HOOVER, Ala. -- The grizzled veterans of the Alabama beat have heard the tale Nick Saban told Thursday on several occasions. They say the details deepen with each retelling. That said, it’s a great story, and it offers an interesting window into Saban’s mindset at the moment. But before we transcribe it, a disclaimer.
If you’re a fan of Florida or Michigan or any other name-brand program that has endured recent struggles, we realize you’d probably trade a limb -- or at least a few digits -- for a 12-win season. To you, the hue and cry over Alabama’s current two-game losing streak is laughable. We get that. We are absolutely nitpicking here, just as the Alabama fan base has nitpicked the Crimson Tide since they lined up for that 57-yard field goal attempt in Auburn on Nov. 30. But it’s a matter of perspective. For a program that fully expected to win a third consecutive national title and a fourth in five seasons, a campaign with two losses and zero championships is considered every bit the failure that Florida and Michigan’s seasons were considered last year.
Now for the story, which takes place when Saban was a 15-year-old quarterback at Monongah (W.Va.) High. We’ll let Young Nicky take it from here.
We were playing Masontown Valley. When we played in West Virginia, man, you had to go through the graveyard to get to the field. When we played up there, it was late in the season. We had to win this game to get in the playoffs. I was just a sophomore. I called the plays.
My coach was a really good coach. Coach [Earl] Keener. He was like coach of the year in West Virginia eight times or something. But the quarterback called the plays. I’m 15 years old. I’m telling you, in this coal-mining town, everybody went to the game. The last guy out turned the lights out. So, we’re playing and we’ve got to win this game to get in the playoffs, and the lights are bad. Fights are breaking out in the stands. Guys are yelling at me because they had bet on the game. All the coal miners had money on it. They’d tell me how many points they gave so this is how much we’ve got to score. I’m 15 years old.
Anyway, we walk through the graveyard, we go out and we just get our ass kicked in the first half. We’re behind 18-0. So, we come out in the second half, and we get back in the game. It’s 18-12. We get the ball with a minute and 27 [seconds]. This is a true story. We go down the field and it’s fourth-and-12 at the 20 and there’s like 15 seconds to go in the game. Coach Keener calls timeout.
I was so relieved. I said, “He’s going to call the play. I’m not going to get my ass chewed for calling the wrong play.” So, I jog over to the sidelines. He called me Young Nicky. He said, “Young Nicky, what do you think?” And I said, “I think you should call this play.” He said, “The left halfback [future West Virginia star Kerry Marbury] is the best player in the state, and the split end has made All-State three years in a row. So, I don’t care what play you call, but one of those two guys better get the ball.” So, I called 26 Crossbar pass. The two back in the six hole, X post corner. I threw it. The guy caught it. And we won.
I never forgot that. It’s not about the plays, and [Keener] said this after the game. He said, “It’s not about the plays. It’s about the players.”
Saban told the story as a way of explaining that coaches who adjust their schemes to fit the skill sets of their players are the ones who ultimately succeed. But the moral of the story -- it’s not the X’s and O’s; it’s the Jimmies and Joes -- also speaks to Alabama’s losing streak and to the chances of the Crimson Tide resuming their championship ways.
From Saban’s first national title season at Alabama (2009) to his most recent (‘12), the Crimson Tide always had the Jimmies and Joes. Even in ‘10, when they lost three games, they had the talent but lacked the leadership necessary to win another title. If one player or position group couldn’t physically get the job done, Saban could find a capable replacement on his bench. The recruiting rankings suggested Saban and his staff had signed the players to keep the championships rolling for years, but history and common sense suggest that success at such a high level is nearly impossible to sustain.
Last season offered the rest of the SEC its first glimmer of hope that the Tide wouldn’t reign in perpetuity, when Alabama couldn’t find two cornerbacks capable of playing up to the standard set by their recent predecessors. After losing Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner early to the first round of the NFL draft in consecutive years, Alabama’s run of brilliance at the position was derailed by injuries and inexperience. A banged-up Deion Belue manned the field side, and coaches ran through a host of youngsters on the boundary side but never managed to capture the kind of lockdown magic they had enjoyed in previous years. That doesn’t mean John Fulton, Bradley Sylve, Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson are bad players. Far from it. They simply weren’t ready. The program’s success at producing first-rounders caught up on the back end, just as it has caught up with LSU at multiple positions.
Texas A&M’s offense exploited this lack of readiness last September, but fortunately for the Tide, the Aggies’ young defenders were even less mature and got shredded by Alabama’s veteran offense. Pretty much the entire secondary bit on Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s move toward the line of scrimmage in the Iron Bowl, allowing Marshall to hit Sammie Coates for the fourth-quarter touchdown that made Alabama’s forthcoming field goal attempt necessary in the first place. In Alabama’s next game, Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight torched the Tide for 348 passing yards with four touchdowns. Finally, the juggernaut appeared to have a weakness.
Saban chided media members on Thursday for picking Alabama to win the SEC. We’ve been wrong predicting the SEC champ in each of the past five seasons and 18 of the past 22, so the selection shouldn’t inspire much confidence. Of course, Saban knows that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is how Saban and his staff build their schemes around their players. Was last year a momentary hiccup? Or was it a sign that the best coach of the modern era might actually have a talent deficiency on his roster? The answer will depend on how the players on that roster perform. Maybe a healthy Sylve and a more seasoned Jackson will smother opposing receivers. Maybe five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey will play their way into the lineup either at corner or a nickel spot.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin will try to design an offense for a new quarterback. Kiffin saw some of his signal-callers in spring practice, but potential starter Jacob Coker just graduated from Florida State and moved to Tuscaloosa. Despite a loaded skill-position group that includes backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, receiver Amari Cooper and tight end O.J. Howard, the success of the offense will depend on how well the new starting quarterback plays. And Saban isn’t ready to hand Coker the starting job just yet.
"That's really not internally the perception by me, our staff or our players,” Saban said on Thursday. “Jake Coker has the opportunity to come in and compete for the position. Blake Sims has been competing for the position. He really did a pretty good job in the spring. He didn’t play great in the spring game, but we really didn't do the things that he’s capable of doing.” As the Saban anecdote transcribed above illustrates so well, Kiffin’s job will be to create an offense that taps into the strengths of those skill players and whichever quarterback wins the job.
The SEC is the League of the Unknown as preseason practice looms. Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, LSU and Auburn will all enter August with significant questions to answer. Even Alabama, home of three of the last five national champs and five of the last five top-rated recruiting classes, isn’t immune. But for the team that emerges with a trophy in December, it won’t be about the plays. It’ll be about the players.