Tuscaloosa, Ala. — A certain residence in Washington, D.C., might want its Oval Office as well-appointed, as comfortably arranged, as Nick Saban’s quarters at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility.
There is a handsome and presidential-sized desk, crafted from rich wood and containing on the desk’s front a nearly 3-foot-by-3-foot carving of the Alabama Crimson Tide insignia.
Straight-back chairs facing the desk and positioned at an adjacent sitting table likewise look like something from Thomas Jefferson’s dining room. Even more artistry and wood has formed a wall-length bookcase and trophy case to the right of anyone sitting in Saban’s executive seat.
All of this is 25 feet removed from the office’s fore area. Here, for visitors better served by a more casual setting, rests a leather sofa and plush chairs surrounding a mahogany coffee table. At the moment, on this midday Wednesday in December, in one of those overstuffed chairs sits Alabama’s football coach, hoping with two more victories in the coming weeks to win his fifth national championship and fourth since he arrived at Tuscaloosa eight years ago.
He must begin by beating the team for which he once coached, as an assistant and general, spanning 10 years: Michigan State, which Alabama meets New Year’s Eve in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
“You never know when you play these games,” said Saban, who wasn’t sure if his Tide team, which lost once this season and is working on a fiercely driven 10-game winning streak, could maintain its fury against the Spartans.
“It’s so difficult sometimes to carry into these (bowls) what you were doing during the regular season. We’re starting out almost like it’s a new season. And Michigan State is playing so well.”
This is rich, even amusing, irony, Michigan State and Alabama’s pairing in the four-team College Football Playoff, alongside Clemson and Oklahoma in their semifinal, the Orange Bowl.
Dantonio does more
Saban came to East Lansing in December 1994 with a dream of making the Spartans champions. Now, it’s a man he hired then as an assistant coach, Mark Dantonio, who has dramatically reconstructed Michigan State’s football profile, which features a 36-4 record and a pair of Big Ten championships spanning the past three seasons.
During his lunch-hour conversation, Saban talked in almost brotherly terms about Dantonio. How when Saban was an assistant at Kent State he had recruited Dantonio, then an Ohio high school star who opted for South Carolina. How he had been “glad to get him” and how Dantonio had done “a wonderful job” after Saban brought him aboard as a defensive backs coach in 1995.
At that evening’s general news briefing, he continued his toast to Dantonio and his old East Lansing workplace, which he left in December 1999 for a new job at LSU. Michigan State’s fans, too many of whom are yet convinced it was about money when it instead was about friction with executives, never have forgiven Saban’s walk-away.
A different tone governs Saban’s words, always, when he mentions Dantonio or a certain university in East Lansing.
“I think Mark has done far more than I ever dreamed I could ever have done at Michigan State,” said Saban, acknowledging that NCAA probation, earned previous to Saban’s arrival, badly chopped into Michigan State’s roster for most of his time as coach. “But Mark has done an outstanding job of evaluating players, getting good guys to come there, improving his team every year he’s been there.
“I spent 10 years at Michigan State — five years (as an assistant and as defensive coordinator) and we won one Big Ten. I spent five years as head coach and we didn’t win any Big Tens. We had one really good team at the end (1999), but we didn’t win the Big Ten. I think he’s won three. It’s almost unprecedented, what he’s done.”
For anyone doubting his ardor for a place he and his wife, Terri, often had said was their favorite of all coaching stops, at least before Tuscaloosa, Saban’s testimonial continued.
“I always thought Michigan State was a fantastic place, a great school,” he said. “I love it there. I’ve got a lot of good friends there.”
His praise was comprehensive. He cheered Michigan State’s administration, athletic director Mark Hollis, as well as his longtime friend, Tom Izzo: “Tommy’s had great success with the basketball program for many, many years.”
Then, a final flourish aimed at Dantonio: “I think Mark has done a phenomenal job. I can’t say enough about the job he’s done.”
'Remind us of ourselves’
Of course, a coach interested in a fifth national championship (Saban won his first in 2003 at LSU) is now obliged to whip the same school for which he holds such regard. The bettors are siding with Saban and the Crimson Tide to the tune of 10 points.
The spread has its roots. Saban’s team lost its only game Sept. 19, at Mississippi, when an Alabama team still sorting out its quarterback issues got behind early and fell 43-37.
Jake Coker came off the bench that night to seal his spot as Saban’s starting quarterback. His teammates on what went down as a lamentable evening for Alabama appeared to have gotten mad over a slip-up that has since given way to a 10-game blitz. Among the victims: Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and Florida.
