Colleges cure NFL itch for coaches like Saban

January 04, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

The funniest part about Nick Saban's departure from the NFL to coach at Alabama yesterday, was when Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga made the official announcement and then asked the assembled media for their input on the next step his team should take.

Huizenga, of course, made that request two years too late. Anyone who follows this sort of thing closely would have told him: "Don't hire Nick Saban. You'll only get your feelings hurt later."

Saban might as well have ridden into the NFL on a boomerang. At the first sign of trouble (which is what he had in two non-playoff seasons, much of it his own making) or even success, the college game was going to lure Saban back. It lures them all back, all the big-name college coaches who get the pro itch. They scratch it, and the NFL claws back.

Steve Spurrier. Butch Davis. Dennis Erickson. Rich Brooks. Pete Carroll. Mike Riley. Al Groh. Ouch, ouch, stop it.

In the past decade and a half, only Jimmy Johnson fought the urge. Pretty much all the others - not just in the NFL, but in the NBA, too - chased the big league bucks, flopped, then ran back the other way, to their comfort zone.

You can't blame them - that comfort zone is getting more comfortable by the day. More and more every year, coaching at a BCS-level school becomes a better option for a particular kind of coach. In their minds, it's not turning tail. It's using common sense.

And we'd better get used to it, because it's not changing back.

Put aside, for a second, Saban's duplicity (or, if you will, bald-faced lying) during his last few weeks with the Dolphins. And the fact that he managed the near-impossible, making you feel sorry for Huizenga, a stone-cold capitalist who terminated Don Shula's career and couldn't sell off the players on his World Series champion Marlins fast enough. And that players have been roasted 24/7 in every media outlet in the English-speaking world for committing less selfish, greedy, arrogant, team-wrecking acts than this so-called leader of men did.

Put that all aside. Why would Saban, or anyone else in his shoes, do anything else but go back?

All Alabama was offering was eight guaranteed years. And at least $30 million. To a coach coming off a 6-10 record. Enough said.

Sometime in the next week, in the final stages of the hype for Monday's BCS title game, somebody will bluster about the beauty and innocence of college ball - likely some newly minted Fox bowl-game announcer getting giddy with his network's new programming property.

He probably will forget to mention that Saban is now one of a reported five coaches at this level making at least $3 million, surely with more to come for coaches with similar resumes. (With better resumes, actually; remember, he has won one national title, in 2003 at LSU, the one whose trophy is a glistening crystal asterisk. You have to make air quotes with your fingers when you mention his "championship," kind of the way you do when you mention his "integrity.")

Every year, another thick, greasy layer of cash is added to the college football landscape, and the stampede to get a piece gets nastier each time. (To wit, the recent mention in this space of how the ACC sold its soul for its slice.) It's now being described routinely in old Cold War terms: arms race, nuclear proliferation. Contracts get bigger, perks get sweeter, facilities get gaudier, ticket prices get higher, broadcast rights fees and ad rates get heftier.

If grade point averages and graduation rates would only follow suit, this wouldn't be much of an issue. But we know which direction that has been going in. Meanwhile, the public griping about players not staying all four years to get their education never slows - but any college athlete who hasn't been "educated" by the circumstances of Saban's defection really is wasting his scholarship.

In the same vein, anyone who would trust Saban half as far as the coach can throw a blocking sled, after he condescendingly talked out of both sides of his mouth for two weeks before bailing on his Dolphins responsibilities, deserves whatever he gets. Imagine Saban sitting on some kid's couch espousing the values of commitment, loyalty and sacrifice.

Yet in Saban's defense, it's obvious that nowadays, if you're a good enough college coach (or at least your reputation is good enough), you can bomb out in the NFL, fall into the safety net, still get mega-paid, still get dictator-level job security, and never have to hear the terms "salary cap," "holdout," "union" or "general manager" again. You might hear something about "NCAA recruiting laws," but at Alabama in the recent past, those have just been suggestions, anyway.

On top of the oodles of guaranteed cash, Saban gets complete control (with a compliant athletic director and school president working under him), near-infinite resources and fresh-faced youngsters who haven't learned how to become the next Ricky Williams yet. His biggest obstacle: recruiting quarterbacks to Tuscaloosa better than he did to Miami.

So, tell me, again, how the NFL is better than all that?

Never mind that significant portions of the sports public have no more respect for you, and that your lack of scruples is transparent to everybody who cares to look.

Alabama has handed you 30 million ways to ease that pain.

Why? Because it can. On second thought, that's the funniest part of it all.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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