bars. Of those five, the arrest of safety Rashad Johnson, a team captain, on Feb. 23 received the most attention. Johnson was accused of pushing a bouncer days after freshman defensive tackle Jeremy Elder was arrested and accused of robbing two students of $26 at gunpoint. Elder was dismissed from the team. Johnson wasn't suspended, and police dropped the charge in return for 40 hours of community service and a statement from Johnson supporting the Tuscaloosa Police Department's "attempts to maintain public safety." All the while, Auburn fans bought "Parole Tide" T-shirts by the dozens.

After Johnson's arrest, several players, including Caldwell and quarterback John Parker Wilson, huddled and banned teammates from the strip of bars where several players had been arrested. Though the Tide merely kept pace in the off-field issue department with SEC rivals such as Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi State, the players hope to eliminate any future embarrassment. "We decided it was best for everybody to stay out of there because so many problems had been associated with it," Wilson says. "If kids on the same team keep getting in trouble, then obviously something's not right."

Tide players also must correct the glaring on-field issues that caused them to lose six games by seven or fewer points. "Last year, we played up and down with the competition a little bit," Saban says. "We really didn't have that sense of being a dominant kind of competitor where you really want to do well because of who you are and who you're playing against really doesn't have anything to do with it."

Thanks to the departure of 2007 offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who left to coach running backs at his alma mater, Texas, Wilson and company must learn their third offense in three years. Wilson says absorbing Jim McElwain's offense has been easier; after last year, he's better at learning on the fly. "I'm kind of used to it," says Wilson, who will operate behind an experienced line that includes Caldwell and third-year starting left tackle Andre Smith.

On defense, the indefinite suspension of junior Prince Hall likely will strip the Tide of its most experienced linebacker. Rolando McClain, the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder who starred as a true freshman in 2007 and converted tailback Jimmy Johns could fill that void. Meanwhile, Johnson and Javier Arenas, who switched to cornerback from safety this spring, should anchor the secondary.

Even if the Tide stumbles again this season and the fans' impatience becomes loud, Saban probably won't notice. He'll be too busy coaching and recruiting. He'll walk past that buried fuse box in that empty ring, never considering that it will someday hold the wires that will shine spotlights on the bronze version of the next man to bring Alabama a national title.

"I've always had this driven, perfectionist-type personality to just work to be the best," Saban says. "I guess my parents instilled that in me. God willing, I'll have enough energy to continue to do it. Hopefully, we can build something special here."

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