Column: It's Nick's World, and everyone else gets the crumbs
ATLANTA (AP) Nick Saban rolled into the room with all the warmth of a tray of ice cubes you just pulled from the freezer.
The pursed lips, the tightened jaw, the forced smile - tell-tale signs that made it clear he preferred to be anywhere but here, sitting in front of a group of reporters on the eve of another Southeastern Conference championship game.
Then, over the course of a half-hour Friday, the coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide provided some tantalizing glimpses into the World According To Nick.
A world where failure is not an option, complacency is treated like some sort of horrific disease and no one talks about what they did a year ago, a day ago, even a few minutes ago.
''Be where your feet are,'' Saban said. ''I'm right here, right now. This is what's important, and this is what we have to focus on.''
To some degree, all coaches have that sort of single-minded drive. But Saban takes it to an entirely different level. That's why he's left everyone in his wake, from those who came long before (sorry, Knute Rockne and Bud Wilkinson) to contemporaries faced with the unenviable task of trying to beat him now (sorry, rest of the SEC).
This much is clear: As long as Saban reigns in Tuscaloosa, college football is his world.
Everyone else is just fighting over the crumbs.
''I hate to lose more than I like winning,'' Saban said. ''I'm not in love with what we did last week or the week before that or the whole season. The challenge is the next game because that's the game we can lose.''
It seems a joyless existence, but it's one that makes perfect sense to Saban.
Don't bring up the ''crazy, amazing run'' - as former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow described it - that Alabama has been on since the beginning of the 2008 season. During that span, the Crimson Tide has won 110 of 122 games, captured four national titles and gone to the last week of November four other times with a shot at winning it all.
Don't bring up the fact that Saban has five national titles overall, counting the BCS crown he won at LSU, and is just one away from tying Bear Bryant's mark for the most national titles by any coach.
''I haven't thought about it. I'm not thinking about it,'' Saban insisted. ''I'm focusing on what can I do for our players so we have a chance to win the SEC championship.''
Top-ranked Alabama (12-0) shouldn't have any trouble with this game, going in as a whopping 24-point favorite over No. 15 Florida (8-3). The Gators are a team with all sorts of offensive limitations, which doesn't bode well against Saban's latest stellar defense, a group that hasn't given up a touchdown since October. After this little formality in Atlanta, it's on to the College Football Playoff for a shot at a second straight national title and fifth in the last nine seasons.
By any objective standard, Saban's tenure at Alabama makes him the greatest coach in college football history. This nearly decade-long run is almost beyond belief in what should be an era of enhanced parity, when there are plenty of schools that can match Alabama's resources but don't have the right guy at the top.
Florida coach Jim McElwain got a firsthand look at Saban's genius while serving as his offensive coordinator.
Alabama's success goes far beyond the Xs and Os.
''I was able to see a commitment and understanding of the organization and what it takes on a daily basis to help yourself have the opportunity to be successful,'' McElwain said. ''It's about being in the line. Everything's got to be in alignment. Everything's got to be aligned. That's one thing he was ahead of his time as far as making sure everybody was aligned. It was a fascinating working experience.''
In some ways, Saban's dominance may be hurting the reputation of the SEC, long regarded as the nation's best football conference. Everyone is playing catch-up, which has led to some hasty coaching changes and an air of desperation among the other 13 schools.
In the long run, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey believes it will have a positive impact.
''Around this league, there are coaches trying to figure out how to beat Alabama,'' he said. ''When a team is ranked first and has had the sustained success, I think that effort makes everyone better. I would use the phrase you often hear, `a rising tide lifts all boats.'''
Sankey quickly caught himself.
''I want to be careful about using the word `tide,''' he said with a smile, ''but I think you understand.''
Actually, the only thing we can see is Alabama ruling the SEC until Saban hangs it up. At 65, he's certainly got more seasons behind him than in front of him, which provides a glimmer of hope to the rest of the league.
''We all have fears sometimes,'' he said, revealing a bit of vulnerability. ''When you start getting up there, you say, `I wonder how long I'm going to be able to do this?'''
Then, just like that, he got back on point.
There are no plans to ease into retirement.
Not anytime soon.
''I love coaching,'' Saban said. ''I'm going to do it as long as I feel like I can do a good job of it, and I'm healthy enough to do it. That's always been what I've wanted to do, and as long as I can keep doing it, I'll be happy doing it.''
Sorry, everybody else.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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