It's a pretty simple question, but the kind coaches like Nick Saban love to sink their teeth into. To wit: Given the current competitive and social climate at the highest level of college football, which is more difficult to handle: Success or failure?
It's not even close, said Saban.
Saban's point: Everybody knows how to handle failure. You recruit better players, hire better coaches, work harder in practice. If you're losing, you either fix it or you don't. If you don't fix it you're gone.
|Mack Brown's Longhorns went from the national title game to 5-7. (US Presswire)|
This time a year ago Saban's greatest concern was how his 2010 team would react after winning the 2009 national championship. Alabama was the preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press and the coaches polls. They had a bunch of future NFL players coming back in running back Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, wide receiver Julio Jones and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. All three were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday. The Crimson Tide also had a veteran quarterback in Greg McElroy.
But that team went 10-3, which included a devastating 28-27 loss to Auburn at home in a game they led 24-0. Alabama got kicked pretty good at South Carolina (35-21) and lost a very tough one at LSU (24-21).
"From the beginning that team had a sense of entitlement," said Saban. "They wondered, 'Why do we have to do the offseason program? Why do we have to do this in spring practice?' We didn't master the fundamentals early and we didn't play with maturity."
"He's right," said senior offensive lineman Barrett Jones. "After we won the national championship in 2009 people just assumed it was going to happen again. But in 2009 we had a chip on our shoulder because we had lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game the year before. In 2010 we lost sight of how we got there."
Saban believes that it is more difficult than ever for a college football team to remain hungry two years in a row. Success breeds complacency and, given the media climate, a letdown is almost unavoidable.
"There is so much information out there now that if a player does anything there is going to be an immediate impact," said Saban. "If you do something good then it's going to be on ESPN that night. As a result kids kind of grow up doing stuff for all the wrong reasons. Instead of being motivated by becoming the best you can be, the motivation is to gain the attention and recognition for it.
"And when that occurs sometimes the best thing that happens is that you get beat. It is the only way that you will learn."
This idea touched a nerve with several other coaches I met with this spring. Mack Brown's 2008 Texas team lost one game, that coming with one second left at Texas Tech. The 2009 team went undefeated until the Longhorns met Alabama in the BCS title game. But in 2010 Texas fell off the map, going 5-7. It was Brown's first losing season since 1989 at North Carolina (1-10). It was the first time Brown had won fewer than nine games since he arrived at Texas in 1998. Brown completely revamped his coaching staff to make it a lot younger.
"We needed new enthusiasm and new ideas," said Brown. "You have to create an edge each week and that's not an easy thing to do."
Brown said he has had to completely rethink how he builds a team in the age of Twitter and Facebook, where players arrive on campus more self-aware and self-absorbed than ever before.
"A team can be hungry two years in a row because we did it in 2008 and 2009," said Brown. "But the fact is that these are really dangerous times. We are bringing in highly recruited kids who are so publicized before they get here. They want instant credibility when they walk onto campus and the older players on your team don't necessarily feel that way. There can be conflicts."
Georgia Tech won the ACC championship in 2009 but then fell to 6-7 in 2010. Coach Paul Johnson said the much-publicized recruiting process plays a huge role in the mentality of the players who show up on campus.
"Kids are hyped now from the time they are in the 10th grade," said Johnson, who is not patient with such things after coaching at the Naval Academy for six seasons before coming to Georgia Tech. "Kids get all of this recognition before they have played a down in college and they really haven't done anything. I don't care how nice you are or how good a kid you are. If you've been told since you're 15 how great you are and that you should be the center of attention, it can't help but soak through a bit."
The only cure for complacency, said several players, is to have veterans who care about something other than their NFL draft stock.
"Teams only stay hungry if they have good leaders," said Georgia Tech senior running back Roddy Jones. "If guys aren't pulling their weight, somebody has to be willing to get in their faces. We didn't do that last year. This year we will."
Steve Spurrier is more than a little concerned about this as he enters his seventh season at South Carolina. The Gamecocks made history last season as they won the SEC East and played in their first conference championship game (losing to Auburn, the eventual national champ). If quarterback Stephen Garcia returns from suspension, South Carolina will likely be picked to repeat as division champion. Spurrier is not entirely comfortable with that notion.
"We don't handle success too well around here because we don't have a whole lot of practice at it," said Spurrier. "It's probably better when nobody is picking us to win very much. If they do pick us to win that will be a pretty interesting thing to watch."