Senior College Football Columnist

Saban stepping up as new coaching icon when we need one the most


Nick Saban is a popular man in Alabama, for his titles and his measured leadership. (US Presswire)  
Nick Saban is a popular man in Alabama, for his titles and his measured leadership. (US Presswire)  

HOOVER, Ala. -- In these troubled times, we need a role model, a leader, a visionary.

We need a statue that isn't the topic of a national debate.

Nick Saban qualifies today, right now. That may change in 20 minutes. We trust and believe at our own risk these days. But let's give him the moment, at least. He's our guy, college football's oracle. defines that term as "a person who delivers authoritative, wise or highly regarded, influential."

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We all know who used to own that title in amateur athletics. His legacy is ruined. His statue needs student body guards. His name is being dragged through cyberspace, headlines and mud. Saban spoke for half an hour Thursday at the SEC media days and never said the words "Joe Paterno."

Maybe it was an oversight. Maybe it was intentional. But, for now, Saban fills the role vacated by the once-respected coach. Not only because he has won two of the past three national championships or that he is the coaching gold standard.

For the most part, his players haven't embarrassed him. He hasn't embarrassed himself.

His daughter is the stuff of tabloids at the moment, but that has nothing to do with her father. Those vacated wins on Saban's record come from a trumped-up textbook probation. If that bothers you, then you haven't noticed the bar has been lowered significantly for the coaching profession -- and mankind.

Trust and faith are in short supply, measured almost by the day -- along with blood alcohol content. Coaches throw away marriages for helmetless joy rides. The player you adore today could be in jail tomorrow.

The transgressions are no longer evaluated as the cost of guiding young adults mostly because the adults themselves are screwing up at an equal rate. The worst thing you can say about a football coach these days is that he's the most powerful man on campus. You might as well cuss out his family.

No one wants that to be the case, ever again. We need someone to look up to right now. We'll worry about tomorrow when it comes. Both Penn State and Alabama have built larger-than-life statues to mere-mortal coaches while they were/are alive. If you believe in the value of such things, the nine-foot bronze sculpture outside Bryant-Denny shines a little brighter today.

Saban was asked the obligatory questions about Penn State on Thursday at the SEC media days. Like most of his peers, Saban no doubt looked up to Paterno, maybe even loved him. The old man regularly held court for the best coaches in the country during Nike's annual junket to Hawaii.

"This is a very criminal situation that probably reflects poorly on a lot of folks," Saban said. "It's probably almost raw, to have a feeling I can express to you. What we all should probably be thinking all about is, what do we want to be the outcome of this?"

And with that, The Sabanator became The Healer. He offered a solution, something few of us have done since November. During his visit here this week, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel spoke of Paterno's "greatness." A Missouri lieutenant governor candidate snatched the opportunity to blast the coach on Wednesday -– two days late.

Both were wrong –- Pinkel for being insensitive, Sara Lampe for being a political animal. That's part of what stinks about this current situation. Everyone seems to have hijacked the headlines to further their agenda -– be it moral, social or political. No one is offering a fix.

Saban's was modest but at least it didn't involve burning Penn State to the ground. The gruff, grinding coach softened.

"Something that's a win/win for kids in the future, people that are there now, players that are there now," Saban suggested. "Maybe they ought to tax all the tickets –- and give the proceeds to some child abuse organization more than worrying about some punishment that is really going to have no positive effect on anything."

Let that simmer. It makes perfect sense. Drive the discussion back to the core issue -- the horror of child abuse -- and away from the death penalty. That helps no one. Never mind the innocents on the Penn State coaching staff and roster. The town of State College would be devastated. Businesses that count on game days would go bankrupt. A college town would become a ghost town.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said that the death penalty remains on the table. Then a sometimes crusty football icon also showed himself to be a man of people.

"I'm just a regular coach," Saban said, "worried about getting a third down."

He also showed how that most-powerful-man-on-campus title can work in a positive way. The solution doesn't necessarily have to involve a ticket tax, it can be anything. But it does make sense to build something instead of tearing it down.

"Everybody is always worried about what's the punishment, what's the punishment?" Saban said. "Well, the way I try to always look at it is, what's the outcome? Sometimes I even say that to the player, 'Do you want to graduate from school, do you want to play in the NFL someday?

"Good character on the field is not a whole different than character off the field."

"You guys," Saban said to the assembled media, "are probably wearing my ass out for that."

No, actually we're admiring it.

Saban is good at building. Look at his teams. More importantly, look at the community. Some of his greatest accomplishments at Alabama have been keeping the locals from rioting. His word could sway masses in these parts. Harvey Updyke and Cam Newton have to know that. Saban refused to engage on those divisive subjects in a confrontational manner. Updyke didn't represent Alabama fans and Newton did represent the Heisman. End of story.

When tornados bore down and tore out the soul of the region, the coach was a guiding force -- with class and honor.

In those types of cases, $5 million a year isn't enough.

You may have noticed class and honor are rarities these days. So are solutions in the national discussion. Saban furthered it on Thursday.

Laugh if you want, Auburn, SEC and world.

The point is not that Saban is worthy of our trust. It is that in his own small way on Thursday, he dared to seek it.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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