Alabama has a Heisman Trophy winner in running back Derrick Henry. He happens to run behind bulldozers that just won the Joe Moore Award for college football’s outstanding offensive line.
Most bothersome, perhaps, for the Spartans, will be a wicked defensive front that is 12 men deep and tends to grind opposing running games into powder as it steadily pulverizes and tires out blockers, even those as good as Michigan State features.
Saban isn’t buying any of it. He saw what Michigan State did to Ohio State, with its fronts on both sides. He knows he and Dantonio share almost identical concepts about football architecture.
“And they have such great competitive spirit,” Saban said, shaking his head in a salute to Dantonio’s teams, which so often have won games in the waning minutes or seconds.
“You can see the goodwill and the unity. You have to have all of those things to have won those games in the fourth quarter.”
His players, of course, will tell you the same. And that’s because they’ve been told to say it, in the fashion college players are generally schooled to follow a script, especially before games as huge as the playoffs have delivered.
Coker, Henry, and offensive tackle Cam Crawford all had variations of the same response when they followed Saban into Wednesday night’s session.
“As far as pushing people and being physical, they remind us of ourselves,” Coker said, speaking of the Spartans.
Crawford: “Very physical, extremely well-coached. We’re just looking forward to the game.”
Henry, dressed in a black jogging suit and clearly tired of answering media questions following his Heisman season, gave as concise an assessment of Michigan State as he deemed possible.
“Physical front,” Henry said. “We’ve got to get ready for ’em.”
Psychology of a champion
These missions to “get ready” tend to be more easily achieved at places where football is so revered the sport is all but placed upon an altar. The Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility is a monument to donor dollars and to college football’s place as a Deep South cultural value.
There is a Rhett Butler-grade wooden staircase one can ascend to the second floor, where Saban’s staff has its offices. That is, once you’ve traipsed past glass case after glass case of trophies, plaques, busts, portraits and commemoratives.
The walls and halls are constructed of so much rich, dark wood it appears a dense forest donated itself as a totem to Alabama football. This is separate from the Moore’s opulent hospitality areas, helpful during recruiting trips, to say nothing of a gleaming, adjacent weight-training facility as big as an aircraft carrier, and probably better equipped.
But then this is Alabama, which during this latest era of football distinction is grateful for Saban and for what he has overseen these past nine years.
Saban always has said the most difficult challenge for any college coach is to elevate a talented young athlete’s sense for what can be accomplished.
“They have a predisposition to be average,” he once said during his time at Michigan State. “You have to get them to want to be better.”
This ferocity he brings to just such an effort, not unlike what Bo Schembechler was able to execute so regularly during his reign at Michigan, or Izzo’s masterly work with his basketball team, is a psychological high-wire act not many coaches can match.
Locals see a battle
Such a feat was on the minds of two men who sat at a high-top table Wednesday, having a late-afternoon splash at a University Avenue watering hole known as Buffalo Phil’s Pub & Café.
Dwight Eddins, a professor emeritus in English at the University of Alabama, and Wayne Sellers, a retired human resources director for the state of Alabama, agreed Saban’s coaching repertoire is a fascinating, perhaps even supreme, display of prowess and energy.
Which, they agreed, could make Michigan State’s task in Dallas extremely difficult.
“The locals think Alabama will triumph,” said Eddins, a former Rhodes Scholar with teaching expertise in Nietzsche, and poetry, to name two concentrations. “And we tend to think Oklahoma will win against Clemson and will play us in the championship game, although that assumption might be a big mistake.
“If Michigan State were to beat Alabama, I would not consider the game to be some kind of aberration, or abhorrent,” Eddins said. “But we will control the ball, I believe. Derrick Henry is such a decisive factor in these games.”
Sellers, who holds one of the nine Alabama degrees his immediate family has collectively earned, agreed with his friend.
Not that either man was unfamiliar with Michigan State.
“That 22-play drive at the end of that last game,” said Sellers, referring to Michigan State’s winning touchdown journey against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. “To have pulled that off with that kind of pressure. That’s a great team.”
Sellers said he had likewise seen Michigan State two months ago beat Michigan on a final-play blocked punt that became a for-the-ages touchdown and video highlight.
“Most national champions have games they win like that,” Sellers said.
But, like his friend across the table, Sellers expected Alabama to carry on with this year’s quest for yet another national title. He expects a victory at Dallas and another one, he guesses, against Oklahoma on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz., for the national championship.
It’s all because of the current coach’s stewardship, the men submitted. It has to do with the relatively simple concept of a football game. And the thoroughly intricate presence of a single sideline difference-maker, a man named Saban.